Despite spending a record setting payroll for the franchise, the SSG Baltimore Orioles dipped below .500 for the first time in 3 years last season and that performance resulted in a front-office shake-up as Craig Jackson took over as the club’s General Manager in August. Faced with a team that was exceeding it’s payroll and hampered with a large amount of money tied into aging stars, Jackson has had limited resources available to make major deals but he has still made a number of changes in Baltimore for 2020. When Jackson took over the Orioles had the following players under contract:
Baltimore also had over $11 million tied up in 3B Anthony Rendon but could certainly not afford to keep him for 2020. The 29 year old, who slashed .275/.345/.451 for the Orioles in 2019, signed a five year deal worth $125 million with the Dodgers. A number of those contracts could cause the Orioles some headaches if not next season then quite likely in 2021. Zack Greinke is coming off a decent season a year ago (13-10, 4.79) but he is now 36 years old and there could be concerns for a quick drop-off before his deal is over. Arodis Champan (3.06, 31 sv) rebounded very nicely from a down year in 2018 that saw the Blue Jays trade for him and then 3 months later put him on waivers. The 5 year, $60 million dollar deal the Orioles gave Greg Holland following the 2018 season resulted in the worst season of Holland’s career in 2019. That same winter the Orioles further loosed the purse-strings in signing a then 34 year old Miguel Gonzalez to a 3 year deal worth north of $25 million. Gonzalez did have a decent season in 2019 (12-7, 4.46) so the Orioles remain hopeful the righthander can remain healthy and productive in 2020.
Looking at the Orioles roster, there is a lot of concern about the dollars tied up in older players who struggled last season and may be on the downside of their careers. While Jackson acknowledges the challenge, he admits there is no easy solution.
“The point about the top-heavy structure of the salaries is a valid one and is something that needs to be addressed, but is difficult as our hands are tied. If the players with those contracts perform to the best of their abilities it won’t be an issue. However, going forward, I don’t see this organization entering into these types of contracts in future with players the wrong side of 30.”
Stephen Strasburg, who was acquired from Washington in July after a dreadful 1-7, 5.45 start to the season, is the contract that could be the biggest worry, but if the 31 year old can regain the form that helped him make 4 all-star teams, it could also turn out to be a huge bargain. Strasburg’s ERA+ was still league average despite a 5.09 era and 4-14 record between the two clubs last season and his WHIP, HR/9. BB/9 and K/9 numbers all improved since the trade so there is a chance he could still resemble the pitcher he was in previous years. GM Jackson realizes to a large degree the O’s fate in 2020 is tied to the veteran righthander.
“I hope the surroundings here in Baltimore will enable him to return to the top level of play he has demonstrated through the bulk of his career,” said Jackson. “He is an ace-calibre player and is going to be a key part of the staff this coming season, and beyond. The contract he has means he has got to perform well, and I think he will. If he doesn’t, he’ll be one of those cases we have to reconsider, but let’s hope that’s not a factor for a long time.”
The Orioles did made a couple of cost cutting moves this fall in releasing Shawn Kelley and Ivan Nova. Nova would be claimed by St Louis which gets the Orioles books balanced for the upcoming season. Adding pressure to his new executive, Orioles owner Sean Angelos has given Jackson a mandate of finishing at least .500 and making the playoffs. The rookie General Manager feels one of those objectives can be accomplished but is uncertain about the second one.
“I think we can most definitely achieve the former, but the jury is out on the latter,” explained Jackson recently. “I think 90 wins would be at the top end of our projection, so that is my target for this first full, learning season. I don’t really care what position in the division we finish – what I want to see is that the decisions I take result in an increasing number of wins – this year I’d prefer 90 wins and 5th place than 80 wins and 2nd. All I can do is concentrate on the small, incremental improvements at the Orioles which I think will improve our record.”
With a limited budget, Jackson turned to multiple other low-cost avenues to add to depth to the 2020 Orioles. Baltimore added two players, 1B Felix Munoz and outfielder Lance Jerrries in the Rule V draft, traded for pitcher Hunter Harvey, claimed pitcher Rex Brothers off waivers and made a low cost free agent signing by inking ex-Dodgers catcher Erick Castillo to a 1 year deal.
“Jeffries, Munoz and Castillo all have the ability to improve our offense,” added Jackson. “They are unlikely to be league leaders but are a big up-tick compared to the players they’re replacing. Last year, offense was our problem – we had a handful of very good players but then the drop off in production was huge toward the back end of the batting order and there was little in reserve. These three guys are the types of players we need to bring in to give us a more rounded, able offensive squad at that back end. Hunter Harvey is young and hungry and has the hutzpah I want from a strike out pitcher. He’ll probably start the season as our ‘bull-pen ace’ but I expect him to push hard for a starting role – he will need to ensure that he keeps the home run rate down though, which is the only negative aspect of his style.”
Baltimore may also improve from within as the Orioles have some very good young prospects on their way up. The Orioles farm system ranks 12th overall and boasts some very strong pitching talent including the leagues #1 ranked prospect Zane Cochran. Cochran was hampered by multiple injuries a year ago that cost him close to two months of playing time which slowed his development last season. The 22 year old made 15 starts in AA and he will need to show well in AAA Norfolk before Jackson is ready to bring him up to the big leagues.
“We’ve got a big group of talented players on the bubble, just a step away from taking things to the next level, and Cochran is one of these players,” Jackson explains. “We just need to see a little bit more from him, and the likes of Stephen Gonsalves, Max Pearson and Mike Cunningham, in terms of stats production at triple-A to match the undoubted talent that they have. The young pitchers are, for me, the most exciting thing about our organization and it is likely that we will see Cochran and others getting an opportunity in the big time this year, but they do need to bash out the stats first in the minors. The same is true for the offense, we have guys like Eudor Garcia, Joaquín Lopez, Augusto Ramirez, Bobby Jones, and others that have huge promise but need to demonstrate they can do it big time in the minors first. Glory awaits those that can show they mean business!”
2020 will be an interesting year for the Orioles. They are a club which could perhaps make some noise if Strasburg, Greinke and a couple of other arms come up big. If they don’t, it could be a long season as the Orioles still likely lack the offensive firepower to offset a mediocre pitching staff.