Free agency began a week ago to an expected lack of fanfare. Unlike the NBA, where free-agent deals are often announced minutes after the midnight opening bell, it usually takes a little while for baseball’s hot stove to ignite. Until the GM Meetings, which began this past Monday, free agency is usually dominated by leaked contract demands, contract extensions, and declarations by certain players that they intend to keep playing.
Thus far, the 2017-2018 offseason is no exception. For the moment, we must content ourselves with news of minor-league deals for Kevin Quackenbush and Rubby de la Rosa with Cincinnati and Arizona, respectively.
Alongside the minor-league signings and contract demands, the early days of this offseason have been marked by another annual tradition. According to Orioles beat writer Rock Kubatko, Baltimore has shown “definite” interest in Andrew Cashner and Jason Vargas. The Orioles’ rotation remains a weakness for the club, and as is often the case, the team appears to be targeting mid-level innings-eaters. It also appears to be all they’re likely to afford: due to questionable commitments on the payroll, the Orioles will probably find it difficult to pursue many true rotation upgrades to prop open their closing — or perhaps already closed — window.
Every team needs pitching, so the old saying goes. Some teams, however, need it more than others. This past season was a difficult one for Orioles starters. Collectively, they recorded a 5.70 ERA (worst in baseball), 5.23 FIP (third worst), 4.84 xFIP (sixth worst), and 5.5 WAR (fourth worst). While Dylan Bundy and Kevin Gausman headlined the rotation (as many Orioles fans hoped they would one day), they both posted ERAs and FIPs north of 4.00. Not a single pitcher with more than five starts posted an ERA under 4.20 or a FIP under 4.30.
Nor did the 2017 campaign represent an outlier for this Orioles franchise. Every season seems to bring another substandard year for Orioles starters, followed in the following offseason by a hunt for free-agent help. Baltimore starters haven’t posted a top-10 season by WAR since 2000, when they were led by Sidney Ponson (3.2 WAR) and the perpetually underrated Mike Mussina (6.4 WAR), just before he left for New York. Not surprisingly, this is the longest drought in the majors by a considerable margin.
Consider this (sortable) table:
|Team||WAR||Negative||0-2 WAR||2-4 WAR||4+ WAR||Last 4+ WAR Starter||Last Top 10 Rotation|
Since the last time they assembled a top-10 rotation, the Orioles have the third-worst starter WAR and the fourth-most negative WAR from starters. An inordinate amount of the WAR they’ve accrued in the meantime comes from poor to mediocre starters, with very little coming from All-Star-quality players. Loosely defining an All-Star-quality starter as one who produced 4+ WAR, the last pitcher to fit the bill for the Orioles was pre-trade Erik Bedard in 2007. Poor Oriole starting pitching seems to be a systemic problem, one they haven’t seemed able to address either in free agency or by way of player development.
The Orioles have been reluctant to pursue the top free-agent starting options over the last decade. Their two highest profile free-agent pitching additions in recent years have been Ubaldo Jimenez in 2014 and Yovani Gallardo in 2016. Both starters represented middling options within their respective free-agent classes but also cost the Orioles their top draft picks in the subsequent drafts. These draft picks could have helped to supplement an farm system that has seen their three best pitching prospects over the past five years (Bundy, Gausman, and Hunter Harvey) all underperform expectations. Since 2009, the Orioles are one of the worst teams when measured by homegrown starter WAR, and their WAR from free-agent signings over that period falls in the middle of the pack. A club typically needs to excel either at developing their own pitchers or leveraging their financial resources to sign rotation help. The Orioles have done neither.
If fans in Baltimore are hoping for a surprise upgrade at the top of the rotation to lead them to playoff glory, they probably shouldn’t hold their breath. The Orioles’ payroll has shot up over the past five years to unprecedented levels. Some of the growth has been the result of players reaching their potential and getting paid in arbitration, such as Zach Britton and Manny Machado. However, there have been plenty of free-agent misfires, include Jimenez and Gallardo, which have clogged up the payroll.
There’s been some cap relief recently: Jimenez reached free agency this offseason, while Gallardo was traded to the Mariners. Even with these savings, though, the Orioles are still expected to pay out an estimated $122 million in 2018 even before free agency begins, thanks in part to the two remaining albatrosses on the payroll. Mark Trumbo is owed $26 million over the next two years and was the second-worst position player of 2017. Chris Davis is owed over $100 million until 2022 and put up 0.2 WAR in 2017 while striking out over 37% of the time. These two contracts will hamstring the Orioles’ capacity to spend over the next couple of years, making upgrades a little more difficult to find.
Even if they were to make able to make a splash in free agency this offseason, the Orioles’ window for contention is most likely closed. They’ve been passed by teams who drafted, traded, and signed better, and now some of the Orioles’ most talented players are about to leave Baltimore. Brad Brach, Britton, Machado, and team leader Adam Jones are all scheduled to be free agents after the upcoming season. Jonathan Schoop will follow them after the 2019 campaign. The farm system lacks the type of high-upside prospects needed to replace those losses, and the Orioles seem to recognize that the time to retool may have arrived. They’re entertaining trade offers for Zach Britton. Machado may follow in July.
When fans look back on this era in Orioles baseball, they will fondly remember the team’s return to the playoffs in 2012, 2014, and 2016. Machado’s defensive highlights will be marveled at, as they should be. Despite the successes, though, fans will have to remember the failures, too. And foremost among them, as disappointing as it will be, will be that the Orioles’ inability to develop or sign starting pitching held back a team from their ultimate potential.
Stephen Loftus is a Visiting Assistant Professor in Mathematical Sciences at Sweet Briar College in Virginia. In his spare time he usually can be found playing the pipe organ or working on his rambling sabermetric thoughts.