Despite The Winter Non-Action, Orioles Close To Contention
The two phrases are frustrating to fans. Fans don’t want to hear about budgets or owners killing deals. Fans just want their team to have a plan, execute a plan, and ultimately see that plan come to fruition. In truth, that’s really all anyone could ever ask for: a plan.
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In what has become a frustrating winter, it is a plan that the Baltimore Orioles are perceived to lack. That doesn’t jive with the success that the Orioles have experienced on the field since Buck Showalter was hired. With Showalter on the bench, the Orioles have posted a 281-262 (.517) record in a division that houses three of the best franchises in the sport. The perception of no plan contradicts the stealth acquisition of Chris Davis from the Texas Rangers, an organization that always seems to have a plan.
The perception of not having a plan contradicts the moves of picking up Nate McClouth, Steven Pearce, and Danny Valencia off of the scrap heap and getting production. It also contradicts identifying pitchers such as Miguel Gonzalez, Jason Hammel, Wei-Yin Chen, and Tommy Hunter as pitchers who could succeed in various roles in the American League East. Sometimes perception contradicts reality. Despite not spending big or reeling in a premium player, the Baltimore Orioles are winning with a young, talented core, supplemented by some wise, cost efficient additions.
Despite that success, it seems like the Orioles are really losing the winter hot stove season. Coming off of an 85 win season, the Orioles seemed primed for the next step. With free agency looming for Chris Davis and Matt Wieters, the window with the current core looks to be in perfect position right now. “All” they need to add is a starter, some bullpen help, and one impact bat. At least that’s the perception.
General Manager Dan Duquette seems to be working within the confines of a budget as he had to move closer Jim Johnson in an effort to recoup $10 million. He did just that by netting the once highly touted prospect, Jemile Weeks. Despite perception and the want for the Orioles to act like a big market team, Duquette seemed to have a plan for improvement. He quickly moved on to Grant Balfour to fill the closer role. The deal was nixed as the team supposedly found something wrong with his medicals.
Due diligence is one thing, but backing out of the Balfour deal was bad business. Last season, the Boston Red Sox found something wrong with Mike Napoli’s medicals. They didn’t back out. They re-negotiated and eventually went from a three year deal to a one year deal with incentives. Napoli had a great year and just re-upped with the World Series champions. The Orioles could’ve and should’ve followed that model. If Balfour was the guy they wanted, they could’ve made it work.
Peter Angelos is a polarizing figure in Baltimore. While he seems to be very much hands-off with the organization, he does sign off, as every owner does, on the bigger deals. He has famously stopped many free agent deals or trades. Mike Lowell, AJ Burnett, Paul Konerko, and Aaron Sele are just a few names that Angelos has nixed over the years after his General Manager has agreed to a deal. This appears to be the case with Balfour. Dan Duquette has never backed out of a deal in any of his previous two GM stops. Duquette has always been a General Manager who has acted swiftly, boldly, and has acquired big name talent. All of this points to Angelos. This will impact the Orioles ability to acquire premier free agents.
But, that doesn’t mean the Orioles are going to sink to the AL East cellar. Many owners meddle with their teams. Angelos is no different and when looking at the entire landscape of Major League Baseball, he is hardly the most meddlesome. The worst he can be accused of is not making the big play or trying to look like a big spender, but bidding just low enough not to actually have to pay that contract. And, he seems to be giving his General Manager a budget.
That seems like a dirty word as many believe that the Orioles should be acting like a large market team. It also hurts them that they happen to reside in a division with the Yankees and Red Sox, two teams who constantly spend. Even the Blue Jays have splurged in recent years. It doesn’t help that they dumped Johnson’s contract to the ultimate small market team, the Oakland A’s. But, large market spending doesn’t always win titles. The Rays have been to a World Series. The A’s and Indians have experienced success. The Orioles don’t need to spend with the Yankees and Red Sox in order to contend. They’ve shown that in the past two seasons.
This is where having plan is paramount. The Rays always have a plan. Every move they make always seems to work out. They trade their stars, move parts constantly, and use data like no other organization. The A’s have a plan. Why doesn’t it seem like the Orioles do?
Again, perception seems to be getting in the way. The roster is constructed in a way that has maximized talent. They haven’t been in on big free agents, but they are putting together a quality, productive roster.
In 2013, the Orioles’ offense compiled a 26.6 WAR value, which was fourth best in the American League. They led the league in home runs, were 7th with a .323 wOBA and a 100 wRC+. While they were last in walk percentage, they had the fourth lowest strikeout percentage. In other words, they have an offense that can compete with any team in the league.
That offense doesn’t look to be any worse in 2014. Chris Davis may not reach the 50 home run plateau again, but his 2013 wasn’t a fluke. It was a continuation of his great second half of 2012. He is an upper echelon power hitter. Proof comes from zero fluctuation in his strikeout rate in 2013 as compared to his career mark, but his increased walk rate. With Davis more patient, there is no reason why he can’t produce a .260/.350/.520 line with 40 home runs. There’s no statistical evidence that says he can’t do even better. Adam Jones is in the prime of his career. Nick Markakis is flourishing in the leadoff role. Matt Wieters is entering just his age 28 season. Catchers tend to mature later. Wieters has always hit for power. There is still some ceiling for him. JJ Hardy is a good source of power. And, once Manny Machado is fully recovered, the Orioles will have a 21 year old budding superstar coming off of a .283/.314/.432 season.
The offense core is as good as any in the division. Defensively, there is the argument that the Orioles are the best in the League. Last season, they led the AL in UZR and were fourth in defensive runs saved.
The problems really begin and end on the mound. The rotation ranked 12th in the league with a 7.4 WAR value. More troubling, the starters ranked 11th in strikeout percentage, 12th in walk percentage, and compiled a league worst 4.64 FIP. That last number is most troubling as it indicates that the defense really bailed the rotation out. If the Orioles had even an average defense the results would’ve been disastrous. Compounding the problems, Orioles starters had the second worst groundball rate in the American League.
The bullpen ranked 9th in the AL with a 4.2 WAR value. While it had the best walk rate in the league, it ranked just 11th in strikeout rate and 9th with a 3.74 FIP. Unlike the starters, the relievers did lead the league in groundball rate.
While the call was for the Orioles to spend big on a bat or add some plodding power hitting outfielder, the real need is squarely on the mound. Despite the perception of lacking a plan, it seems that this is exactly what Dan Duquette is doing. He’s supplemented the offensive core by trading for outfielder David Lough. Lough is an excellent defender by all metrics and can be a competent bat at the bottom of the order. Jemile Weeks had an excellent season at the triple-A level (.271/.376/.369) and could develop into an above average second baseman. Duquette has shown an ability throughout his career to identify offensive talent. Weeks may be another one of his great grabs.
With limited funds, he seems to be waiting out the pitching market. He did add reliever Ryan Webb to the roster by signing 27 year old right handed reliever to a 2 year $4.5 million deal. Webb won’t help with the strikeout problem, but he is a groundball machine, 57 percent groundball rate over the course of his career.
What’s left? Of course there are the big names: Matt Garza, Ubaldo Jimenez, Ervin Santana, AJ Burnett, and Japanese free agent Masahiro Tanaka. The Orioles won’t be in on Tanaka, but they can likely sign one of the others. However, it should be noted that Jimenez and Santana are tied to draft pick compensation. Are the Orioles in position to give up draft picks?
The answer really is no. Despite that incredible playoff run two years ago, the Orioles, as an organization, still need to build talent. They need those picks. They’ve shown a great ability to identify talent over the years: Machado, Dylan Bundy, Kevin Gausman, Hunter Harvey, and Eduardo Rodriguez to name a few. They just need more unless the cost of one of those pitchers, preferably Jimenez, goes down to the point that the money outweighs the benefits of a draft pick.
So, the plan seems to be to wait. That is exactly the right plan given where the organization is. If one of the big name pitchers comes down to the beneficial price level, then the Orioles can swoop in. If not, they could look to the secondary market where there is no draft pick compensation.
One name is veteran Paul Maholm. The veteran southpaw generates plenty of ground balls, to the tune of 52 percent for his career. He isn’t a strikeout pitcher, but since 2008, he has averaged 30 starts, fewer than 3 walks per nine innings, and a 4.18 ERA (4.22 FIP). He is the type of pitcher that can fill the back end of the rotation for the Orioles and that will allow Gausman to ease into a Major League rotation role. With an innings count likely for Gausman, the Orioles will need depth behind Chris Tillman, Chen, Gonzalez, and Bud Norris. Or, they could sign that depth and shift someone like Norris–who profiles much better as a reliever–to the bullpen.
Despite the lack of big name additions, the Orioles are not that far off from being real contenders. With an above average offensive core with many in the midst of their primes and with an elite defense, Dan Duquette really needs to just supplement the offense. Spending big on an offensive player or losing a draft pick because of that addition doesn’t make sense. He has to shore up the pitching staff with three or four more additions. Because of the lack of truly elite level talent available, Duquette is playing the market correctly. He’s waiting to see what falls to him. Something will.
Despite the owner, the budget, the embarrassment of the Balfour deal, and what looks to be inertia, the Baltimore Orioles aren’t that far off from really competing in 2014. Dan Duquette must add the right type of players, specifically pitchers. That’s done by waiting. It’s tough to be patient, but that seems to be a plan. Having a plan is really all any fan can ask from an organization. Now, Duquette has to execute it properly. There’s still time.