For most Orioles fans, the 2013-14 offseason has been one of the more frustrating in recent memory. But, with about two weeks left until pitchers and catchers report to spring training, it's not too late for the Birds to salvage their winter with some last-minute acquisitions.
The Orioles might have gotten some good news Jan. 28, when free-agent starting pitcher A.J. Burnett reportedly decided that he will pitch in 2014, according to Travis Sawchik of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Burnett, 37, had been wavering all winter long about whether to return to the majors for a 16th season or announce his retirement.
With Burnett now officially available, he presumably jumps to the top of the Orioles' wish list. The Birds have stated their desire to add a veteran starting pitcher, and Burnett -- a Monkton resident who has a 3.99 career ERA and six years of experience pitching in the American League East -- seems to be a strong potential fit. He likely won't command a massive deal; Burnett has seemingly contemplated retirement every winter for about five straight seasons, so he should be amenable to a short-term, one- or two-year deal. And geographically, the Orioles are the closest team to his home, which would give him the chance to spend more time with his family.
Burnett, who earned $16.5 million each year during the past five seasons as part of a five-year contract he signed with the Yankees in 2008, could be looking for a comparable salary in 2014. And while the Orioles have a history of shying away from expensive contracts for free-agent starting pitchers, they might be more willing to shell out that kind of money for a short-term deal rather than a three- or four-year pact. The Orioles certainly haven't spent money on much else this winter, so why not dip into the vault now?
Burnett, barring a collapse, would represent a much-needed upgrade to the Orioles' rotation. Although he struggled during his final two years with the Yankees -- posting ERAs of 5.26 and 5.15 in 2010 and 2011, respectively -- he found his footing after getting traded to the Pirates, putting up a 3.51 mark in 2012 and 3.30 in 2013. Granted, it's generally easier to pitch in the National League, and a return to the AL would likely hurt Burnett's numbers somewhat.
But based on Burnett's ERA+ (his ERA compared with the league average), he's been a solidly above-average starting pitcher during every full season of his career except for that two-year blip with the Yankees. In 2013, Burnett posted the best strikeouts-per-nine-innings ratio of his career (9.8), indicating that he still has swing-and-miss stuff. And after struggling with injuries for the first half of his career, Burnett has remained relatively durable during the past six years, making at least 30 starts and pitching at least 186 innings each season.
The Orioles have reportedly also maintained a dialogue with free-agent pitcher Bronson Arroyo, who spent the past eight seasons with the Reds. Arroyo, 36, brings his own advantages and disadvantages compared with Burnett. Arroyo is the more hittable of the two -- he has allowed 9.2 hits per nine innings during his career compared with Burnett's 8.2, and has a 5.8 K/9 rate compared with Burnett's 8.3 -- but Arroyo also has better control, issuing 2.5 walks per nine compared with Burnett's 3.7.
Perhaps the biggest selling point on Arroyo is his reliability. He has been the pinnacle of health -- a rarity these days for pitchers -- and is a proven innings eater, throwing 200 or more innings during eight of the last nine seasons (he fell one inning short in 2011). For an Orioles staff that cycled through 14 different starting pitchers last year -- only of one whom (Chris Tillman) took every turn in the rotation -- a workhorse like Arroyo would be a welcome sight.
But then there's the issue of home runs. Arroyo is one of the most homer-prone pitchers in the majors, having allowed a league-worst 32 blasts in 2013, two years after being torched for 46 dingers in 2011 (four shy of the major league record). Arroyo has surrendered 26 or more homers for nine straight years and has a career rate of 1.2 home runs per nine innings. Part of the problem is that he's been pitching at Cincinnati's homer-friendly Great American Ball Park for eight years, but Oriole Park at Camden Yards is a homer-happy haven itself, so joining the Birds likely wouldn't cure Arroyo's gopher ball issue. If the O's were to land Arroyo, they'd just have to hope that his positive attributes would outweigh the baseballs that would inevitably fly out of the park.
Burnett and Arroyo aren't the only starting pitchers remaining on the free-agent market. Two prominent hurlers -- Ubaldo Jimenez and Ervin Santana -- remain unsigned as well. Both are younger than Burnett and Arroyo and likely have a little more left in the tank, but both are asking for significant, multi-year contracts, the kind that the O's haven't showed interest in paying. Additionally, the Orioles would lose their first-round draft pick if they signed either Jimenez or Santana, and the O's have been hesitant to do so.
So the Orioles' most realistic starting pitching options come down to Burnett and Arroyo. If the O's can sign only one, my vote would be for Burnett -- he has a better repertoire than Arroyo, whose home run propensity could potentially be a powder keg at Camden Yards. Also, Burnett likely won't command as expensive a contract as Arroyo, who is reportedly seeking a three-year deal.
But if the Orioles are willing to get a little daring … why not sign both? Burnett and Arroyo would both be upgrades to the Birds' questionable rotation, which currently features major holes behind Tillman, Wei-Yin Chen and Miguel Gonzalez. Burnett and Arroyo could slide nicely into two spots, pushing Bud Norris to the bullpen -- where he'd likely be more effective than he would be in the rotation -- and providing valuable innings and depth.
In reality, the Orioles likely won't sign both. They might not sign either. But bringing both Burnett and Arroyo aboard could make many Orioles fans feel more optimistic after an otherwise dismal winter.