After 68 Wins, What's Ahead for the Baltimore Orioles?
That's the Orioles' record since 1997, the last winning season for the franchise. Only 11 losses (or one more per season) shy of four digits. An average finish of 26.7 games out of first place, and only once (2000) finishing within 20. The Orioles are a mess.
How does this franchise get back on track? This offseason is going to go a long way into showing what the direction of the franchise will be. Will the franchise finally embark on the true rebuilding process it began last year?
Or will it break out the big money and chase down some big-name free agents? Whatever the direction, the road ahead will not be smooth. The Orioles simply don't have the players to immediately return to the top, even if they add some blue chip free agents.
The trades of Erik Bedard and Miguel Tejada last year were the first big moves into rebuilding the Orioles. Unfortunately, they left some pretty massive holes in the lineup, holes that will be hard to ignore this offseason. So to start out, we'll look at what the Orioles need.
The starting rotation is horrendous. Aside of Jeremie Guthrie, none of the regular starters had an ERA under 5.25. The young pitching talent never really panned out, and it left Baltimore to play catch-up in far too many games.
While this strategy actually worked at the beginning of the season, while the Orioles bullpen was dominant and healthy, it's not a plan for long-term, or even season long, success.
Shortstop is the giant hole in the Orioles infield. They lacked a real starter in 2008, instead opting for Alex Cintron, Freddie Bynum, Brandon Fahey, Juan Castro, and Luis Hernandez to all see significant time over the season.
None of them performed very well, with Cintron performing the best at the plate (.276 BA), but struggling in the field (seven errors and only a .953 FLD%). After Ripken and Tejada anchored the lineup from shortstop for the past two decades, it feels awkward for the O's to be in such dire need.
With Kevin Millar a free-agent, Baltimore is in need of either a corner infielder, or a DH. Last year's DH, silver slugger Aubrey Huff, can play both first and third base as well and could find himself as a regular starter at either position.
The team's 2008 leader in errors, Melvin Mora, could potentially move to DH if the O's decide to add a new 3B or turn the reigns over to Oscar Salazar. Ultimately, another body, especially a stronger defensive player, would be very helpful.
Believe it or not, there is one area where the O's are overflowing with talent—veterans with only one year left on their contract. Huff, Mora, Roberts, and Ramon Hernandez are all on their final year of their contracts.
Huff and Mora may have both saved their careers with brilliant seasons at the plate in 2008, and their value probably isn't going to increase much higher than it is now, especially given how Tejada and Bedard were unloaded last year, it would not surprise me to any of these players traded before the season starts and/or during the season.
Given the scenario that the Orioles are in, there are three general scenarios that could play out. Owner Peter Angelos and COO Andy MacPhail decide to spend, spend, spend and end up landing one or two of the big-name free agents in an attempt to return the franchise to semi- competitive play.
The team essentially stays pat and hopes for their current prospects and roster to improve.
Or the team decides to sell and trades away some of its veterans for prospects.
Up until this point, I had avoided saying his name, but it's time to give in. The biggest free agent target for the birds is Mark Teixeira. A Maryland native, and the top rated hitter on the free-agent market, we already know that Orioles are interested (they've already contacted Teixeira's agent Scott Boras).
Of course, the Orioles are far from the only suitor. The Angels want him back, and the Nationals, Red Sox, and Yankees are apparently interested as well. Of course, the Red Sox already have lots of infield talent, and the Yankees just acquired 1B/RF Nick Swisher from the White Sox (although the Yankees also have a hole in RF), so the door is open for the O's to try and make a move.
Even if the Birds are Teixeira's childhood favorite and they offer him an enticing offer, it would be hard to imagine a scenario he would pass up a chance to play on a more competitive team (especially given the amount of money the Angels, Sox, and Yanks can throw his way).
The best hope for the O's is if the Yankees end up grabbing Sabbathia early and the Sox don't unload some of their 1B talent to get one of the Ranger's catchers, then both teams would have less desire for Teixeira. If Angelos is willing to shell out, and perhaps a couple calls from Cal Ripken, seeing him in an Orioles uniform is in the realm of possibility.
The Orioles' other free agent interests seem primarily focused on the needs, starting pitching and shortstop. The big pitcher is A.J. Burnett, who also has Maryland ties. Problem once again is that he's a big target of other teams, essentially the rest of the A.L. East (aside of the Rays) is also in the running for his services.
Burnett is a strike-out machine and can chew up the innings (a massive 221-1/3 IP in 2008) and obviously has tremendous upside. He's easily the sexiest of the Orioles' free agent pitching targets (with or without his nipple rings).
He's also the least proven commodity among the free agent studs. He's injury prone, has already had Tommy John surgery once, and has never been happy playing on mediocre teams. He was asked to leave the 2005 Marlins after he made comments critical of the team.
After only two years and no playoff appearances in Toronto, he decided to once again test the free agent waters. Something about this seems to remind me of Carl Pavano, and I don't think any O's fans are regretting not signing him.
If not Burnett, what starting pitcher should the O's target? Lowe, for one would be a great fit. Lowe has stated he wants to return to the A.L. East (although he really meant Boston). He's proven, he's durable, and he's awesome in the clutch. He'd be an ideal for a 2-3 year deal to anchor the rotation and allow the other pitchers time to progress.
The biggest con will be his price tag, which is sure to be high as the Yankees have already stated he is one of their primary targets.
Other than the top notch pitchers, several mid-level starters could be in consideration. Expect Oliver Perez, Brad Penny, Livan Hernandez, Odalis Perez, and Kip Wells to all be possibilities.
At shortstop the Orioles will likely be active in both of the major free agents, Rafael Furcal and Orlando Cabrera. Furcal is younger and has higher upside, but the market for him is also more competitive and thus he'll be more expensive.
Cabrera is a legitimate possibility, although the Blue Jays are also targeting him, but he's already 34. Even though Cabrera isn't quite the same caliber offensively, given his price and two gold gloves, I think he'd be the better fit.
If the birds can't land either of the major shortstops, look for them to target Cesar Izturis or Adam Everett. Both are solid defensive players, and a solid infield will help any pitching staff. There's also a chance of them contacting Edgar Renteria, but I see that as less likely.
There are also a few rumors floating around about Manny possibly being pursued by the Orioles. He's almost landed in an O's uniform before (there were trade rumors a few years back for a Tejada-Ramirez deal), and while his bat would be a welcome addition to any team, his attitude and salary are steep costs to pay. I could see the Orioles going for him, but I'm hoping they don't end up with him.
Given the free agent market and their available trade bait, the Orioles should have a specific plan going into this winter. I've laid out a list of what I think should be their priorities for the next season.
Lock Up the Talent
MacPhail needs to ensure that the O's young talent is going to stay in Baltimore for the foreseeable future. That means extensions for Markakis, Guthrie, and Jones. Markakis and Jones both need to be in Orioles' jerseys for at least the need five or six years, perhaps an even longer deal for Markakis.
Guthrie, as a pitcher, needs to be signed for a three-to-five year deal as well.
Roberts is a more interesting case. He's both the Orioles' best trade bait and the best player on the team. The two-time All Star is 31 and among the elite at second base. He had 50 steals in 2007 (tied for the AL lead), and followed that up with 40 in 2008.
A switch-hitter with a solid average and the ability to hit doubles (and triples) from the lead-off spot make him an incredibly dangerous offensive weapon. He's been with the O's his entire career, and I'd like to see him remain an Oriole.
The O's aren't going to get a better 2B or a better lead-off hitter in return, so I'd like to see Roberts locked up for another three or four years at least, if not the rest of his career.
Bolster the Rotation
The O's desperately need better starting pitching. A minimum of two solid starting pitchers should be added via free agency or trades, preferably three. This will enable Sarfate and Albers to return to the bullpen, and for the other pitchers to have time to mature in the minors.
Guthrie will obviously remain in the rotation, and likely will be the ace. Daniel Cabrera should join him as well. Even with his control issues and sporadic performances, he's ability to eat up innings and dominance when he's on hot streaks makes him valuable enough to remain a starter.
If Hayden Penn develops to the point where he can pitch in the majors he would be a welcome addition to the rotation as well, but I won't count on it happening this season.
Build for the Future
I don't think anyone thinks that the Orioles are poised to make a serious play-off run in 2009, even if they do land Teixeira, Burnett, and another quality pitcher. Given that, the veteran talent who's contracts are expiring aren't going to do the O's a ton of good in terms of the future.
Huff and Mora are commanding as much value as they ever have, and can probably bring in solid prospects from teams looking for a DH or corner baseman. Mora does have a no trade clause, which might make him hard to move.
The O's should keep Hernandez through the offseason as the starting catcher. Matt Wieters is a stud in waiting, and arguably the best prospect in baseball, but I don't think he's quite ready to start in the majors. Hernandez should hold down the fort and could be solid trade bait around the trade deadline (when Wieters might be ready to jump up to the big time).
With Chris Ray healthy, George Sherill could potentially also be moved to a team in need of a closer and isn't willing to pay for K Rod. He could also be very solid to trade around the deadline. He should only be moved if the O's can get solid value in return.
Luke Scott could find his way to a new team by the end of the 2009 season as well, if Nolan Reimold continues to emerge as a solid outfield prospect. Scott is signed through 2012, so like Sherill, he should only be traded away if the O's can get a decent amount in return.
In order for the Orioles to get better, they can't try and force the issue. That's what they did in 2003, when they signed Tejada, Javy Lopez, and Rafael Palmeiro. That's what they did in 2005 when they traded for Sammy Sosa. That shouldn't be what they try to do this year.
If the Orioles try to rebuild, and do it correctly, they'll likely finish at the bottom of the A.L. East again. Toronto is losing much of their pitching, so they have a chance to jump them if they overachieve, but they'll likely finish with a similar record to 2008.
Ultimately, it's not 2009 that the Orioles fans are hoping for, it's the future beyond that.
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