Orioles free agent fits: Here are available players who make the most sense for Baltimore

The MLB winter meetings begin next week in Nashville. As is often the case, they could be the spark the sport’s offseason needs.

The Orioles’ level of involvement is to be determined. Coming off 101 wins and an American League East title, Baltimore has needs, particularly at the top of its rotation and the back of its bullpen. Upgrades are available through both free agency and trades, and given the Orioles’ deep minor league system and how they have operated financially of late — finishing with a bottom three payroll each of the past five seasons, according to Spotrac — the latter might be their best approach to improving the roster.

That said, there are available free agents who make sense for the Orioles. As it stands, their most apparent areas of need are starting pitching, relief pitching and right-handed outfield depth. With a week to go until the winter meetings, here’s a look at potential free-agent fits for Baltimore.

Top-of-rotation starters

At the General Manager Meetings earlier this month, Mike Elias told MLB.com he would ideally add “somebody that projects for the front half of the rotation.” But it’s worth remembering that Elias said at the previous year’s GM Meetings he was targeting a starter for the “top three spots in the rotation,” and although Kyle Gibson’s veteran status made him the Orioles’ opening day starter, neither he nor fellow offseason acquisition Cole Irvin started any of Baltimore’s three playoff games.

The hope is this winter ends with the Orioles adding a starter with an undisputed place near the top of the rotation. Whether it’s because of an unwillingness or an inability, Baltimore likely won’t provide a contract of the length or size required to sign top remaining available starters Blake Snell, Yoshinobu Yamamoto or Jordan Montgomery. Regardless, the franchise might be better served if it reserved its self-imposed limited number of nine-figure deals for extensions for catcher Adley Rutschman and infielder Gunnar Henderson.

Sonny Gray

Signing Gray would give the Orioles’ rotation two of the top four finishers in 2023 AL Cy Young Award voting. Gray, who had a 2.79 ERA in 32 starts for the Minnesota Twins, finished as the runner-up to New York Yankees ace Gerrit Cole, while Baltimore’s Kyle Bradish came in fourth. In nine full seasons since 2014, Gray, 34, has averaged almost 28 starts and more than 161 innings with a 3.50 ERA. Gray trailed only Cy Young winners Cole and Snell in repertoire run value in 2023, according to Baseball Savant; Bradish ranked sixth.

Eduardo Rodriguez

Baseball America had Rodriguez as the Orioles’ No. 3 prospect entering the 2014 season, during which Baltimore traded him to the Boston Red Sox for reliever Andrew Miller. The left-hander, who turns 31 in April, has made more than 30 starts only twice in eight major league seasons but is coming off posting career lows with a 3.30 ERA and 1.153 WHIP in 26 starts for the Detroit Tigers. To become a free agent, Rodriguez opted out of the final three years and $49 million of his deal with Detroit.

Lucas Giolito

Giolito is no guarantee to fit into the upper half of Baltimore’s rotation. From 2019 to 2021, he finished in the top 11 of AL Cy Young voting each season, ranking seventh among qualified starters in FanGraphs’ version of wins above replacement in that span. But he’s posted an ERA of almost 5.00 over the past two seasons. His 4.88 mark in 2023 largely derived from four disastrous starts in which he allowed at least seven earned runs in four or fewer innings; he had a 3.55 ERA in his other 29 starts.

Other options: Marcus Stroman, Michael Wacha, Brandon Woodruff (unlikely to pitch in 2024)

Closing options

The Orioles had baseball’s best closer in 2023, but Félix Bautista will likely miss all of 2024 after undergoing Tommy John elbow reconstruction last month. Manager Brandon Hyde took a mix-and-match approach after Bautista suffered his injury in late August, with five Orioles recording a save. But Elias said adding a reliever with closing experience who could possibly handle the role for the Orioles would be “really nice.”

The top reliever available is Josh Hader, an Old Mill graduate who was drafted by Baltimore. But he’ll likely exceed the Orioles’ price range, and with Bautista expected back in 2025, they won’t need a long-term closer, anyway.

Jordan Hicks

Signing Hicks, 27, would likely require a multiyear deal, but the hard-throwing right-hander worked in both setup and closing roles last season with St. Louis and Toronto, meaning he could handle the ninth in 2024 and work earlier when Bautista returns in 2025. One of two pitchers whose average fastball velocity exceeded Bautista’s in 2023, Hicks posted a 3.29 ERA in 65 appearances.

Craig Kimbrel

Kimbrel, 35, has the eighth-most saves in major league history, recording at least 22 in all but one full season since 2011. An All-Star last season with the Philadelphia Phillies, Kimbrel had 23 saves with a 3.26 ERA, and his 94 strikeouts ranked third among National League relievers. When Kimbrel didn’t miss bats, he was hit hard, but he still represents a potential stopgap.

Hector Neris

Another former Phillies closer, Neris earned 65 saves with Philadelphia from 2017 through 2019. The 34-year-old spent the past two years with the Astros and had a 1.71 ERA in 2023. He’s made at least 70 appearances each of the past three years with success against both righties and lefties.

Other options: Emilio Pagán, Matt Moore, Yuki Matsui

Right-handed outfielders

Barring a trade, the Orioles will return their starting outfield of Austin Hays, Cedric Mullins and Anthony Santander. They have several backup options already in Colton Cowser, Heston Kjerstad, Ryan McKenna, Kyle Stowers and Sam Hilliard, but only McKenna is a right-handed batter.

Given Baltimore appears to be set both at catcher and on the infield, adding another right-handed bat to fill the role switch-hitter Aaron Hicks had for most of 2023 is the most apparent way for the Orioles to reinforce the offensive side of the roster. A player capable of starting when any of the three regulars are off or receive a day at designated hitter — meaning one capable of filling in for Mullins in center field — would be ideal.

Aaron Hicks

After struggling immensely at the end of his tenure with the Yankees, Hicks had a lot of success with the Orioles, posting an .806 OPS in 65 games. The 34-year-old dealt with injuries and missed a key hit-and-run sign in one of Baltimore’s postseason losses, but he provided plenty of value, especially with a 1.072 OPS as a right-handed hitter. New York will still be paying Hicks in 2024, so any club can sign him for the league minimum. Another team might offer more playing time than Baltimore, but he’s already established himself as a veteran fit.

Harrison Bader

Another former Yankee, Bader had far more success last year against left-handed pitching, with a .936 OPS while posting a .503 mark in right-on-right matchups; his career numbers also suggest he could be well suited for a platoon-type role. Bader, 29, was a Gold Glove winner with the St. Louis Cardinals in 2021 and stole 20 bases in 23 tries between New York and Cincinnati last year, meaning he could provide value in several ways.

Michael A. Taylor

The same year Bader was the NL’s Gold Glove center fielder, Taylor won the AL award. The 32-year-old hit a career-high 21 home runs in 2023, slugging .602 off left-handed pitching in the process. It’s fair to wonder whether any of these outfielders will accept part-time roles, but the opportunity to join a contending Orioles team could supersede that as long as the money is there.

Other options: Adam Duvall, Tommy Pham, Whit Merrifield


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