A Look at Arbitration-Eligible O’s

As the first season under the new regime begins to wind down, it’s time to take a look at what’s in store for the second offseason under Orioles executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias.

We’ve seen that, from the beginning of this rebuild, the club has no plans to add more salary than what’s necessary for the time being. They’re trying to shed payroll in any possible way.

Designated hitter Mark Trumbo will become a free agent at the end of the season, and I’m sure Elias is looking forward to taking his salary off the books. But there are still a couple Orioles under contract. First baseman Chris Davis has three years remaining on his seven-year, $161 million deal, and right-handed starter Alex Cobb has two years left on his four-year, $57 million contract.

With two hefty contracts still on the books and a need to shed salary, don’t expect the Orioles to dive head-first into the free-agent market this offseason. The Orioles’ biggest signing last winter was a one-year, $800,000 deal for right-hander Nate Karns. I don’t anticipate the Orioles to do much more than that this upcoming winter.

But what also comes with shedding salary? Tough arbitration decisions. The Orioles have seven arbitration-eligible players this offseason. It’s possible all seven may return, but there’s also a chance that one or more of these players are either non-tendered or traded away to decrease payroll and/or add to the talent in the farm system.

Let’s take a crack at these seven, shall we? All statistics are up to date through Sunday, Sept. 22. The first few will be some of the most talked about Orioles in the coming months.

Craig Landefeld/GulfBird Sports

2B/SS Jonathan Villar

2019 salary: $4.83 million

Under control through 2020

From the start of the season through the end of July, Jonathan Villar slashed .265/.328/.422 with 13 homers, 23 stolen bases, a .320 wOBA, 96 wRC+ and 1.8 WAR (per FanGraphs). He was a valuable asset, but at the time nothing special. The Orioles shopped him prior to the trade deadline but no teams bit. Roch Kubatko of MASNsports.com noted the day of the deadline that the Orioles spoke with the Cubs about Villar, but there wasn’t enough interest to get a deal done.

Kubatko also wrote that Villar could be considered a “serious non-tender candidate” this upcoming offseason.

Since then, Villar has been scorching hot at the plate. He’s now batting .274/.341/.456 with 23 homers, 38 stolen bases, a .337 wOBA, 108 wRC+ and 3.7 fWAR on the season. If his production doesn’t drop off considerably in the year’s final six games, he may finish 2019 with the first 4-WAR season of his career.

If Villar was a non-tender candidate prior to his August and September outburst, I imagine the Orioles feel a little bit better about paying his potential salary increase, but not by much. I think they try shopping Villar again this winter, hoping a team will pull the trigger and trade for the switch-hitting infielder coming off a career year. His great season could both help and hurt the chances of a trade this offseason, though. It could help because teams will definitely be interested in a 4-WAR player, but it could hurt if teams think his stellar 2019 is a fluke.

The Orioles’ priority option with Villar this offseason should be to trade Villar to whichever club has the best offer. If no team bites – once again – I’d tender him for 2020. I wouldn’t be surprised if they non-tender him to shed salary, but I don’t think they want to let him go for nothing in return, and he would probably become the most sought-after non-tender on the open market. So either try to trade him this offseason, or bring him back with a pay increase and try to trade him in July.

Third time’s the charm, right?

Dylan Bundy of the Baltimore Orioles pitches.

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RHP Dylan Bundy

2019 salary: $2.8 million

Under control through 2021

Dylan Bundy is another interesting case for 2020. The once top prospect will be entering his age-27 season with two years remaining under club control, and he is a shell of his former self. His numbers – both velocity and results – are down.

In 2018, Bundy had his worst season, recording a 5.45 ERA and 5.17 FIP with 2.15 home runs allowed per nine innings in 31 starts. That year accumulated to 1.0 fWAR for Bundy, which typically isn’t going to cut it.

This year, he hasn’t been impressive but he has certainly put up better numbers. In 29 starts he has a 4.89 ERA, 4.76 FIP and has allowed 1.63 homers per nine innings. He has 2.4 fWAR, his second-best in his career. That’ll play for a back end starting pitcher.

The new regime has worked with Bundy on finding new ways to attack hitters now that he no longer has a high-velocity fastball. A lot of guys have to reinvent themselves as different pitchers to continue to have success, like CC Sabathia did a few years back. But unlike Sabathia, Bundy has to do this much earlier in his career than he, or anybody, probably anticipated.

In Bundy’s first 23 starts this season, he had a 5.25 ERA, 5.07 FIP and 1.88 home runs allowed per nine innings. In that span, per BrooksBaseball.net, this was his pitch usage: 44.89 percent four-seam fastballs, 22.56 percent sliders, 17.60 percent change-ups, 9.37 percent curveballs and 5.58 percent two-seam fastballs. In the six starts he’s had since then, he owns a 3.63 ERA, 3.68 FIP and 0.78 home runs allowed per nine innings. His pitch usage has altered quite a bit in these last six starts: 34.32 percent four-seam fastballs, 23.4 percent sliders, 16.29 percent chang-eups, 14.04 percent two-seam fastballs and 11.96 percent curveballs. He has drastically reduced the amount of four-seams he’s throwing and, in return, dialing up the usage on his two-seam and curveball. Something to keep an eye on going forward.

Some on social media have wondered if Bundy is a non-tender candidate. It’s possible, but I don’t think it happens. He has made strides this season, and I think the front office would like to see if these adjustments can show even better results in 2020. If you have hope for Bundy to return to a potential top of the rotation starter, I’d urge you to give that up. But if the O’s can turn Bundy into a solid middle-to-back of the rotation arm, I think they’ll take that as a win.

Mychal Givens on the mound looking in.

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RHP Mychal Givens

2019 salary: $2.15 million

Under control through 2021

I’ll start with this: I don’t think the Orioles will even consider non-tendering right-handed reliever Mychal Givens. He’ll be tendered a contract for 2020; the only question may be with what team.

Givens has had quite the odd year for the Orioles. This season for the right-hander has featured career worsts in ERA (4.77), FIP (4.66), home runs allowed per nine innings (1.94) and fWAR (0.4). However, his 12.38 strikeouts per nine innings is by far the best in his career. His previous best was 11.57 in 2016.

He has had some very inconsistent stretches, posting a 4.50 ERA in April, 6.39 ERA in May, 3.68 ERA in June, 2.79 ERA in July, 2.70 ERA in August and 8.31 ERA in September.

Givens recorded a 3.12 ERA, 3.18 FIP, 0.73 homers allowed per nine innings and 10.42 strikeouts per nine from 2015-2018. It’s worth noting that 2019 is the first season that Givens has been asked to handle closing duties, mostly in an unconventional way.

Manager Brandon Hyde, with a thin bullpen, has used Givens multiple times this season in which the right-hander would need to get outs in both the eighth and ninth innings to lock down saves. A lot of those occasions began on track in the eighth and turned into disasters in the ninth. Givens has a 2.11 ERA in the eighth inning this season, holding batters to a .153/.218/.278 slash line, while posting a 6.69 ERA in the ninth with hitters batting .252/.344/.526 off him. Either closing isn’t for Givens, or multiple-inning appearances aren’t for him.

I’m sure the Orioles still see the Givens from 2015-2018. They’ll either tender him a contract and try to get him back to form to make him a valuable trade asset in July, or they’ll try to gauge the trade market for him this offseason.

I can’t see Givens being non-tendered. I can, however, see him with another club next season, whether it’s on opening day or in July/August.

Hanser Alberto and Renato Nunez high five.

2B/3B Hanser Alberto

2019 salary: $578,000

Under control through 2022

Infielder Hanser Alberto has to be one of the biggest surprises of the Orioles’ 2019 season. He is slashing .310/.333/.431 with 12 longballs, a .323 wOBA, 99 wRC+ and 2.0 fWAR.

The batting average is impressive, but the on-base percentage and wOBA are average at best. This is because Alberto basically refuses to walk. His 3.0 percent walk rate is the third-lowest in Major League Baseball. However, Alberto also refuses to strike out. His 9.0 percent strikeout rate is the lowest among qualified hitters in 2019.

His ability to constantly put the ball in play carries an underrated value. He sprays the ball around the field and finds ways to get many hits, even on softly hit balls. Usually collecting many of these types of base knocks is a recipe for regression. But with Alberto’s ability to constantly put the ball in play without striking out, the regression may not hit as hard as some may think.

He also plays more than capable defense at both second and third base, the former featuring his best glovework.

This one is a no-brainer, especially given that the pay increase through arbitration shouldn’t be too much. Alberto will be back.

Craig Landefeld/GulfBird Sports

1B Trey Mancini

2019 salary: $575,500

Under control through 2022

Voted 2019 Most Valuable Oriole, first baseman/right fielder Trey Mancini has had a career year. He’s batting .286/.356/.532 with 34 home runs, a .368 wOBA, 129 wRC+ and 3.1 fWAR. This year also features his highest walk rate and lowest strikeout rate of any season in his career.

There’s no question as to whether or not he’ll be tendered a contract. There is no non-tendering Mancini. However, with rumors swirling around him in July, one has to wonder if the team tendering him a contract will be someone other than the Orioles. Mancini is possibly the Orioles’ best trade chip right now in order to continue to build a strong farm system.

The only problem with that though, is that no contending team really sticks out with a need for a first baseman or designated hitter. The Orioles have used Mancini in the outfield, but it’s not an ideal situation. So as long as the National League stays away from adopting the designated hitter, there are very limited options for teams that need Mancini’s services. That doesn’t play well into the Orioles’ favor when trying to seek a large return for the MVO.

I fully expect Mancini to be back with the Orioles next season.

Richard Bleier of the Orioles pitches.

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LHP Richard Bleier

2019 salary: $572,500

Under control through 2022

Left-handed reliever Richard Bleier has never been flashy. He has a slow fastball and he doesn’t strike people out, but pounds the strike zone and he generates a ton of ground balls. This season, he has been a bit disappointing, owning a 5.54 ERA and 4.41 FIP over 52 innings pitched. The prior three seasons, he posted a 1.96 ERA in 2016, 1.99 ERA in 2017 and 1.93 ERA in 2018.

One could argue that the southpaw’s shoulder surgery from last season is a reason for this drop off. Others may say they could see it coming just based on fastball velocity and the amount of balls he allows to be put in play. And the rest could debate that it could be because of both of the previous reasons, but also because he’s 32 years old.

Bleier is affordable, has a history of success and is left-handed, which provides the case for him to return to the Orioles in 2020. However, heading into your age-33 season gives me some doubt. I’ll say he’s on the roster bubble this offseason. Whether Bleier is non-tendered, tendered or even traded this winter, nothing will be surprising to me.

Miguel Castro throws in Sarasota.

Craig Landefeld/GulfBird Sports

RHP Miguel Castro

2019 salary: $569,000

Under control through 2022

The 24-year-old flamethrower is tough to read, just like I wrote earlier regarding Givens. Miguel Castro has the “stuff” to pitch in the back end of a bullpen, but the command needs to tighten up, shown by the 5.10 walks per nine innings on the season. Overall he has a 4.73 ERA, 4.78 FIP, 8.71 strikeouts per nine innings and a 49.5 percent groundball rate in 72 1/3 innings this season.

In his last outing against the Blue Jays on Sept. 18, Castro allowed six runs (five earned) over two-thirds of an inning. But prior to that, he had posted a 2.30 ERA since the All-Star break.

There are reasons to be frustrated with Castro, and the majority of those reasons trace back to his poor command. The stuff is nasty, but finding his release point and hitting his spots better is going to be the key.

There’s plenty of potential in the young right-hander. Being a relatively cheap arm with filthy stuff should earn him a spot in the Orioles’ bullpen next year. He’ll be entering his age-25 season, so this should be a no-brainer for the O’s and their youth movement.

Wrapping this up

I don’t see any situation where Alberto, Mancini and Castro aren’t wearing Orioles uniforms in 2020. I expect Bundy and Givens to return as well, although it’s possible they could be shopped this winter. With Villar ready for a pay increase after arguably the best year of his career, I think the Orioles’ No. 1 priority being to try to maximize on that value by dealing him and wiping out his salary. Bleier could very well be on the roster bubble this winter, but I also wouldn’t be surprised to see him stay.

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