Baltimore Orioles: Three free agent starters who could help the O’s
By Tim Smart
There’s depth in the farm system but the Orioles will need help in the major league rotation next year. Here are three low-cost free agent starters who could help in 2019
I know what you’re thinking; the Orioles have plenty of depth, they don’t need to venture into the free agent market this offseason, no free agents will want to sign here, etc. But as it stands, the Orioles rotation is a major weakness and they could do with some outside help.
The Orioles will head into the 2019 season with Alex Cobb, Dylan Bundy and Andrew Cashner atop the rotation but beyond that, there are major question marks. There’s a group of five pitchers currently on the 40-man who seem likely to get opportunities in Baltimore next year: David Hess, Josh Rogers, Luis Ortiz, Yefry Ramirez, and Jimmy Yacabonis.
Hess had mixed results in the majors last year; in 103.1 innings across 19 starts, Hess posted a 4.88 ERA with a 5.80 FIP. He was much better in May and August (.739 OPS allowed) than he was in June, July and September (.856). But he allowed 22 homers in those 103 innings, he struck out just 16.3% of the batters he faced, and his 92.3 mph average fastball velocity in 2018 is well below elite.
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Rogers came to Baltimore in the Zach Britton trade. Before he was shipped out, Rogers posted a 3.95 ERA and a 17.7% strikeout rate in 109.1 innings for Triple-A Scranton. After coming over, he pitched 30.1 innings in Norfolk with a 2.08 ERA and a 14.8% K rate. However, the drop in ERA was heavily reliant on a 9.7% increase in his left on-base rate and a .063 drop in BABIP. Add in the 11 earned runs allowed in 11.2 innings after his call up, and we can see that Rogers still needs time to develop.
Ortiz came over from Milwaukee in the Jonathan Schoop trade and in 31.2 innings he posted a 3.69 ERA with a 15.6% strikeout rate, which was considerably lower than the strikeout rates he’d posted in the Brewers system. Ortiz tweaked a hamstring covering first on a grounder in his first appearance after being called up to Baltimore so we weren’t able to get a feel for him in the majors.
Ramirez was very hit or miss last year, pitching 137 innings between Norfolk and Baltimore, with a 5.92 ERA in the majors. The 21.2% strikeout rate shows that he has plenty of potential, but the 12.2% walk rate has to come way down if he’s going to be successful at the major league level.
And similar to Ramirez, Yacabonis was mostly efficient with mediocre 18.6% strikeout rate and a 5.84 FIP in the majors. Like all Orioles starters, Yacabonis was hurt by the long ball in 2018, giving up a sky-high 16.7% HR/FB rate. If he can keep the ball in the yard, Yacabonis can be effective; if not, he’s likely just a placeholder.
The Orioles do have depth in the minors but not much, if any, of that talent is ready for the majors right now. Yes, the Orioles need these guys to get reps, and they need to see what they have in their prospects. But they’re going to play 162 games next year and we saw the issues Buck Showalter has putting a team on the field last year. Injuries happen, players miss time. Relying on the talent in-house could be a recipe for disaster next year.
Dylan Bundy was the only pitcher on the Orioles staff to make 30 starts in 2018. Gausman was on pace to before the trade, but the Orioles would do well to try to acquire a cheap starter. Upside would be nice, but consistency matters. Let’s look at three free agent starters who could help the Orioles in 2019.
Jeremy Hellickson’s name might have negative connotations in the minds of some Orioles fans due to his performance in the second half of 2017, but he was surprisingly effective this past year in Washington.
The Nationals used him in accordance with his ability, often removing him from games after Hellickson had gone through the batting order twice. As with all pitchers, Hellickson has poor third time around splits; his OPS allowed climbs from .668 the first time through to .724 the second, and .847 the third.
Hellickson has been reliable, making fewer than 27 starts in a season just twice since 2010. And he would be relatively cheap; he made $11 million in 2017 but just $2 million last year. If the Orioles can get Hellickson on a one or two year deal for between $3-$5 million per year, they could absolutely benefit from it.
Tyson Ross isn’t exactly a model of consistency; he’s struggled through arm injuries and thoracic outlet syndrome over the past three years. And there’s plenty of risk, considering his fastball velocity slumped to 91.1 mph in 2018, the lowest mark in his career.
But Ross was a very good pitcher for the Padres from 2013-2015, and he still has the wipeout slider that helps boost his 19.2% strikeout rate. Ross was effective enough in 2018, posting a 4.39 FIP and a 45.9% ground ball rate between the Padres and Cardinals.
Plus, he’ll certainly be on the cheaper side. After making just $1.75 million last year, he’ll be available for likely less than $3 million per year. At that price, he’s got enough upside to take a chance on. If he hits, he’s a tradeable asset; if not, it’s a negligible amount of money lost.
James Shields would probably be too expensive, wouldn’t provide nearly enough production and likely has no inclination to play in Baltimore, but if there’s one thing Shields is good for, it’s consistency. He’s made fewer than 31 starts just twice in his 13-year career while pitching to a 4.17 FIP and a 13.5% strikeout minus walk rate. Those numbers aren’t bad, and consistency is something the Orioles will need next year.
This one’s a stretch, for sure, but Shields is one of those guys who you know exactly what you’re getting. At this point, he’s a 200 inning, mid-four’s ERA guy at the middle-to-back of your rotation. It’s not exciting and there’s no upside here, but that might be a good thing. Shields has been unsuccessfully trying to fit himself into the role of an ace since he helped lead the Rays to a World Series berth in 2008.
He’s now heading into his age-37 season and having made over $113 million dollars in his career, Shields might be willing to take a lesser deal after having his $16 million dollar option declined by the White Sox for next year. Maybe Shields would have zero interest in playing for the Orioles, and you’ll all probably laugh me out for this one, but if the Orioles can lock up 30 starts next year, it’d be wise to do so.
None of the guys mentioned above have big time upside, including the five already on the roster. The Orioles have talent in the system, but those guys aren’t all ready, and it’s unclear whether the Orioles will be willing to start service time clocks on certain pitchers in the minors. If we’re being honest, the Orioles aren’t bringing in any impact free agents this year, but they can still work the bottom of the market and pull some useful pieces from the pool of players.