Last November, I wrote a column naming four players I thought would be useful targets for Orioles GM Mike Elias to consider as inexpensive free agents. And now a year later, I am doing it again, and you know what, the needs are exactly the same — shortstop and starting pitching.
Last year’s shopping list was led by shortstop Jose Iglesias, so give me a lovely parting gift for that one, as the O’s actually did sign my No. 1 choice. I named two pitchers who I thought would have been a help in steadying the starting staff — Kendall Graveman and Felix Hernandez — and then a catcher in Stephen Vogt.
Graveman was off the board very quickly, so I’m not even sure he was a consideration. Hernandez had a very positive spring training while pitching on a minor-league deal with the Atlanta Braves, but he opted out of playing due to the unknown circumstances surrounding the pandemic. Stephen Vogt had a so-so season in Arizona after signing a two-year, $7 million deal (the second year was actually a vesting option that kicked in) with the Diamondbacks last November.
So, I am back at the drawing board with three names. All three are inexpensive. All three fill needs. Either one of the two starting pitchers would be perfect fits for the Orioles because they check the key boxes: A) cheap, B) upside that could lead to them being a possible trade chip.
Let’s start with the shortstop candidate — Ehire Adrianza, formerly of the Minnesota Twins. I talked about this player with a longtime respected scout who made it clear to me that he rates Adrianza as a plus defender. He also said Adrianza is a terrific guy in the clubhouse. My source said this player is not a full-time 162-game fit, but seeing that I project a full season being about 100-115 games, the switch-hitting Adrianza could certainly give the Orioles 75-80 games.
Looking over his splits, there really is not a great deal of difference which side of the plate he bats from. Adrianza got the most playing time of his career in 2018, hitting .251/.301/.379 with six home runs, 39 RBIs and 42 runs in 366 plate appearances. The 31-year-old is a career .244/.310/.360 hitter.
Adrianza was set to earn $1.6 million this year before the season was shortened due to COVID-19. He could probably be had for one year at a salary between $1.2 million and $1.4 million. He would probably jump at a two-year deal that guarantees him between $3 million and $3.2 million. With his defense and clubhouse reputation, the Orioles could pair him with either Pat Valaika or Richie Martin and cover the position for 2021 and 2022.
He’s not sexy, but once the club dealt Iglesias (due $3.5 million in 2021) — with the obvious options out there being Didi Gregorius, Andrelton Simmons and Marcus Semien — how did you think this would turn out? A couple other names to keep an eye on are former Chicago Cubs shortstop Addison Russell, who carries some baggage and played in the KBO in 2020; Freddy Galvis, a switch-hitter with some pop but whose cost is going to be another peg up from Adrianza, and lastly Adeiny Hechavarria, a flashy fielder who has a career on-base percentage of .291.
As far as starting pitching, let’s begin with a familiar name from last season in King Felix. Hernandez, who will turn 35 in April, was a once great pitcher and possesses a career WAR of 50.1, according to Baseball Reference. The rub is that he’s 26-35 during his last four seasons. It’s rare when a one-time power pitcher can shift in his twilight years to become an actual pitcher who understands the nuances in getting the batter in the box off balance. There’s evidence that Hernandez never accepted that he needed to make that substantive change.
While it’s not a heavy data load, in 13.2 innings in Atlanta Braves camp last spring, he posted a 1.98 ERA, 1.32 WHIP with 14 strikeouts and just five walks. I once saw Fernando Valenzuela pitch for the Orioles at the age of 33 and enjoy a five-start, 41.2-inning stretch in orange and black with a 0.65 ERA and 0.81 WHIP. If Elias could capture that kind of brief lightning in a bottle with King Felix, what’s to say the O’s couldn’t coax a nice return in a midseason deal? Even failing that, I can’t help but believe he’d be an interesting guy to have for one season.
The second pitcher is someone who Elias should be familiar with — right-hander Collin McHugh. Starting his career with a couple cups of coffee with the New York Mets and Colorado Rockies, McHugh was 0-8 in his first 15 MLB appearances. Acquired by the rebuilding Houston Astros between the 2013 and 2014 seasons, he went 48-28 with a 3.70 ERA as a starter from 2014-2017. Some injury issues limited him to just 12 starts in 2017, and some other moves — such as the acquisition of Justin Verlander — pushed McHugh to the bullpen in 2018. He became invaluable to A.J. Hinch, pitching in 58 games (72 innings) with a 1.99 ERA and 0.91 WHIP out of the bullpen in 2018.
McHugh was never healthy in 2019, and the Astros made no attempt to keep him in 2020. The Boston Red Sox signed him to a $600K minor-league deal in spring training, but the season was delayed and McHugh opted out. Now he’s looking for a job for 2021 — and he likely worked with new Orioles pitching coach Chris Holt when both were with the Astros.
Like Hernandez, McHugh would be a bit of a lottery ticket, but at 33, he could also prove to be a 2022 keeper if he pitches well in 2021. Elias might be able to pull a couple young rabbits out of this hat.
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