An Early Look at the Baltimore Orioles' Top 6 Offseason Targets
We are now in September.
The MLB regular season has just one month remaining and then it's off to the playoffs. The Baltimore Orioles currently hold a 9.5-game lead in the AL East and are looking to surpass the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim for the best record in baseball.
With the AL East all but locked up, O's fans are anxiously awaiting the home team's second playoff appearance in the last three seasons. Until that point, though, it's about chasing down the top record in baseball and not letting their division rivals anywhere near the top of the division.
So, let's take an early peek at which players the Orioles could target come the offseason. Keep in mind that this is all speculation and not backed by any substantial rumors.
J.J. Hardy, Shortstop
I'm going to go ahead and get all of the guys the O's will want to try to retain this offseason out of the way first.
The O's have had J.J. Hardy manning the shortstop position for the last four seasons, and Hardy is one of the most important players on this team. He's the field general in the infield, and his bat has been consistently productive, even with his home run numbers down this season. He's one of the best offensive shortstops in the game in terms of consistent run production.
His three-year, $22.25 million deal that ends this season has been a steal for the O's, and he'll likely fetch more on the free-agent market, though not significantly more.
The O's need to be, and will be, in on Hardy this winter simply because of how well he fits into this team. Add to that how valuable his defense on the left side of the infield is, especially when you consider that third baseman Manny Machado will be coming back from a second knee surgery, and it seems like a no-brainer.
However, the O's can't overpay for a 32-year-old shortstop who could potentially be starting an offensive decline. Will Hardy accept a discount to stay with the Birds? The demand for quality shortstops is high since quality shortstops are scarce. And Hardy's agents surely realize that.
Nelson Cruz, Outfielder/Designated Hitter
In February, the O's signed Nelson Cruz to a one-year, $8 million deal.
Thirty-six homers later, that deal looks like a pretty great steal.
A few days ago, it was reported that the O's and Cruz's representatives have had some discussions regarding a contract extension for the slugger. And while Cruz has said he doesn't want to focus on that but on the playoff race at hand, he did show a desire to remain in Baltimore.
With the year that Cruz is having, it'll be tough for the O's to bring him back due to high demand as well as money. Cruz is sure to land some big money this winter, and with other pressing needs for the O's, they may not be able to afford him.
They'll definitely try to make room for him in their budget, as Cruz has proven to be a serious run producer and a positive clubhouse presence.
Nick Markakis, Outfielder
In a way, Nick Markakis may be the most important piece that the O's bring back.
Currently the longest-tenured Oriole, Markakis made his debut in 2006 and has been the O's regular right fielder since the end of that season.
He missed the postseason in 2012 due to an injury suffered in September of that year and surely will relish in the chance to play in October this season.
Markakis is a bit of a quiet guy, but he leads by example and is an extremely important clubhouse figure for the club, as well as one of owner Peter Angelos' favorite guys on the team.
However, Markakis isn't worth the $17.5 million option the O's have on him for the 2015 season, so the right fielder will likely be allowed to hit free agency, where the Birds will look to bring him back.
Hopefully, the O's will be able to keep Markakis' keen batting eye and respected presence in Baltimore for years to come.
Victor Martinez, Designated Hitter
Victor Martinez is a guy the O's have liked for a while.
The O's made a run at Martinez prior to him signing with the Detroit Tigers heading into the 2011 season. They could decide to make another run for him this winter, but only if they're not able to bring back Cruz.
A switch-hitter, Martinez isn't exactly known for enormous power like Cruz is, as Martinez's 28 homers this season are a career high and the first time he's hit more than 20 over the fence since 2009.
Martinez is more so known for his ability to hit for average, drive in runs on a consistent basis and get on base. His career .306 average and .372 OBP would look incredible batting third in the Orioles lineup, right in front of Adam Jones.
He'll likely command a lot on the open market after a career year this season (.332 batting average, .402 OBP), so it's likely that the O's will be outbid. Still, Martinez will be 36 this December, and teams may be a bit wary of signing an aging vet to a big deal.
Billy Butler, Designated Hitter
Another player the O's have liked for a long while, Billy Butler would only be an option should the O's fail to re-sign Cruz.
Butler is good at smacking doubles and homers and getting on base. And though he's regressed a little the last couple of seasons, he's still a force to be reckoned with when he's at the plate.
The man they refer to as "Country Breakfast" would also likely present a cheaper alternative to a player such as Cruz or Martinez, giving the O's more payroll flexibility to fill other needs.
With a career .360 OBP, Butler would definitely provide a nice presence hitting anywhere in the middle of the O's lineup.
Don't be surprised if you see the O's tied to Butler once again this offseason.
Jed Lowrie, Shortstop
Jed Lowrie is an interesting name for the O's to consider this winter.
As I stated before, Hardy will be in high demand because the shortstop market is pretty bare, especially when it comes to quality shortstops. It's possible the O's won't be able to bring Hardy back, so if that's the case, Lowrie will certainly make their list of possible replacements.
While Lowrie's bat isn't horrible (career .259 batting average, .329 OBP), he's having a bit of a down year for the Oakland Athletics (.239 average, five homers), though that could be due to injury as he did spend some time on the disabled list earlier this season.
He did smack 16 homers for the Houston Astros in 2012, as well as 15 homers with Oakland last season, so he's definitely capable of being somewhat of an impact bat. And he can play second base, shortstop and third base, giving any team that signs him a bit of flexibility.
Lowrie will definitely be a guy who draws a lot of attention this offseason.