The non-tender deadline in 2019 brought a trade that wasn’t popular with Orioles fans who still vented over the decision a week earlier to place infielder Jonathan Villar on waivers.
Villar wasn’t coming back with an estimated arbitration raise pushing his salary to $10.4 million. The Orioles were motivated to move him for the right return, which turned into left-hander Easton Lucas.
“It’s hard to let him go, but we’ve got to keep an eye on our strategic objectives, which prioritize the future right now,” executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias said later that night.
“With a guy who’s going into his last year of arbitration with the team, facing free agency, who is set to demand a large salary that he’s earned through his play this year and in years past, when we have the opportunity to use that playing time on other players who may be around longer, to use that payroll on other players and other objectives that fit more tightly with our strategy, and then get a young player back, a young pitcher that we view as a prospect and potential future piece for the team, it makes a lot of sense. It’s something you have to do.”
Villar agreed to an $8.2 million deal with the Marlins to avoid a hearing, appeared in 30 games during the truncated season and was traded to the Blue Jays for Griffin Conine, son of former Oriole Jeff Conine.
Lucas seemed to disappear.
Does anyone remember hearing about him in 2020, with no minor league season and no mention of him at the alternate camp site?
He did join 54 other players at the fall instructional camp in Sarasota, but his first game with an Orioles affiliate didn’t come until May 8, 2021 with Single-A Aberdeen.
Used exclusively in relief, Lucas went 3-1 with a 3.96 ERA and 1.241 WHIP in 27 appearances and struck out 50 batters in 38 2/3 innings. He averaged 7.6 strikeouts per nine innings in four seasons at Pepperdine University, 10.6 at the lowest levels of the Marlins system in 2019 and 11.6 in 2021.
Lucas, 25, posted an 8.31 ERA and 1.85 WHIP in six July games, though he tossed two scoreless innings in his last outing. His final six appearances of the season netted just an unearned run in 10 innings, with no hits in the last four games.
He had one walk and 11 strikeouts over those six appearances.
“He gave us a lot out of the bullpen this year,” said Josh Conway, Aberdeen’s pitching coach in 2021. “Obviously, being a left-handed guy, he can come in and face lefties as needed. But honestly, his best pitch is his changeup, so it really goes well to right-handed hitters. Bringing him into any situation out of the ‘pen was really beneficial.”
The Marlins drafted Lucas in the 14th round and Elias had viewed him as a possible 10th-rounder, adding that the Orioles owned “a pretty good file on him.” They viewed him as a possibility for the back end of the rotation, though his future might keep him in the ‘pen. To be determined.
Either way, Elias liked Lucas’ stuff.
“He’s 89-92 (mph) with a fastball that has some hopping life to it,” Elias said after the trade. “He’s got two distinct breaking balls, a slider and a curveball that have a chance to be average pitches, and I think that our pitching program in particular can help him with that. He’s also got a really nice changeup that plays well to right-handed hitters. So it’s a starter’s profile.”
It’s a fastball that had some room to grow in the Orioles organization.
“Just like some other guys, he came in as kind of a soft-throwing lefty a little bit and then he finished the season touching 93, 94 (mph),” Conway said. “Put a lot of good work in. He still has some work to do with making the breaking ball a little bit better to have a weapon with left-handed hitters, but he did a really nice job coming on late in the season, giving us what we needed, giving us some length at times and really doing a nice job.”