The free agent season is officially underway, and before everything starts to get insane with rumors and theories and mystery teams buying everybody up, I want to look at some of the interesting situations to look forward to.
And few teams can promise a situation as interesting as the Baltimore Orioles. After years of dormancy, the O’s burst back on to the scene this year, winning 93 games and taking the Yankees to a decisive Game 5 of the ALDS. A record like that is promising, but the Orioles would be ill-advised to rest on their laurels.
In general, a lot of things have to go right in any winning season. Expecting all of them to go right two years in a row can be problematic. The Orioles, especially, would have issues.
They scored only nine more runs than they allowed last season. With a run differential like that, the Orioles would normally be expected to carry an 82-80 record. A lot of the difference had to do with their historic 29-9 record in one-run games.
Maybe they can repeat some of that, but at the same time, a nine-game swing in expectations is a lot to make up. The Orioles will need to try to actively improve this offseason to stay somewhat competitive. But they also can’t set back rebuilding too much by trading away the farm, or splurge too much on budget.
So instead, I have several different proposals for what the Orioles could do to stay in the race for the AL East, and maybe even improve.
I’ll start with the smaller, more manageable suggestions first. First, and entirely in-house suggestion: move Manny Machado to shortstop and move JJ Hardy to second or third base.
Hardy (deservedly) won a Gold Glove this year for his work at shortstop. However, long-term, Machado is the Orioles’ future. Integrating him into his long-term place of the team should come first. Worst case, you have a Gold Glove shortstop manning another position, which will only help the defense.
Also, having a full season of Machado will increase the Orioles overall talent. Just to get a good baseline, in 2012, Fangraphs had the Orioles with a total team Wins Above Replacement (WAR) of 31.9. A replacement level team, in general, can be expected to win around 50 games, so every WAR you get above that adds on. That puts the Orioles with an estimated 82 wins (50 Replacement Wins + 32 WAR) last year (same as their record based on runs scored an allowed, conveniently).
Manny was worth 1.3 WAR in 51 games last season, so expecting an additional two wins over a full season doesn’t seem out of the question. He’s replacing Wilson Betemit, who was worth about half a win. That leaves us with a rough, back-of-the-envelope total of 83.5 wins for 2013.
We’ll update this as we go along.
Nate McLouth was a great pickup late last year, providing 1.3 WAR in 55 games. However, I would be very cautious about handing him the 2013 starter job in left field; he was more or less awful for the 2.5 seasons right before that.
I have no problem with Baltimore bringing him back, but I wouldn’t be comfortable with him as a first choice.
The team should be looking for outfielders, then. And the best place might be to look for a center fielder, as the position has much more depth than corner outfield on this year’s free agent market.
What to do about Adam Jones and Nick Markakis? In all honesty, shifting Adam Jones to right field and Nick Markakis to left would probably make the most sense. Neither is a great fielder where they are, according to most defensive stats, so switching to an easier position should help both of them contribute more.
As for their replacement, Angel Pagan has been more than solid over the last three years. And, at 31, he probably won’t command the years or dollars that Josh Hamilton, Michael Bourn or BJ Upton will. A two- or three-year deal might not be bad, and though I’m not sure what he’d get per year, competing with those three should drive his price down.
Pagan was worth 4.8 WAR last year. McLouth, Nolan Reimold and the rest of the team’s third outfielders last season were worth about 1 WAR. A conservative estimated influx of 3.5 WAR (from both Pagan and a full season from Markakis) gets the team up to 87 Estimated Wins.
If the team wants to make a risky bet, they could always try to bring in Grady Sizemore at the minimum and hope for big returns. However, that doesn’t seem to be particularly wise, given Sizemore’s recent history.
Depending on where J.J. Hardy is moved, that leaves another hole in the infield. Second base was actually a net negative for the Orioles last year; the four players who spent time there combined for -2.5 WAR.
There aren’t a lot of big second or third basemen on the market, but with that low a bar to clear, Baltimore doesn’t have to bring in any big names. Someone like Brandon Inge or Jeff Keppinger could pay dividends. Keppinger has more versatility, and was better last year (2.8 WAR to Inge’s 1.6, most of which was from fielding).
Even a pessimistic guess of an extra one or two WAR could be close to a three- to four-WAR swing. A low-end estimate could put the team up to 90-91 Predicted Wins.
Chris Davis can take over first base or designated hitter. Either way, it doesn’t matter; non-Davis first basemen and DHs came out to a net total of about 0.2 WAR.
There are two interesting moves the Orioles could make.
First, they could try a buy-low, one-year deal on Melky Cabrera. I’ve seen one year, $7 to $8 million deal thrown around as rough estimates.
In his 113 games last year, Melky was worth 4.6 WAR, way in surplus of what $8 million would normally bring. Even assuming he goes back to his numbers with the Royals in 2011, he was worth 4.2 WAR that year. A really conservative guess of three extra WAR could put the Orioles all the way up to 93-94 WAR.
If Melky proves too morally repugnant for the reader, or if too many teams get the same idea, Lance Berkman could be worth looking into. A full-time DH gig would suit him well at this point. He’s crushed the ball when healthy; he has a 140 OPS+ over the past three seasons. If he’s healthy (and a DH job would help in that regard) and doesn’t have to field as much (again, DH), he could realistically prove a two- to three-WAR increase.
Overall, this gets us into the 92 to 94 win range.
A full season of the year-end rotation could probably suffice, since we’ve already put so much work into the position players. Adding a big-time starter like would cost a lot of money, and since the Orioles already have several solid pieces, there isn’t really another way to upgrade the rotation.
As is, they can pull from Jason Hammel, Wei-Yin Chen, Chris Tillman, Miguel Gonzalez, Steve Johnson, Zach Britton, Tommy Hunter, Jake Arrieta and Brian Matusz. Hammel, Chen, Tillman and Britton all should probably hold on to their slots. Hunter, Matusz and Arrieta all did well in the bullpen and can fill in for injuries.
Miguel Gonzalez or Steve Johnson are probably in line for the fifth spot. I’m not sure how much faith to put in either; they could be good. I suppose if you want a little more stability, you could try and entice someone like Joe Saunders or Shaun Marcum to come serve as a solid number five. I’m not sure how much they’d cost, or how much of an upgrade they would be.
Either way, having the best pitchers for a full year will probably help a little. We might be able to add one to two wins in general just for keeping the best talent on the field. This could conceivably get the Orioles into the 93 to 96 estimated wins. That’s a very solid place to be in; it gives you a reasonable buffer zone to account for things like injury.
That gives us total changes that look like so:
The Rotation would look something like
Gonzalez/Johnson/Arrieta/Matusz/Hunter/whatever five starter you think would fit here
And that’s only using in-house and free agent options. Trades could open up a new dimension. However, the Orioles really shouldn’t be giving up top prospects, so they’ll have to be dealing from positions of depth on the major league team.
That leaves me with only two scenarios. They have two shortstops in a time when most teams don’t. However, with such a hole at second base, it makes little sense to trade Hardy instead of moving him unless he brings back an actual second basemen of equal or greater value (or a package of players worth more overall).
The only other area of depth would seem to be the bullpen.
You wouldn’t want to blow the whole thing up, but relievers are volatile creatures. If you can get someone to overpay for a reliever, then take it. In that scenario, Jim Johnson might be the most likely to bring back an overpay.
Despite his 51-save season, he’s 29 and doesn’t strike out as many batters as you would hope to see in a closer. If you could turn him into a solid starter, an infielder or even a solid prospect or two, you take that.
Maybe the Cardinals would trade Matt Carpenter and a mid-level prospect for him. Maybe the Angels will give up one of their middle infielders. Other teams like the Brewers or Phillies will probably be looking to compete, but had below-average bullpens last year. The Orioles should definitely be listening to offers this year, though.
Without Johnson, you could always promote a reliever already on the team to closer. If you go with a free agent, try not to get anyone too expensive—maybe see if you can get Joakim Soria, Ryan Madson or Francisco Rodriguez on the cheap.
Maybe stay to bargain-bin types like Matt Lindstrom, Mike Adams or Koji Uehara. But it’s not worth breaking the bank over-the main areas to focus on should remain the rotation and the starting lineup.
With the strong 2012 season, the important thing for the Orioles is not to lie down. They need to actively try and improve for the future, without banking the farm if possible.
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