After an 85-win season and being eliminated from wild-card contention with just under a week left in the regular season, the Baltimore Orioles have shown that they're a good team who needs some small adjustments to take their game to the next level.
The core of the team is in place. Center fielder Adam Jones, shortstop J.J. Hardy, third baseman Manny Machado, first baseman Chris Davis, and catcher Matt Wieters are key cogs and leaders on a young team hungry for more postseason baseball.
The free agent and trade market won't be overflowing with talent this offseason, but it won't be lacking, either. There are a handful of names who would be good fits on the Orioles' roster and wouldn't break the bank.
These guys are players the Orioles should definitely pursue this winter.
This is a guy I've wanted the O's to make a move for since the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim made him available.
Kendrys Morales is a switch-hitting power hitter who can play first base. He had one fantastic year with the Angels, then experienced unfortunate and freak injuries the following two seasons.
Since then, he's had two good rebound years to prove he's both healthy and capable, making him my favorite offensive target this offseason.
In 2013 with the Seattle Marines, Morales hit .277 with 23 homers and 80 RBI, along with a .336 OBP. Those numbers won't blow anyone's mind, but consider this: Were the O's to sign him as a DH, he'd fit perfectly in the number five spot behind Jones and Davis and in front of Hardy and Wieters.
The O's would finally have a serious number five threat, and Morales' numbers would likely benefit from such an arrangement as he'd be surrounded by capable and threatening hitters. And he could rotate onto the field once or twice a week to give Chris Davis regular rest with some starts at DH.
The area the O's most need improvement offensively is their OBP. While Morales won't stun anyone with an incredible OBP number, his .336 mark last season and career .333 number are both very good. And considering that the O's as a team got on base at a .313 clip ("good" for 19th in baseball) in 2013, Morales' on-base ability would be a big help to the club.
He wouldn't be terribly expensive and it wouldn't take a seven or eight-year deal to sign him. He's the perfect kind of player for the O's to go after.
Just like Morales, I've always liked Matt Garza.
Garza is one of the top pitchers available on the free agent market, so that right there should rule him out of the O's plans. But he's also coming off an injury-shortened season in 2012 and a 2013 where the second half didn't go near as well as the first.
Traded to the Texas Rangers from the Chicago Cubs for four prospects a week before the trade deadline, the Rangers envisioned Garza as that big arm to push them over the top and help them reach the playoffs. Unfortunately for them, though, Garza was mediocre at best, going 4-5 with a 4.38 ERA in 84.1 innings in Texas.
That should only play into the O's favor should they actually decide to pursue him. Garza is a very good pitcher, but not a great one. He's historically been good, but not overwhelming. Those factors help keep Garza a realistic pitcher for the O's to consider.
His career record of 67-67 doesn't help his case at all, though win-loss records are misleading anyway, and his career 3.84 ERA over eight years highlights what I mentioned before: he's a very good pitcher, but not a great one.
The thing I like about Garza is that he's battled-tested in the AL East. For three years with the Tampa Bay Rays, Garza helped lead the Rays to winning seasons, postseason appearances, and plenty of drama. His ERA was below four in all three of those seasons, he finished above 200 innings two of the three years (throwing 184.2 innings his first season there), and he mixed in a no-hitter during that time.
Garza will be 30 in November, so it wouldn't be wise to offer him a contract of too much length. But were the O's to strike a two or three-year pact with Garza for $8-10 million a year, I'd be fairly pleased with that. A rotation fronted by Chris Tillman and Garza, followed by Wei-Yin Chen, Miguel Gonzalez and Bud Norris would be pretty solid. Factor in that the O's think prospects Dylan Bundy and Kevin Gausman can become aces within the next couple of years, and the team would have a strong starting staff.
The O's will have to make some tough decisions regarding their own pending free agents.
Of the players heading for free agency, there are three key guys the O's and their fan base would like to see return to the team:
Left fielder Nate McLouth (pictured, left), second baseman Brian Roberts (pictured, right), and starting pitcher Scott Feldman.
McLouth began his Orioles career last summer, and quickly became a mainstay in the O's lineup and a fan favorite after struggling big time with the Atlanta Braves and then the Pittsburgh Pirates. He signed a one-year, $2 million deal to return to the O's last offseason and further proved he's a player who has been reborn, and a fairly strong season atop the O's lineup where he hit .258 with 12 homers, 36 RBI, and 30 steals may have priced him out of the Orioles future plans, depending on where the club wants to go and what other teams will offer the speedy outfielder.
Roberts, on the other hand, has been an Oriole forever. The longest-tenured current Oriole has 13 seasons under his belt, but the last four have been so riddled with injuries that it's a miracle he strung together 74 healthy games to finish out the 2013 season. Roberts has obviously lost a little in his bat and might not be the best option as a leadoff hitter anymore, he still provides some value as a solid defender with a little pop at the bottom of the order, as he hit eight homers in 265 at-bats in 2013.
A mid-season acquisition, Feldman did exactly what the O's wanted him to do: give the team a chance to win every time out with a solid ERA and eat some innings. He threw 90.2 innings in 15 starts in Baltimore, going 5-6 with a 4.27 ERA, and pitching the team's only complete game of the year, the first shutout of his career. Feldman is one of manager Buck Showalter's favorites, making his return to Baltimore all the more likely.
If McLouth will sign for a reasonable amount of money, he'll be back in Baltimore next year. He's a solid player, but likely would benefit from a platoon role as opposed to a full-time starting role. Other teams could offer him deals that will price him out of Baltimore, but only time will tell in that regard. If the money is right, McLouth will be back.
Roberts, on the flip side, will almost certainly return. He loves the O's, the O's love him, and the fans love B-Rob as well. A reunion is almost certain, as Roberts understand he's not worth the money he used to be, and likely will take a short-term deal with a low-base salary loaded with playing time and performance incentives. Roberts will provide solid depth for the O's infield.
Feldman is a bit trickier of a situation. As I said, Showalter loves him and he provides value as a back-end starter who eats innings with a solid ERA. But he could be worth more than what the O's are willing to pay him. As always, it all depends on the market around him. He could be priced out of Baltimore, or he could be priced right back into the O's Opening Day rotation.
I believe all three would provide value to the O's, but the team definitely shouldn't over pay for any of them. The only one I fully believe will be back is Roberts, but I believe the odds for McLouth and Feldman are good. It will be interesting to see how it unfolds, and the O's would be smart to pursue them.
At 36 years old come the start of the 2014 season, Grant Balfour shouldn't be given a deal longer than two years.
With that said, the O's should be all-in on Balfour.
As a power right-handed reliever, Balfour has put up seasons with an ERA under 3.00 in five of the last six years, the first three with the Rays and the most recent three with the Oakland Athletics. He's been Oakland's closer the last two years, saving 24 games in 2012 and 38 in 2013.
The O's need some bullpen help going into next year, and signing Balfour would be a great start to making that happen. He could help in the late-innings as a setup man or step in at closer should Jim Johnson struggle in that role again in 2014.
Money would be the biggest issue regarding Balfour. As I said, he's had strong seasons five of the last six years, and for four years straight, putting his value through the roof. Even with his age, he'll be highly sought after on the free agent market, driving up his price.
Because of that, I can easily see him being priced out of the Birds' plans, but at the very least he should be pursued by the O's. He would provide some much-needed stability to the back-end of the O's bullpen and some fiery intensity and leadership to a pitching staff made up of mostly young arms.
Pursue Balfour until the price becomes ridiculous, I say.
I'm not Jason Vargas' biggest fan, but it seems like a good amount of O's fans want to see him in black and orange (at least according to the comments left on some of my recent pieces), so let's take a look at this.
Vargas went 9-8 with a 4.02 ERA with the 2013 Angels, making him a solid option as a no. 4 or 5 starter in a rotation. He started 24 games and threw 150 innings, walking 46 and striking out 109.
Nothing about Vargas is fantastic or overwhelming, but he is a pitcher who can get the job done at the back of a rotation. In two of the last four seasons he's pitched to an ERA below four, having a 3.78 number in 2010 and a 3.85 ERA in 2012. And he eats innings, throwing 150 or more in each of the last four years. In fact, he pitched over 200 innings in 2011 and 2012, and reached 192.2 in 2010.
If the O's miss out on resigning Feldman or Feldman gets priced out of the O's plans, Vargas would certainly be a good backup option to help fill out the rotation with some quality back-end depth. He's not going to shock and awe anyone but he will do his job, win around ten games, eat innings, and won't break the bank, though I feel like the $8.5 million he got paid in 2013 is a bit high for a pitcher of his ability.
I see the market for Vargas going one of two ways: either he'll be grossly overpaid and end up signing a big deal for a team desperate for a starter, or he'll be available deep into the offseason and sign a one or two-year deal for reasonable money. Obviously, that second scenario would be most beneficial to the O's, as they'd probably like to attempt to retain Feldman before moving on to another pitcher like Vargas, and would like to keep the money as low as they could, just like any other team would.
Look for Vargas to at least be mentioned in regards to the O's offseason shopping list this winter.