Will O's rumor mill heat up with arrival of Winter Meetings?

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As some free agent signings are starting to trickle in, we are now just days away from the Winter Meetings in San Diego. The rumors will certainly heat up there, even if the action doesn’t.

As it relates to the Orioles, here is what we do know: not very much.

I think they prefer it that way. Orioles executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias likes to play it close to the vest, as we know. That is not likely to change anytime soon. He doesn’t see any advantage in letting information leak out. And at a time when social media will spread almost any rumor rapidly with little accountability, all is mostly quiet about the Orioles.

There is no reason to jump to the conclusion that that means the Orioles will have a quiet winter. That seems very, very unlikely. In fact, Elias himself has said the payroll will increase and additions will be sought both for the rotation and the batting order. We are all waiting to find out what that means, exactly, and how much the payroll will increase and in what ways.

Elias has said numerous times now that the playoffs are the goal for 2023, and he didn’t make such a proclamation previously since joining the Orioles. The club has reached the point of producing a winning season, notching 83 wins in 2022, and now the chase is on to add to that and to be playing in the postseason next October.

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Will one of these pitchers wind up on the O's free agent radar?

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Today we’re taking a look at two more free agent pitchers. We previously, in this blog entry, presented some stats and facts related to free agent pitchers Taijuan Walker, Chris Bassitt and Jameson Taillon. We did the same for Kodai Senga and Sean Manaea in this entry.

Today let’s take a look at two pitchers MLBTradeRumors.com has ranked as the No. 18 and No. 21 available free agents in this class.

Lefty Andrew Heaney: Heaney is No. 18 on the free agent list. I don't believe he will get a contract as strong as the one predicted by MLBTradeRumors.com: three years for $42 million.

On the negative side, there is an injury history here, and Heaney is certainly not an innings-eater. But what some front offices will also see is how the Dodgers turned him into a two-pitch pitcher in 2022, resulting in some pretty strong swing-and-miss and strikeout rates.

For his career, Heaney, 31, is 36-42 with a 4.56 ERA and 1.245 WHIP. He's posted a career walk rate of 2.5, a 9.7 strikeout rate and a 1.6 homer rate. His homer rate was 2.0 in 2021 and was 1.7 last year for the Dodgers. But perhaps the O’s front office will see a lefty here who would benefit greatly from the deeper left field wall in Baltimore. For his career, his OPS against is .780 versus right-handed batters and .679 against lefties.

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The O's offense evolving to one producing better OBPs

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Today a bit of a follow up to yesterday’s article about how the Orioles’ 2022 draft class fared so well in stats like walk rate and on-base percentage. This is important because for years the Orioles at the big-league level have not excelled in these stats.

At the MLB level, the Orioles last year posted a walk-rate of 7.9 percent per plate appearance, which was just under the MLB average of 8.2. The Orioles rated seventh in the American League and 16th in MLB in team walk rate for last season. In terms of OBP, the Orioles number of .305 was below the major league average of .312. The O’s rated 11th in the AL and 22nd in MLB in OBP last year. So, there is room for improvement.

With the ’22 draft class producing a collective .400 OBP for nine position players, which was second among all 2022 MLB Draft classes and a walk rate of 17.3, ranking first in the majors, the future on offense for Birdland, could be bright.

At least the Orioles could be evolving into producing a future lineup that features a group of tough outs that can work counts and will take a walk. Keep escalating opponent pitch counts and turning over the batting order. It should lead to more runs being scored.

Seeing so many young players get off to good starts in the plate-discipline stats, led by 18-year-old Jackson Holliday, the No. 1 overall draft pick last summer, was encouraging. The kid recorded a .489 OBP with a 27.8 walk rate in his debut pro season.

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In OBP and walk rate, the O's 2022 draft class got off to strong start

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In the 20-round MLB Draft last summer, the Orioles selected 10 position players and 10 pitchers. They signed nine of the position players. And in what was clearly a small sample which should be noted, that group of nine showed some outstanding plate discipline which could bode well for their future MLB chances.

As a group of nine players, the Orioles draft class produced a collective .400 OBP to rank second only to Seattle's draft class. The Mariners also had nine players that produced a collective .405 OBP.

But the Orioles did rank No. 1 in MLB with a draft class walk rate of 17.3 with San Diego (also nine players) second at 16.2.

Among O’s minor league players with 50 or more plate appearances last year, no player had a better walk-to-strikeout rate as a hitter than O’s No. 1 overall pick Jackson Holliday. He also led the organization with a 27.8 walk rate. He is just 18 years old.

Over 20 games between the Florida Complex League and low-A Delmarva, Holliday walked 25 times with just 12 strikeouts. That is a robust 2.08 walk-to-strikeout ratio, the best on the O's farm. Maxwell Costes, a non-drafted free agent from the University of Maryland was next at 1.50 with Adley Rutschman third at 1.38.

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Another look at potentially trading young talent, plus other topics

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Today in this space I'm reviewing a few articles that recently were published here. Sometimes you take a look back before you move ahead.

In this article featuring some of my recent interview with MLBPipeline.com's Jim Callis, we discussed how trading prospects can be beneficial to a team. It's another way to make good use of a strong farm system, and the Orioles are ranked No. 1 right now by several outlets.

“In 2023 with the Orioles we will see more of the long-term pieces kind of fit into place in the big leagues and then be part of that lineup," Callis said. "From that point on, maybe they don’t have room for all their talent and they trade players from the farm.

“Nobody ever has too much talent. If you don’t have places for everyone to play on your big league team, you consolidate prospects and trade them for a bigger piece."

And Callis pointed out how Houston made deals for the likes of Justin Verlander, Zack Greinke and Gerrit Cole by trading prospects. The Los Angeles Dodgers traded young talent to get Mookie Betts from Boston. 

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O's future infield got more crowded as Ortiz moved onto the 40-man

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When we look at the 2023 Orioles infield, they return a top prospect talent in Gunnar Henderson, along with a Gold Glove winner in Ramón Urías and a Fielding Bible Award winner in Jorge Mateo.

Those three could man second, short and third. But where does that leave Jordan Westburg, who is not currently on the 40-man roster? Or Joey Ortiz, who is? Not to mention Connor Norby or Coby Mayo or, as we get further down the list, to Jackson Holliday and others. It’s crowded on the infield.

With his recent addition to the 40-man roster, Ortiz, 24, should get some big league time at some point during the 2023 season.

The word "elite" has been connected to Ortiz in that some insist he is an elite defender. In the second half of last year his bat showed elite production. 

Ortiz was limited to 35 games in 2021 by a left labrum issue that required surgery and ended his season.

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The young talents are finding their way to the middle of the O's order

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They are going to be a great 1-2 punch in the Orioles lineup next season and quite possibly for many seasons to come.

A case could be made that the Orioles' two best hitters going into next season are catcher Adley Rutschman and infielder Gunnar Henderson.

And while that talented young duo combined for 602 plate appearances last year, they might get a combined 1,100 or more next season.

Among Orioles with 100 or more plate appearances in 2022 - a list of 14 players - Henderson and Rutschman were first and second on the team in walk rate. They were 1-2 also in on-base percentage and OPS. They were first and third (with Terrin Vavra in the middle) in walk-strikeout ratio.

Both players last year were ranked at one time as the No. 1 prospects in baseball.

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O's fans have a few things to be thankful for

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I hope all the readers of this blog have a great time this Thanksgiving with family and friends and get to spend time relaxing and enjoying the company of loved ones. 

I have a lot to be thankful for myself, with family and friends topping the list. Early during last season I got to see that firsthand and was overwhelmed to see so many rush to help me any way they could or just send a nice note or thought. It meant so much.

But this is a baseball blog, and even though I'm sure for many of you it has the proper place in your life, it's baseball and still important, right?

As it relates to the Orioles, fans can be thankful for a winning season and a team on the rise. Now fans have real evidence (like a won-loss record) that what the Orioles are doing is working and that 2022 might be the start of something big.

They have indeed built an elite talent pipeline and the building process is ongoing. That might be the best news of all. They intend to not run out of prospects. 

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Making the farm system productive for the big league team

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When it comes to the young talent in a big league club’s organization – the prospects – there are several ways they can help you. The most obvious one would be to make the team and help you win games. That is the first goal. But they can also help bring talent to a team via trades.

Sometimes when we take a look at how a winning or championship team was built, a story will list the home-grown players, but they seldom list players that were acquired through trades of home-grown talent.

In my recent conversation with MLBPipeline.com’s senior writer Jim Callis, he pointed out yet another way those prospects help. Young talent with little service time is often at the lower end of the salary spectrum. So amassing such talent can save the big league club money to spend elsewhere on other needs.

So yeah, young talent is quite important and coveted. Maybe now more than ever. 

“The teams with the very best farm systems almost always contend about a year earlier than you expect,” Callis pointed out in our recent interview. “And the Orioles did that this year. Sometimes they take a step back the next year and then they are good to go, smooth sailing from there. The Astros are a team that comes to mind. The Cubs come to mind. It happens a lot.

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Random take Tuesday

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Two weeks from today the Orioles could wind up with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2023 MLB Draft. But the odds of that are real, real low. On Dec. 6 at the Winter Meetings baseball will hold the first-ever draft lottery. It will take place that Tuesday night at 8:30 p.m. ET and be televised by MLB Network.

The 18 teams that did not make the playoffs all have a shot at getting the No. 1 pick and in fact, the top six picks in the draft will be determined by the lottery. The teams that lost the most last year, Washington (55-107), Oakland (60-102) and Pittsburgh (62-100) all are listed at a percentage of 16.5 to gain the No. 1 pick. Cincinnati is next at 13.2 percent with Kansas City at 10.0 percent via the lottery.

The Orioles are listed 17th at 0.36 percent to get the top pick. So, we’re saying’ there’s a chance. It’s just not a very good one at all, less than one half of one percent. The Orioles are 17th because they had the second-best record at 83-79 behind Milwaukee (86-76) among non-playoff teams.

The 12 clubs that made the MLB postseason will select between 19 and 30 in round one. If the O’s don’t beat the odds and get one of those top six selections, they would be expected to pick 17th in round one. The selections for picks No. 7-18 will go in reverse order of the standings after the top six get chosen via the lottery. The O’s have not picked 17th or lower since taking high school lefty DL Hall No. 21 in the opening round of the 2017 draft.

The last four years – since selecting Adley Rutschman No. 1 overall in 2019 – Baltimore has selected first, second, fifth and first.  

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Minor league notes on Kjerstad, Florida campers and more

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Once he finally got on the field this past season in June, O’s outfield prospect Heston Kjerstad was tearing it up at Single-A Delmarva, batting .463 in 22 games. He didn’t produce similar numbers when he moved up to High-A Aberdeen – yes, that would have been hard to do – but had another great run in the Arizona Fall League.

Kjerstad won the Joe Black MVP Award in the AFL, putting him in the same company as previous winners such as Nolan Arenado (2011), Kris Bryant (2013) and Ronald Acuña Jr. (2017). And Kjerstad’s strong AFL showing could mean he will begin the 2023 season with Double-A Bowie and not return to Aberdeen.

“I would say that would be an intelligent guess,” O’s director of player development Matt Blood said recently about Kjerstad moving up to begin next season.

In 43 games with the IronBirds in the regular season, he batted .233/.312/.362 with a .674 OPS, but his bat heated up in the final games of the season, and that carried over both into the South Atlantic League playoffs and into AFL play.

In 22 games in Arizona, Kjerstad, taken second overall by the Orioles in the 2020 MLB Draft, hit .357/.385/.622 with a 1.007 OPS, nine doubles, a triple, five homers and 17 RBIs. He led the AFL in hits (35), doubles, extra-base hits and total bases (61). He tied for third in homers and RBIs, and was sixth in OPS.

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A few notes on Rutschman, Rodriguez and free agent pitchers

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Today taking another look today at a few stories we discussed in this space recently.

Such as this one about catcher Adley Rutschman. The last Oriole to win the American League Rookie of the Year award was Gregg Olson in 1989. Earlier this week Rutschman was a finalist for the AL ROY, but Seattle's Julio Rodríguez took home the hardware.

The rookie from Baltimore still had a pretty big year and earned a full year of service time for 2022 by virtue of his second-place finish.

Rutschman's year was strong enough to put him in select company. He produced the fourth-highest wRC+ among rookie catchers since 1961:

165 – Carlton Fisk, 1972
150 – Mike Piazza, 1993
134 – Buster Posey, 2010
133 – Adley Rutschman, 2022

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After 40-man add, Drew Rom is searching for additional velocity

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If it feels like he’s been in the Orioles organization for a while, he has. But lefty Drew Rom, added to the 40-man roster this week, for now is still just 22. He turns 23 Dec. 15 and will head to spring training next February in Sarasota, knowing it’s the season when he might make his major league debut.

During a Zoom call this week he told reporters he has a few specific goals this winter, to include trying to add velocity while honing his changeup.

"Maybe searching for some velo, but also fine tuning what I am already excelling with," he said of his winter workout plans.

The Orioles' previous front office selected Rom in the fourth round of the 2018 draft (No. 115 overall) from a high school in Fort Thomas, Ky., just south of Cincinnati. He ranks at No. 18 on the club’s top 30 list according to Baseball America and No. 19 via MLBPipeline.com.

In 2022 he pitched in 19 games with Double-A Bowie and made seven starts late in the year for Triple-A Norfolk, and he seems likely to begin the 2023 season in the Tides rotation.

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Checking in on more free agent pitching

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With the Orioles in the market for starting pitching and possibly poised to add one or more hurlers from the free agent ranks, today we’ll take a look at two more possibilities.

To be clear, these are just some stats and notes on these pitchers and not my speculation - or anyone’s, for that matter - in terms of the Orioles' interest level in these pitchers. As you know, they keep such information very close to the vest.

MLBTradeRumors.com has ranked nine pitchers among its top 20 free agents for this winter. Here they are, listed by the ranking and also the projected contract for each.

* No. 6 lefty Carlos Rodón – five years, $140 million

* No. 7 right-hander Jacob deGrom – three years, $135 million

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Noah Denoyer racked up the Ks with the big boys on O's farm

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Doing the math is pretty easy. Interpreting what it all means can be more challenging. But we do know the sport of baseball has gravitated toward placing increased value on pitchers with big strikeout totals. And while we used to be most enamored with raw strikeout totals, now stats like strikeout percentage might tell us a bit more.

Strikeout percentage is easy to get to. Simply divide the number of batters a pitcher strikes out by the total batters he faced. A pitcher that fanned 30 of 90 batters faced has a strikeout percentage of 33.3.

This year on the O’s farm, using a standard of 50 innings pitched for the year, the Orioles had seven minor league pitchers produce a strikeout percentage of 30 or above. Four of them are now on the 40-man roster and two were just added this week.

The list of seven:

36.6 – DL Hall and Grayson Rodriguez

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Grayson Rodriguez calls it "an honor" to ascend to O's 40-man roster

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Considering he walked off the mound with an injury in the sixth inning of a Triple-A game with Norfolk on June 1, returning to pitch this past season in September was big for the sport’s highest-rated pitching prospect, right-hander Grayson Rodriguez.

While the Orioles didn’t get him a late-year start in Baltimore to make his MLB debut, he did make one rehab outing for high Single-A Aberdeen and two for Double-A Bowie before ending his year with three starts and pitching to an ERA of 2.63 at Triple-A.

It was nice to get to prove he was over the Grade 2 right lat strain and that he was healthy again. Today, on an Orioles zoom call with local media on his 23rd birthday, Rodriguez talked about being added to the club’s 40-man roster this week. He could start next season in the Orioles' opening day rotation.

“Obviously, it’s honor to get put on anybody’s 40-man, especially ours,” Rodriguez said this afternoon. “So, pretty excited, pretty pumped up for it. Can’t wait for spring training. And really just looking forward to what this year has in store. Just getting back out there and throwing the baseball.”

In 17 starts in 2022, he went 6-2 with a 2.62 ERA, missing time between June 1 and Sept. 1 with the injury. Over a combined 75 2/3 innings he walked 28, fanned 109, posted an 0.99 WHIP and allowed a .176 batting average against. In 14 starts at Triple-A only, he went 6-1 with a 2.20 ERA and was a postseason International League All-Star.

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Not an award winner this time, but some appreciation for Brandon Hyde

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The Orioles Adley Rutschman did not win the AL Rookie of the Year award. That was expected. Manager Brandon Hyde did not win the Manager of the Year award, which went to Cleveland's Terry Francona.

That was probably a bit less expected but certainly Francona was the favorite heading into last night. To have five of the 30 votes not place Hyde among the top three is a bit unexpected.

But Hyde was a reasonably close second losing out to Francona in points by 112-79. Francona got 17 first-place votes and Hyde got nine. 

So, he fell short last night. But for me, I think there are many reasons that Hyde has been and will continue to be the right manager for the Orioles. And ranking high among them in my opinion is his ability to work well with and get a lot of out of young players.

That fits so well with a rebuilding organization. Hyde seems to have an ability to get close with his players yet maintain a management relationship. He is open and honest with them, telling them what they need to hear, not what they want to hear.

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Orioles add right-hander Grayson Rodriguez, four others to 40-man roster

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The Orioles added five players today to their 40-man roster. By adding these players, they now cannot be taken by another organization in the upcoming Dec. 7 Rule 5 draft. And they will all report to major league spring training in Sarasota, Fla. in February.

They added two of their three top pitching prospects in right-handers Grayson Rodriguez and Seth Johnson along with lefty Drew Rom, right-hander Noah Denoyer and shortstop Joey Ortiz.

At 34 players this morning, the Orioles' 40-man roster now holds 39 players.

Rodriguez is the Orioles No. 2 prospect behind only Gunnar Henderson and is rated as the No. 4 national prospect in top 100s by both Baseball America and MLBPipeline.com.

In 17 starts this year, he went 6-2 with a 2.62 ERA, missing time between June 1 and Sept. 1 with a Grade 2 right lat strain. He left his start early June 1 with Triple-A Norfolk and returned three months later to make three rehab starts between high-A Aberdeen and Double-A Bowie before returning to end the year with Norfolk.

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Rutschman was second for ROY but remains first in leading O's into the future

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He wasn’t named the American League Rookie of the Year last night. The Orioles' Adley Rutschman finished second to Seattle’s Julio Rodriguez. But there is no shame in that, and it doesn’t diminish from the strong rookie year he had or what is expected for his future.

And that is simply, greatness, so the expectations, as always for Rutschman, are high. He could be the face of this franchise for many years to come.

Rutschman did get one first-place vote and Rodriguez got 29 of 30 to easily win with 148 points to 68 for Rutschman and 44 for Cleveland’s Steven Kwan, once an Oregon State teammate of Adley.

Rutschman, over 113 games, batted .254/.362/.445/.807 with 70 runs, 35 doubles, one triple, 13 homers and 42 RBIs. After his call to the majors on May 21, the Orioles went 67-55. He produced 18 Defensive Runs Saved, which was second among MLB catchers and tied for eighth in the majors.

Among FanGraphs.com’s Wins Above Replacement, Rutschman produced 5.3 WAR and so did Rodriguez with Kwan at 4.4. In the baseball-reference WAR version, Rodriguez produced 6.2 with Kwan at 5.5 and Rutschman 5.2. But Rutschman’s projected WAR over 162 games was 7.5.

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Looking at a few O's potential free agent pitching targets

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The baseball free agent market is underway. And the Orioles' Mike Elias told my colleague Roch Kubatko that the market could move swiftly this winter. Maybe some things will even heat up before the Winter Meetings early next month.

The Orioles are targeting pitching and hitting via both free agency and possibly trade routes also.

"I think this is going to be a very competitive market for players,” he said. “I think there’s a lot of teams out there that are looking to get better. People feel good about the health of the industry and I expect this will be a pretty active and maybe fast free agent market,” said Elias.

So, without any knowledge of how much money or far the Orioles are willing to go after free agent pitchers, we’ll take a look at a few of them over the next few weeks in this space. Today we start with three right-handers, who all pitched in New York in 2022.

* RHP Taijuan Walker: He is ranked as the No. 11 free agent via ESPN and projected to get four years at $60 million. MLBTradeRumors.com lists him at No. 16 and predicts a four-year deal for $52 million.

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