NASHVILLE – Did Craig Kimbrel save the Winter Meetings for the Orioles?
A closer’s work is never done.
News of Kimbrel’s agreement yesterday on a $12 million contract for next season that includes a $1 million buyout on a $13 million club option broke a little over five hours before the Orioles’ ditched their digs at the Gaylord Opryland Resort and Convention Center.
Much better than dropping it on the media during the Southwest flight home, but still a bit late. The countdown had started. Fan agitation over the failure to make a move was growing in some circles.
If “X” is a circle.
"This guy's had a remarkable career, and that he's still going this strong is cool," said executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias. "He's chasing some big names on the saves list, so I think it's going to be fun for our fans to be a part of that and watch him continue to tick up the Hall of Fame pursuit he's got with all-time saves leaders."
More discussions likely were scheduled after the Orioles announced the signing - the biggest free-agent deal finalized at the Winter Meetings. Elias checked off a box, but he wasn’t done with his offseason.
Elias was amused but also held prisoner by the negotiations and tussling for top free agent Shohei Ohtani, who became baseball’s version of a giant hairball caught in a drain.
Ohtani clogged the market. Teams in the bidding wouldn’t pivot until he made a decision, and teams on the outside kept waiting to get noticed.
Elias played along as a national reporter joked about the Orioles perhaps being a mystery suitor.
“Seems like there are executives disappearing left and right,” he said Tuesday in reference to Toronto general manager Ross Atkins’ trip to the Blue Jays’ nearly $100 million player development complex in Dunedin, a smart and necessary tool for a suitor who knows that Ohtani will be rehabbing from elbow surgery.
“Maybe if you see me do that, you can draw some conclusions, but I’ll leave it at that.”
Elias didn’t leave Nashville until the Rule 5 draft ended, joining other executives and club employees, and much of the local media, for the trip home.
The meetings wouldn’t have been a complete waste of time even without Kimbrel, but he sure helped.
Elias sat down with numerous agents and execs and described the sessions as “productive.” He doesn’t compress the offseason into four or five days. But I can’t remember the last time that the Orioles didn’t announce the signing of a minor league free agent, usually on the first full day, and make at least one selection in the Rule 5 draft.
Call it a sign of the contention times.
The roster is mostly set, with young talent scattered across it and more on the way – most notably top prospect Jackson Holliday, who apparently would need to play his way off the Opening Day roster in spring training.
These meetings might be remembered most for Elias’ “definitely a very strong possibility” response to the latest inquiry about Holliday’s chances of heading north with the club. A very strong endorsement that was lacking until Tuesday.
"I think for him, one advantage is he grew up in a major league clubhouse being around his dad,” said backup catcher James McCann, who lives in Nashville and made the interview rounds yesterday. “That’s one thing I noticed last year. He looks like he’s 12 in the face and he acts like a 40-year-old veteran. He knows exactly how to go about his business, he handles the clubhouse like a pro and that has to be because of how he came up.
“If he’s on the Opening Day roster, I think he’s going to fit right in. He’s a hard worker and he understands Major League Baseball because he’s been around it his whole life.”
Elias and manager Brandon Hyde talked this week about ways to take the next step after the three-game sweep by the Rangers in the Division Series, and it usually began with the value of having playoff experience and a hungry team. Elias made it clear again that he wanted a starter and an “anchor” for the back end of the bullpen. He wasn’t content to stand pat and rely only on internal options. But settling for small waves over a big splash wouldn’t be the worst news coming off a 101-win season.
“It would not be ideal, I think, for us to be totally dormant all winter, but we’re going to do our best to avoid that,” Elias said on Tuesday. “But we’re viewing this as a winter to augment this group and reinforce it and supplement it, and not reinvent it or supplant this group. So, that’s a great starting point.”
The bullpen has the potential to be dominant as long as Kimbrel’s tank doesn’t run dry.
The depth is impressive with Yennier Cano, Cionel Pérez, Danny Coulombe and perhaps Tyler Wells and DL Hall. Mike Baumann is back. Jacob Webb was tendered a contract. Cole Irvin could be a swingman who provides length in relief. Dillon Tate is throwing off a mound and recovered from the forearm and elbow injuries that cost him the entire 2023 season.
Wells and Hall are the wild cards here. One of them could be a starter. Elias pretty much dismissed the idea of putting both in the rotation.
Elias will monitor other opportunities with relievers, whether through a trade or signing, the urgency fading like wet ink.
"There's room for more, but I would feel like this group now stacks up really well around the league with what we have now," Elias said. "We also have the possibility depending on how our rotation pursuits and our rotation competition goes in Sarasota, that some of the talented guys we have in that mix could spill over into the 'pen. So, one thing we've just got to keep in mind is, you're only allowed to have 13 pitchers now, the seasons are grueling. You want some flexibility in your bullpen, and we have less than that than in the past because a lot of our guys are either out of options or graduating in arbitration or what have you. And we're not going to be able to, if we have a rough night, option people frivolously if we get too many players, so something that every team has to keep in mind, especially with these new rules now."
Fulfilling the goal of obtaining a starter for the top portion of the rotation could allow the Orioles to set it with Kyle Bradish, Grayson Rodriguez, John Means and Dean Kremer.
Trade talks at the Winter Meetings didn’t land a starter, but Elias isn’t treating his farm system like it belongs at a rummage sale.
Asked if there’s a prospect he wouldn’t trade, Elias said, “I can think of at least one.” That would be Holliday, of course, the most untouchable of the group.
One executive from another team sensed that outfielders Colton Cowser and Heston Kjerstad, third baseman Coby Mayo and catcher Samuel Basallo weren't on the table. Perhaps only with his team, maybe more across the board. He could speak only of his experience.
Basallo has risen to No. 2 prospect status in the organization, per Baseball America, followed by Mayo, Cowser and Kjerstad.
Elias sees talent that can help at the major league level. He doesn’t see a logjam.