After spending big and failing to make a legitimate impact in the American League East, the O's have restarted their rebuilding process and have an outstanding core that is very close to something special.
The Orioles' front office is drooling over the fact that local product Mark Teixeira will be filing for free agency in under two months time, making him the cornerstone of what should be an exciting young team.
Big trades were the modus operandi of the Orioles 2008 offseason, which should not change too much for the coming winter. The team should continue to shed veterans with little long-term use and continue to filter in the organization's youngsters.
All of that may be easier said then done, as the Orioles will struggle to keep runs off of the board three out of five nights. However, with the top-tier arms that are coming through the system, namely Chris Tillman, David Hernandez, and first-round pick Brian Matusz, all of whom could see some time with the O's in 2009.
The major issue with the Orioles is a lack of long-term options for their middle infield. Unfortunately the market this offseason does not provide similar relief, which means the O's will have to go outside of the organization.
This is not a major problem, as the club has a few relatively impressive trade chips to move this offseason in order to clear some salary for future improvements. None of the players are truly overpriced, thus each should be able to be moved.
The first player to get the axe should be Ramon Hernandez. Hernandez is owed $8M next year, with a 2010 club option of $8.5M or a $1M buyout. In other words, a club could have him for one year at $9M, which is not terribly overpriced, considering the market for catchers this offseason, although that is dependent on the amount of "sellers' league wide.
The Red Sox, Jays, Tigers, Mets, Brewers, and Astros could all be in the market for Hernandez. Scott Sizemore, of the Detroit Tigers, is a player I would target. His power and speed potential is limited; however, he could develop into a Placido Polanco or Mark Grudzielanek type.
The team would also pocket the $9M owed to Hernandez while opening a spot for super prospect Matt Wieters.
Next on the chopping block would be Melvin Mora. Mora has had an outstanding second half, which has helped salvage his season and increase the value he owned entering this year.
Mora has a similar contract to Hernandez and could be owned for a single-season payment of $9M. If Mora duplicates his 2008 season, there's little reason to believe a team wouldn't pick up his option.
The Indians would be a good fit for Mora, although there is a lot of immediate alternates within the organization. Another option could be the Brewers, if they are willing to move Taylor Green. Maybe throwing in Jamie Walker could get the deal done.
Aubrey Huff and Brian Roberts are the players that presumably come with the highest price tag and are players whom would warrant the largest haul. For Huff, it would have to be an American League team that takes him on, as he would probably struggle as an everyday fielder in the National League.
Tampa Bay could afford to take him back, as they will lose Hinske and could use the upgrade over Floyd. I would kick the tires of Reid Brignac.
We have all heard the rumors about Brian Roberts being traded to the Cubs. While that possibility cannot be ruled out, it appears the two front offices are unable to hammer out a deal. An ideal fit, in my opinion, would be for Roberts to head to the Cardinals.
In return, the Orioles would do well to land 24-year old corner infielder Allen Craig and Jamie Garcia—that may be shooting a little high; however, the discussions alone may scare the Cubs into offering a better deal.
These four trades would cut around $30M from the team's 2009 payroll, setting the club up to land Teixeira and allowing for long-term negotiations to begin with Nick Markakis and Adam Jones.
The Orioles already rate as one of the top 10 offensive teams in all of baseball. With Markakis, Wieters, and Jones, the club has some legitimate offensive tools to build around.
If the Orioles can make the moves that I proposed, they would set themselves up nicely for the long term. However, the club will still be lacking enough arms to feel safe in their division, and as we have seen from this season, a club needs pitching to compete.
If the O's could squeak out a couple pitchers from the trades I suggested, they could really position themselves to be on top of the American League East as soon as the 2010 season.
Offensively, if I was running the club, this is how the Orioles would look,
2B - Mark Loretta
CF - Adam Jones
RF - Nick Markakis
1B - Mark Teixeira
LF - Luke Scott
DH - Frank Thomas
SS - Reid Brignac
C - David Ross
3B - Scott Moore
A lot of changes and signings there. Keep in mind, I'm picking all of those players, with the exception of Teixeira, as players who can be had on the cheap. Loretta, for example, has been paid under $3M to be a utility infielder. Certainly he would take slightly less if promised a full-time job.
Frank Thomas is another player that may sign a contract to rebuild his status, as he did in 2006 with the Athletics.
Creating the bench would follow a similar format: fill with cheap veterans and in-house farm hands. Thus, the bench would be made up of Gabe Kapler, Jeff Fiorentino, Eider Torres, Russell Branyan, and Guillermo Quiroz. Keep in mind that many of these players would simply be keeping a seat warm until some of the prospects (Wieters, Sizemore, Green, Craig, Reimold, etc) are ready.
The rotation poses some additional problems and would more or less be an open competition for the third, fourth, and fifth slots. Here is how I see it shaking out:
Guthrie is truly the only pitcher of this core that can be counted on. However, that does not mean the rotation is not thick with high-upside talent. Unfortunately for the Orioles, Cabrera, who has some of the most electric stuff in all of baseball, has not been able to harness his stuff. Hopefully Liz does not follow the same path.
David Hernandez is a dark horse and a guy I am shocked that the O's did not give a shot to in September. Sickels rated him as a deep sleeper, and Kevin Goldstein suggested that he is a couple small adjustments from really taking off.
The kid made some strides this season; however, he still needs to figure out his control issues. If the O's give him a shot to win a big-league job, he is capable of doing so in spring, although he's far from a lock.
Another route the Orioles may consider is a rehabbing starter, like the Red Sox did with Bartolo Colon. Jason Jennings, Mark Mulder, and Matt Clement all come to mind. Offer the pitcher a spot in the rotation at a cheap one-year price. If he works, great; if not, the games lost would have went to Garrett Olson, no big deal.
If Mulder could give you three healthy months, he may be an arm that becomes appealing to a contending team.
While the Orioles will have one last season of throwing darts to build their rotation, the bullpen should be relatively strong. This core is young and could see a fair amount of regression, but there is enough talent in this group to remain positive. The bullpen should shake out as follows:
CL - George Sherrill
SU - Chris Ray
RP - Jim Johnson
RP - Jim Miller
RP - Kameron Mickolio
LR - Dennis Sarfate
It will be very nice having Ray back, and it will be interesting to see how he recovers. Getting in a couple innings of work before the end of the season should be the O's goal, although Ray has performed well in his nine minor-league innings, allowing one run while striking out 13.
I would imagine it is only a matter of time before Ray takes the closer job from Sherrill, who has really faded since the All Star break. There are jobs up for grabs here, but this is how I envision the bullpen to shake out.
The Orioles are on their way. I think the trades I mentioned earlier are vital to this team's long-term success. While fans may not appreciate the process, the results are what should be focused on. This team needs to focus on adding infielders and needs to lock up Jones and Markakis.
Waiting is not always the most enjoyable task, but once the Orioles have a rotation headed by Tillman, Hernandez, and Matusz, with Guthrie and Cabrera/Liz the best end-of-rotation starters in the majors, the wait will be well worth it.