Looking back at Orioles' contract tender decisions and signings for 2024

Winning the American League East and reaching the Division Series, where they were swept by the Rangers, earned the Orioles a playoff share of $43,942.

A decent haul but a pittance compared to the $506,263 earned by the Rangers for winning the World Series. The Diamondbacks won the National League pennant and were rewarded with $313,634.

The general managers and owners meetings are over and the major awards are passed out. The Winter Meetings don’t start until Dec. 3 in Nashville. The deadlines to protect players in the Rule 5 draft and tender contracts to the ones eligible for arbitration arrived last week.

The Orioles didn’t add any of their Rule 5 eligibles to the 40-man roster, which has four openings for future business. They also had zero non-tenders, a surprise considering the 17 players on their list. At least a few seemed reasonable, if not assured.

Four reached agreements on new deals: shortstop Jorge Mateo for $2.7 million, reliever Keegan Akin for $825,000 and outfielders Ryan McKenna and Sam Hilliard for $800,000. The remaining 13 have agents negotiating with the Orioles until the Jan. 12 deadline to submit salary figures for the upcoming season.

Though the club claims to live by the trial-and-go philosophy if agreements aren’t reached, it’s made exceptions in recent years for Trey Mancini, John Means and Austin Voth.

Mateo, Akin, McKenna and Hilliard have contracts but no promises. Akin is the only one with a minor league option.

Hilliard is tricky because he’s outfield depth and a more suitable fit for Triple-A Norfolk, which had two other left-handed hitting outfielders, Colton Cowser and Heston Kjerstad, who could break camp next spring with the Orioles.

Hilliard hasn’t hit much in the majors, slashing .215/.294/.424 in 254 games, but he’s stolen 19 bases in 20 attempts and can play all three outfield positions. He’s registered a .351 on-base percentage in 661 minor league games and had 29 doubles, seven triples, 35 home runs and 101 RBIs in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League in 2019.

The Orioles aren’t done fortifying the bullpen, with late-inning relief a priority, but Akin will face some challenges.

That option gives the Orioles an out, potentially keeping him in the organization as depth at Triple-A. He didn’t pitch for them after June 28 due to a back injury, leaving his ERA at 6.85 and WHIP at 1.775. And they already have lefties Danny Coulombe, Cionel Pérez, Nick Vespi, Bruce Zimmermann and possibly Cole Irvin and DL Hall – both starters in the past.

The Orioles can work to get Akin closer to 2022 form, when he made 45 appearances and finished with a 3.20 ERA and 1.090 WHIP over 81 2/3 innings. Whoever is hired as pitching coach and assistant pitching coach.

McKenna is one of manager Brandon Hyde’s favorites for multiple reasons, mainly his speed, versatility and skills in the outfield and a dugout presence that teammates also laud at every opportunity. He’s the loudest and most energetic. And he’s always ready, seeming to stay a step ahead of everyone by anticipating when he might be needed in the late innings.

He’s astute at reading a game from the bench. Can’t catch him napping.

Is that enough to make the club with so many outfielders in the mix and the possibility of a veteran signing in the Aaron Hicks mold?

The salary is more than reasonable. It’s just a question of space, and whether McKenna would pass through waivers if the Orioles had to send him down.

That leaves us with Mateo, perhaps the most marketable of the quartet based on blazing speed, base-stealing prowess and defense that earned him a Fielding Bible Award at shortstop in 2022.

Mateo was paid $2 million this season, hit .347/.395/.667 in the first month and slashed .128/.165/.151, .196/.250/.250, .167/.211/.278 and .206/.229/.382 the next four months. MLBTradeRumors projected his 2024 salary at $2.9 million and the Orioles came in under that figure.

As we’ve discussed here, Mateo could be an asset coming off the bench in a utility-type role and maybe get the usual amount of starts at shortstop while Gunnar Henderson moves to third base. But there’s a talent backup in the infield with an anticipated full season from Jordan Westburg, the possible return of plus-defender Joey Ortiz and the debut of baseball’s No. 1 prospect, Jackson Holliday. And second baseman Connor Norby might enter the discussion.

The Orioles apparently would rather hold onto Mateo or try to get someone in return in a trade, with future transactions perhaps solidifying their strategy, than just set him adrift in the free agent waters.

Today’s questions: Do any of the four make the Opening Day roster, and do they remain in the organization throughout the winter and spring training?


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