Orioles might need to give up top prospects to trade for a starter

The first free-agent signing of the offseason came on Sunday when the Philadelphia Phillies re-signed starting pitcher Aaron Nola for a reported seven years, $172 million.

The Orioles weren’t expected to pursue Nola, who’s 30. Nola, San Diego’s Blake Snell and top Japanese pitcher Yoshinobu Yamamoto were the top names in the free-agent pitching market. Snell and Yamamoto could get contracts even longer and pricier than Nola’s.

While the Orioles may zero in on second-tier free-agent starters, they may also try to trade for one. Two names that are popular in trade chatter are Milwaukee’s Corbin Burnes, who has one year remaining before free agency, and the Chicago White Sox’s Dylan Cease, who has two years left before free agency. Both are right-handers.

If Burnes and Cease are available in trade, they’ll likely be coveted by a number of teams, including the Orioles.

Earlier this year, the Orioles began trading prospects for veterans, acquiring left-hander Cole Irvin from Oakland for shortstop Darell Hernaiz, Japanese reliever Shintaro Fujinami, also from the Athletics, for left-handed reliever Easton Lucas, and starter Jack Flaherty from St. Louis for left-hander Drew Rom and infielder César Prieto.

Hernaiz was the Orioles’ fifth-round pick in the 2019 draft and last week was elevated to Oakland’s 40-man roster. Prieto, a Cuban refugee, signed as an international free agent in January 2022 and doesn’t need a place on the 40-man roster yet.

Lucas and Rom briefly pitched in the majors late in 2023 but weren’t thought to be in the Orioles’ plans for 2024.

To acquire Burnes or Cease, the Orioles will have to offer higher-quality prospects than the crop that brought the Orioles Irvin, Fujinami and Flaherty. Of the three, only Irvin remains with the team.

In Part 2 of last week’s mailbag, I was asked who was considered untouchable among the prospects. I agreed with reader Phil Cooke that 19-year-old shortstop Jackson Holliday, the overall top pick in the 2022 draft, was an untouchable. I suggested that outfielders Heston Kjerstad and Colton Cowser, the 2020 and 2021 top picks, were, too.

Enrique Bradfield, Jr., the Orioles’ first-round selection in 2023 and a speedy outfield prospect, is someone I think wouldn’t be available in a trade, either.

Hernaiz and Prieto were good infield prospects, but with Jordan Westburg, who came to the Orioles in June, Holliday, Joey Ortiz, Connor Norby and Coby Mayo, there didn’t seem to be room for them on the Orioles.

I don’t think the Orioles would want to trade Cowser or Kjerstad because rightfielder Anthony Santander is a year away from free agency. Leftfielder Austin Hays and centerfielder Cedric Mullins are two seasons away. Cowser and Kjerstad may be needed fairly soon, and while an accomplished starting pitcher, say, Burnes or Cease, is needed, it’s not smart to create another need after you’ve been able to solve one.

Coswer, ranked second on MLB Pipeline’s Top 30 Orioles prospects, and Kjerstad, ranked third, played for the Orioles in 2023, but not enough to gauge their future.

It was a rockier debut for Cowser, who was just 7-for-61 (.115) than Kjerstad, who was 7-for-30 (.233) with two homers and 33 RBIs. Kjerstad was included on the Division Series roster but didn’t play.

Mayo is the fourth-ranked prospect but because he’s a corner infielder, he seems blocked for the moment by the combination of Ryan Mountcastle and Ryan O’Hearn at first, and Gunnar Henderson and perhaps Westburg at third.

Unlike Norby and Ortiz, Mayo didn’t play the entire season at Triple-A Norfolk. With the Tides and Double-A Bowie, Mayo hit .290 with 29 home runs and 99 RBIs and a .974 OPS.

Ortiz, the sixth-ranked prospect behind catcher Samuel Basallo, and Norby the seventh-ranked prospect, could find spots on the Orioles in 2024—if they’re not part of a trade.

In 2023, Ortiz was 7-for-33 (.212) with four RBIs in 15 games with the Orioles none after June 23rd. It was surprising that the Orioles didn’t call up Ortiz at any point in the second half, especially with strong numbers at Norfolk, where he hit .321 with nine home runs and 58 RBIs and an .885 OPS.

Ortiz, the fourth-round pick in 2019, played second base, shortstop and third in his time with the Orioles, and he could be a super-utility player.

Norby played second base with some appearances in left and right field and smacked 21 homers and 92 RBIs with a .290 average and an .842 OPS with the Tides.

There’s no guarantee that Holliday will start the season with the Orioles, and even though shortstop Jorge Mateo is signed for the 2024 season and infielder Ramón Urías was offered a contract, neither is a sure thing to be on the Opening Day roster.

There’s one opening in the infield already with second baseman Adam Frazier departing, and not likely to return, as a free agent.

It will be fascinating to see what executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias is prepared to surrender in a trade for a top starter. Of course, if the Orioles sign a starter, they may be able to keep all their prospects.

Beyond Ortiz and Norby, the Orioles don’t have any top middle infield prospects that are close to being major league ready. International prospects Leandro Arias (18th), Frederick Bencosme (23rd) and Luis Almeyda (25th) are far from the majors, though Bencosme played at High-A Aberdeen last season.

Elias also could deal from his outfield prospect stock. Dylan Beavers is the Orioles’ ninth-ranked prospect. Jud Fabian is ranked 13th, and the Orioles have two third base hopefuls, Mac Horvath and Max Wagner, ranked 12th and 14th.

There may not be room for all these players on the Orioles within the next year or two, and their performances in the higher minor leagues may eliminate them from consideration, but it’s possible that you could see some of these young players headed out of the Orioles’ system in exchange for much-needed pitching.

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