The week between Christmas and New Year's tends to be a dead zone in baseball. Silent nights until after the last champagne cork and aspirin are popped.
The ball drops, jokes are made about teams that can’t field, and the next round of business commences.
Oh sure, there are exceptions.
The Orioles, for example, signed pitcher Kohl Stewart on Dec. 29, 2019. He opted out in 2020, citing underlying conditions that put him at risk during the pandemic, and he didn’t appear in another major league game until 2021 with the Cubs.
Free-agent pitchers Miguel Tejada, Paul Demny, Jon Link and Brooks Kieschnick signed minor league deals on Dec. 28, 2017, Dec. 27, 2015, Dec. 28, 2011 and Dec. 26, 2005, respectively. Small stuff, of course. Dinner didn’t get cold while the media filed stories. But it happened.
I’m certain that other moves are coming after Jan. 1, based on the desire to acquire another veteran starter and the continued interest in a left-handed hitting first baseman, especially with Lewin Díaz traded to the Braves after he was designated for assignment. The need existed anyway, but it further shows that the Orioles aren’t content with their options.
The shopping list has been whittled, perhaps more so than expected on this date, considering how quiet it appeared for a while beyond the handful of minor league moves. One starter was found when the Orioles signed Kyle Gibson for $10 million. A left-handed-hitting second baseman/corner outfielder was found when they signed Adam Frazier for $8 million. A veteran reliever arrived when they brought back Mychal Givens for a $3 million base next season. And the backup catcher arrived with the trade for James McCann, who receives $2.5 million from the Orioles in 2023, plus another $2.5 million in 2024.
The total investment is $23.5 million next season, with arbitration raises coming. The deadline to settle is Jan. 13 before figures are exchanged and hearings are scheduled.
The payroll is increasing, as promised, but liftoff didn’t launch it into the stratosphere. It didn’t clear the warehouse roof.
This is a gradual climb intended to keep the club in its financial comfort zone while also upgrading the roster and, as we’ve learned over last few months, bank on prospects to push it past the rebuild stage and into contender status.
Important changes in 2023 also involve full seasons from Adley Rutschman, Gunnar Henderson and possibly DL Hall and Kyle Stowers after their debuts this year. The eventual return of John Means, who made only two starts before undergoing Tommy John surgery. The arrival of Grayson Rodriguez, who jumps immediately into the rotation. And the potential of calling up infielders Jordan Westburg, Joey Ortiz and Connor Norby and outfielder Colton Cowser.
Camden Yards could be a prospect flood zone.
Executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias has been transparent about the reliance on these young players and how he wants to keep the path clear for them.
The possibility exists that some prospects are packaged in a trade. I’m always hesitant to list everyone as if they’re assured of staying in the organization, and then I do it anyway because they’re here.
Is the roster upgraded?
Gibson basically is a replacement for Jordan Lyles, who signed a two-year, $17 million deal with the Royals. Lyles had a lower ERA in 2022, but Gibson owns a lower career ERA and WHIP and was an All-Star in 2021, and the Orioles see room for growth under their instruction.
Frazier, also an All-Star in 2021, is an improvement defensively over Rougned Odor at second base, is more versatile and is a high-contact guy who gets on base. The Orioles identified why he struggled this year, matching his own appraisal.
They’re on the same page. Makes sense to be on the same team.
And again, it’s a one-year deal that isn’t blocking anybody. A prospect will debut when the Orioles think he’s ready. They’ll figure out how to make room.
Givens is a proven reliever with a track record longer than just one season. He’s a durable strikeout guy. A weapon to break out in the sixth, seventh or eighth inning. Maybe the ninth on occasion, like if Félix Bautista is unavailable and the matchups favor Givens.
The money is right, with Givens receiving $1 million if he declines his side of a $6 million mutual option in 2024 and $2 million if he triggers it and the Orioles decline.
Rare are the occasions when player and team activate it.
The defensive metrics are much kinder to McCann than to Robinson Chirinos. The pitch framing is much better. He’s also expected to be the same type of clubhouse presence, though no one knows if he’s personalized-T-shirt-worthy.
The money is right again, with the Orioles on the hook for only $5 million of the $24 million remaining on McCann’s contract over the next two years. The $2.5 million split in 2023 and 2024 is quite reasonable for a veteran backup catcher who’s going to play more than perhaps some people are anticipating.
Rutschman is going to rotate into the designated hitter role to keep his bat in the lineup but also lessen the wear and tear on his body. The Orioles showed interest in free agent catcher Gary Sánchez, who doesn’t seem like a logical fit because he wants a starter’s workload, but it illustrates how Rutschman won’t be camped out behind the plate. And McCann can play first base if needed.
The Orioles don’t have a catching prospect beating down the door to join Rutschman. Let’s see how Maverick Handley, left exposed in the Rule 5 draft, progresses next season.
And while we’re at it, let’s see what else Elias has up his sleeve before Opening Day. The one that’s rolled up as he keeps working, even during the period when the sport might sleep.
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