The Orioles’ search for a starting pitcher to upgrade their rotation took a major hit Friday when right-hander Bronson Arroyo -- one of the club’s top offseason targets -- chose the Arizona Diamondbacks over the Orioles.
The two sides agreed to a two-year deal that will pay the veteran starter a guaranteed $23.5 million and could be worth $30 million if Arizona picks up a club option for 2016.
Personally, I believed that Arroyo was the best available fit for the Orioles. Even though he turns 37 years old this month, his track record of durability -- he has pitched at least 199 innings in each of the last nine seasons -- is exactly what the Orioles need, an experienced frontline starter who can go deep into games every fifth day.
I was told Friday that the Orioles’ final offer was a competitive one and that, ultimately, Arroyo decided he wanted to remain in the National League, where he has pitched the past eight seasons with the Cincinnati Reds and 11 of his 14 seasons overall.
As much as I’ve heard that the Orioles' recent success has made Baltimore a more attractive landing spot for free agents, competing in the rough-and-tumble American League East seems to still be playing against the club.
Arroyo had success earlier in his career pitching in the American League East with the Boston Red Sox, flourishing under new Orioles pitching coach Dave Wallace there and winning a World Series in 2004.
Another free-agent target, right-hander A.J. Burnett, would like to stay close to his home in Monkton, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the Orioles have an advantage to sign Burnett.
At this point, it seems like he’s more likely to remain in the National League. He could be a fit for the Washington Nationals or Philadelphia Phillies -- or a return to Pittsburgh, where he was 26-21 with a 3.41 ERA with the Pirates, could still come to fruition if the price is right.
Like Arroyo, Burnett had some success in the AL East earlier in his career. In three seasons with the Toronto Blue Jays, he was 38-26 with a 3.94 ERA, including an 18-win season in 2008. He then struggled with the New York Yankees, going 34-35 with a 4.79 ERA in the three years.
So where does this leave the Orioles? With Arroyo off the board, if they can’t land Burnett, they will take a harder look at Ervin Santana and Ubaldo Jimenez, but both come tied to draft pick compensation and would likely require a deal of three or more years, which is a commitment the Orioles have been hesitant to make in the past.
The Orioles have also shown interest in South Korean pitcher Suk-min Yoon, but it’s not clear whether he fits the team as a starter or reliever.
That then takes the Orioles to a group of lesser-known free-agent starters that includes Paul Maholm, Chris Capuano, Aaron Harang or Joe Saunders, but none of them upgrade the rotation like the above-mentioned names would. Those kind of acquisitions likely won't appease the fan base either.
One thing is certain. Orioles fans are waiting for a move. They’ve been waiting all offseason, and since Orioles executive vice president Dan Duquette promised the club would spend more money last month and also said the team can reach the $100 million threshold, that places more pressure on those in The Warehouse to make a move.
Now that Fernando Rodney is off the market – he agreed to a two-year, $14 million deal with the Seattle Mariners this week -- it’s looking more like that the Orioles will fill the closer's role with an internal candidate.
They still could add another pitcher for the bullpen, especially because left-handed relief is a concern beyond Brian Matusz. But it appears that the ninth inning will go to either Tommy Hunter, Darren O’Day or newcomer Ryan Webb -- or a combination of all three -- at least initially.
There are concerns about all three. Hunter has never closed before, the club was hesitant to use him three days in a row and left-handers hit .294 against him last season.
Left-handed hitters also saw success against O’Day, hitting .309 against him in 2013. But over his career, O’Day has had better success against lefties, holding them to a .250 clip, and he will go into spring training with focus on improving his changeup in order to get left-handed hitters out more consistently.
Webb, who signed a two-year, $4.5 million deal in December after he was nontendered by the Miami Marlins, is a sinkerball pitcher who draws a lot of groundballs, much like traded closer Jim Johnson. That could play well given the Orioles' strong defensive infield, but Webb has also never closed before and has yet to pitch very many high-pressure innings.
Orioles manager Buck Showalter said it often last year: It takes a special pitcher to close out one-run leads in the AL East, and he will find out whether one of those three can do it early this season.
Having said all that, the greater concern, however, might be the left-handed bullpen situation. Like last season, Matusz will have the opportunity to compete for a rotation spot, but he might land back in the bullpen by necessity. He held left-handers to a .168 average last year and has had equal success over his career, so his value to the team is greater in the bullpen.
Being without left-handed reliever Troy Patton -- who is on the restricted list and will serve a 25-game suspension for testing positive for a banned stimulant -- doesn’t help. While Patton hasn’t been overly effective against left-handers, the simple fact that he is a southpaw in the bullpen forces opponents to alter their lineup.
Left-hander T.J. McFarland is likely destined for the Triple-A rotation. The club signed left-hander Kelvin De La Cruz, but he has never pitched in the majors. Left-hander Mike Belfiore had a solid season in Triple-A and Chris Jones is intriguing after holding left-handers to a .196 average last season, mostly in Triple-A. Left-hander Tim Berry is highly regarded in the organization, but he’s still a bit away from the majors.
Still, the Orioles will need one of those to emerge, as well as a closer, for the bullpen to be a strength again in 2014.