Orioles Checking In On Free Agent Shortstops

This offseason features a group of shortstops often referred to as the “Big Four,” which consists of Carlos Correa, Trea Turner, Xander Bogaerts an Dansby Swanson. While they have been connected in rumors to most of the high-spending clubs around the league, Jon Heyman of The New York Post reports that the Orioles have checked in on them. Heyman adds that it’s more likely they invest in starting pitching since their need at shortstop isn’t terribly strong and there are other teams involved, but the interest is noteworthy nonetheless.

The O’s have been deeply committed to a rebuild in recent years and have been among the least active teams in free agency. The last time they gave a free agent a contract longer than one year was to Alex Cobb back in March of 2018. The O’s have endured five straight losing seasons from 2017 to 2021, with the club finishing last in the American League East in all four full, 162-game seasons in that stretch. However, the club turned a corner in 2022, with their young core starting to emerge and helping the club go 83-79. That still only amounted to a fourth-place finish in the division, but they flirted with the postseason race for much of the second half and seem poised to see better results going forward.

On the heels of that step forward, general manager Mike Elias has spoken about going into a more competitive phase of the club’s rebuilding plan, though he has also attempted to temper expectations at the same time. “We’re not going to go from zero miles an hour to 60 miles an hour in one offseason,” Elias said, which would seem to be a coded way of saying that they will be more active than in years past but aren’t planning to suddenly jump to the top of the market.

Still, there are reasons for them to at least hover around the market and keep an eye on it. Just one year ago, Correa didn’t find the long-term deal he was looking for and ended up settling for a three-year deal with high salaries and opt outs after each season. If one of the “Big Four” found themselves in a similar situation this year, the O’s would be a good to try to take advantage of it.

Since the O’s have eschewed spending for so long, their payroll outlook is essentially clear. Their commitments for 2023 are just $41MM, according to Roster Resource, less than what Max Scherzer will make by himself. Despite their recent devotion to skinflintism, they ran payrolls around $150MM from 2016 to 2018 and can surely start inching their way back up there in the coming years. They could easily fit a sizeable contract on their ledger if they really wanted to. Giving out a second year on a contract would be even easier as their commitments for 2024 are exactly zero.

Leaving the financials aside, adding a shortstop also makes sense for pure baseball reasons. Jorge Mateo was the club’s everyday option this year, getting into 150 games on the season. Advanced defensive metrics were all quite fond of his work in the field and he stole 35 bases, but his work at the plate was subpar. He struck out in 27.6% of his plate appearances while walking in just 5.1% of them, finishing with a batting line of .221/.267/.379 and a wRC+ of 82. Mateo is still just 27, turning 28 in June, so it’s possible that he is still developing, but his numbers at Triple-A are fairly similar. His speed and defense still allow him to be a useful player, with FanGraphs calculating his WAR at 2.8 in 2022, but without a development at the plate it’s possible that is his ceiling.

In the long run, things get a bit more crowded since the club has a number of highly-touted middle infield prospects. Gunnar Henderson made his MLB debut in 2022 and played well in his first 34 games. He played mostly third base but could slide back to shortstop if that became the club’s ideal alignment. One of the club’s top prospects, Coby Mayo, is primarily a third baseman and it could make sense to bump Henderson back into the middle infield. Another top prospect, Joey Ortiz, seems poised to jump to the big leagues in 2023. He’s played some second and third base but is primarily a shortstop. Jordan Westburg’s situation is fairly similar. There’s also Jackson Holliday, just selected with the first overall pick in June. He’s still just 18 years old, turning 19 in two days, but he is hoped to be pushing into the middle infield picture down the line.

Given all those internal options, giving out a contract of $20-30MM over 7-9 years doesn’t seem like the most obvious use of the club’s resources, even if they do have money to spend. If they did consider it, it’s been often pointed out that Elias was with the Astros at the time Correa was drafted and was reportedly personally involved in the club’s decision to select him. He’s surely still quite fond of Correa, but the shortstop isn’t likely to settle for another subpar deal after doing it a year ago. He changed agencies during the lockout, a sign that he wasn’t happy with the way things were going. Though he did settle for a short-term deal last year, it’s long seemed obvious that the plan would be to return to the open market this year and find the kind of contract that will take him through the majority of his remaining career. MLBTR predicted him to land a deal worth $288MM over nine years, or $32MM per season.

The other three shortstops might require less expenditure than Correa, but not much less. MLBTR predicted Turner to get $268MM over eight years, Bogaerts to get $189 over seven years and Swanson $154MM over seven. Even at the lower end, Swanson is projected for $22MM per season. There doesn’t seem to be any shortage of suitors for their services this winter either, as the Phillies, Dodgers, Padres, Braves, Twins, Red Sox, Giants, Cubs and Mariners are some of the clubs to have reported interest in that group. As mentioned, it’s probably more likely that the Orioles devote their resources to starting pitching, with their interest in that market already reported.

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