Following the Orioles’ regular-season loss to the Texas Rangers, several of their impending free agents were asked if they wanted to remain with the club in 2024.
Veterans Adam Frazier and Aaron Hicks said they did — it would have been unwise to say otherwise — but whether that’s the case may be more up to the Orioles’ roster than the players.
“Of course, man,” Hicks said earlier this month. “This squad is full of young talent that obviously has the grit and talent to make it to the postseason. This opportunity for them to play in the postseason for the first time is great. I think this would be a great landing spot for me if I had the opportunity.”
“I would like to be,” Frazier said afterward Game 3 loss in the American League Division Series. “Like I said, there are a lot of special baseball players in this room, a lot of great people. It makes it easier to go to work every day. … I would definitely like to continue to be a part of it.”
The squad that won 101 games in 2023 will mostly be back next year, but there will be new names and faces — a fact that veteran pitcher Kyle Gibson expressed after the ALDS sweep.
“In the grand scheme of things, we will never be together again,” Gibson said. “So you try to enjoy every moment you can and I think we’ve done a really good job of maximizing the fun and the relationships that we have. But these guys are going to be friends for a long time, whether I’m on their team or not.”
Last offseason, the Orioles did not bring back veterans Jordan Lyles, Rougned Odor and Robinson Chirinos, but instead added Gibson, Frazier and James McCann, whom they acquired in a trade with the New York Mets. Could the same thing happen this offseason?
Hicks, Frazier and Gibson are three of the Orioles’ five impending free agents, along with right-handers Shintaro Fujinami and Jack Flaherty. MLB free agency opens five days after the end of the World Series, but that window allows the Orioles to negotiate with their free agents. Here’s who could return in 2024, ranked from least to most likely.
It’s not hard to remember Frazier’s importance to the 2023 Orioles.
He was perhaps the best Clutch racket on the team with the most clutches in the AL. The Orioles’ success with runners in scoring position and in high-leverage situations propelled them to the top of the AL East, and many of the club’s biggest hits came from Frazier’s bat. His 13 home runs and 60 RBIs were both career highs. Still, Frazier, whom the Orioles signed last offseason for $8 million, is unlikely to return in 2024.
He will enter his age-32 season coming off a season in which he hit .240 with a .696 OPS, and the Orioles have plenty of infield options to replace him. Infielders Gunnar Henderson and Jordan Westburg are already in the big leagues, top-100 prospect Joey Ortiz debuted in 2023 and second baseman Connor Norby posted impressive numbers in Triple-A. Oh, and 19-year-old Jackson Holliday is also waiting in the wings and hoping Earn a spot on Baltimore’s Opening Day roster.
It’s time for the club’s roster of young players to fully take over the Orioles’ infield.
Like Frazier, Flaherty’s return would be a surprise.
The Orioles traded away three prospects at the trade deadline who were ranked in the organization’s top 20 – but outside the top 10 – by Baseball America for Flaherty, but the right-hander fell through. The former St. Louis Cardinal posted a 6.75 ERA in 34 2/3 innings with the Orioles and lost his spot in the starting rotation.
However, due to its poor performance, its price has dropped. Orioles executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias has yet to hand out a multi-year contract to a free agent during his tenure, and given Flaherty’s struggles, it’s possible he accepts a one-year deal to get his career back on track, before testing the market again.
If the Orioles do bring back a starting pitcher, it’s more likely to be Gibson than Flaherty.
The $10 million that Baltimore gave Gibson last offseason to stabilize its rotation was the largest contract Elias has given to a free agent since taking over the Orioles’ front office in November 2018. This money was mostly well spent, as Gibson pitched 192 innings and led the team with 15 wins.
But he didn’t have the full recovery season he and the Orioles were hoping for, as the 11-year veteran posted a 4.73 ERA. That could put Gibson in the same boat he was in last winter: He was looking for a one-year deal to provide veteran support for a rotation.
Given his steady presence this year, it’s possible the Orioles see another year of Gibson. However, it’s more likely that another pitcher will be brought in to bolster the rotation, or left-hander John Means is expected to do so Start spring training healthy and ready for a full workload, will serve as a veteran leader of the rotation. Without Gibson, the Orioles have at least seven rotation candidates – Means, Kyle Bradish, Grayson Rodriguez, Dean Kremer, Cole Irvin, Tyler Wells and D.L. Hall — as well as the club’s Nos. 2, 3 and 4 pitching prospects (Cade Povich, Chayce McDermott and Justin Armbruester) in Triple-A.
Of the Orioles’ five outstanding free agents, Hicks performed best.
After a dismal final three seasons with New York, the veteran outfielder signed with Baltimore in late May after being released by the Yankees. He then rejuvenated his career by being one of the Orioles’ best hitters over the final four months of the season, posting a .381 on-base percentage and an .806 OPS, despite missing some time with two stints on the injured list.
A switch-hitting outfielder with a plus arm who can play all three spots is attractive to any team’s bench, especially an Orioles club with outfielders Austin Hays and Cedric Mullins that has dealt with a slew of injuries. With the Yankees paying his salary through 2025, Hicks will likely be signed to the league minimum wherever he goes, making him a candidate to return to Baltimore but also a low-cost option for the rest of the league .
Like Frazier, Hicks’ presence would likely block a candidate deserving a spot in the big leagues, as young players Colton Cowser and Heston Kjerstad both debuted in 2023. During Elias’ season-ending press conference, he was asked if it was possible for both left-handed hitting outfielders to make the Orioles’ opening night roster. His answer: “Yes.”
Similar to his unpredictable performance, Fujinami could very well be the least likely on this list.
His inconsistency since joining the Orioles via trade in July has been difficult to overcome, with the flamethrower being a high-leverage option at times and only being used in blowouts at others. He posted a 4.85 ERA in 29 2/3 innings with the Orioles and finished the season so poorly that he was left off the ALDS roster.
Fujinami has said he wants to be a starter, but it’s unlikely an MLB team will give the Japan native that chance. As a backup player hoping for a bounce-back season, he’ll likely be one of the cheapest of the Orioles’ five free agents.
His volatility is frustrating, but the potential remains, and with closer Félix Bautista sidelined for all of 2024, it would make sense to pursue Fujinami’s potential. Amid his struggles, there was a dominant stretch in which he posted a 1.35 ERA in 13 1/3 innings with 16 strikeouts versus just two walks. The 29-year-old also adjusted well to the Orioles’ clubhouse and his colleagues in the bullpen, praising them for calming him down and giving him the confidence to throw more strikes.
Still, it’s likely that Fujinami will play elsewhere next year and that this offseason will be similar to last, with none of the Orioles’ free agents returning.
Baltimore Sun reporter Nathan Ruiz contributed to this article.