First Jimenez; Who’s Next for the Orioles?
The Orioles have announced the signing of starting pitcher Ubaldo Jimenez to a four-year, $50 million deal. The contract is noteworthy for a few reasons: first, the Orioles have done everything but scratch into a large stone tablet on top of a mountain that thou shalt not sign pitchers for longer than three years, and this signing clearly violates that near-commandment. Second, this is the longest and largest contract ever given to a free agent pitcher by the O’s. Finally, the signing of a free agent previously handed a qualifying offer forces Baltimore to give up their first-round draft pick. If the team were to sign another qualifying offer free agent (QOFA – coined here first, folks), they’d be giving up their second round pick.
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If I understand the system correctly, the second round is after the compensatory round, effectively making it the true third round of drafting. If that’s not the case, it doesn’t really matter: that second round pick isn’t worth nearly as much as the first round pick forfeited for the signing of Jimenez. The Orioles see it the same way, with Executive Vice President of Baseball Operations Dan Duquette saying as much and indicating that the team is still open to other QOFAs on the market. If Baltimore were to go that route, which QOFAs are still on the market and which ones fit into the Orioles organization?
The other QOFA pitcher that made up the pair of starters that the Orioles had to select between – or are they grabbing both? Santana opened the offseason openly seeking a gaudy $100 million deal, according to some accounts. That’s the type of money reserved for young, guaranteed top-of-the-rotation starters that teams want to lock up. At 30, Santana isn’t necessarily old, and the Orioles were considering going much older with Burnett, but he’s not the player I’d want in a really long-term deal. If you listen to BSL Radio, it’s not a secret that I was higher on Santana than on Jimenez. I think Santana is more consistent than Jimenez, but doesn’t have the ceiling that Ubaldo has shown for stretches.
The first four members of the rotation seem likely to be Jimenez, Tillman, Chen, and Gonzalez, with Bundy, Gausman, Norris, Yoon, Britton, and possibly Matusz fighting for the fifth spot. Depending on who you ask, Gonzalez may be a member of the latter group, and I’d probably anticipate Norris being the #5 until someone else proves they deserve it more. Adding Santana to the mix gives the team a very good first four with lots of options for a fifth. It also gives the Orioles the ability to toss Norris or Gonzalez into the closer role, which many fans seem to think would be a good fit. I can’t say whether their stuff translates to the back of the bullpen, but I would love to see the Orioles have a young, cost-controlled option at closer that can be flipped around the deadline for a major haul a la George Sherrill. Santana not only adds stability to the rotation, but he gives the Orioles real depth – not just “hey, we’ve got, like, 20 guys that can throw a few innings so just put someone out there” depth. The team would have a pretty great stable of reliable pitchers that can all consistently make it to 6 innings, and if one were to go down, it wouldn’t be nearly as devastating to the 2014 season.
There was some concern over his propensity to the long ball, but his career HR/9 is just 1.2, less than that of Chris Tillman. Santana had a great year in 2013, and his 2.9 bWAR from last year is in line with his other good years. In his bad years, he’s worth negative bWAR and tossing up homers. Santana doesn’t strike me as a pitcher that’s as prone to major swings as Jimenez, but he’s clearly not a rock-solid option year after year.
My biggest question is the contract figure associated with Ervin Santana. He wanted a lot of money entering free agency, and turned down a qualifying offer to hopefully make the big bucks. Overall, he seemed to be ranked pretty evenly with Jimenez. If his price has come down and the Orioles can get the same 4/$50 deal in place for Santana that they did for Jimenez, that seems like a no brainer to me.
The former Rangers right fielder is apparently being considered for the left field spot in Camden Yards. This is not a player that I am interested in. The Orioles already hit more home runs than any other team in baseball, and Cruz is a power hitter. Sure, his career triple slash of .268/.327/.495 would put him around the middle of the Orioles lineup, but that’s not the player I think that the Orioles should be seeking out. For reference, those basic stats match pretty nicely with JJ Hardy’s 2013 slash of .263/.306/.433. Cruz is essentially 2013 JJ Hardy with slightly more power. JJ Hardy is a terrific ballplayer, but his value on offense is tied to the home run, and he doesn’t produce much else at the plate. That’s fine for one of the league’s best defensive shortstops, but Cruz doesn’t offer any help in the outfield.
Further, Cruz accepted a suspension for his involvement with Biogenesis in the latter half of 2013 and sat out a chunk of 50 games. Not only did this ruin his opportunity to play more than 130 games in a season for only the second time, it moved him up to the next plateau of drug suspension. I’m not going to take a moral side on PEDs, but it’s important for the Orioles to keep in mind that Cruz will sit 100 games the next time he makes a mistake. If the team believes that he was on PEDs for at least parts of his career, there are questions about his true ability sans chemical improvement. Cruz has only played more than 128 games once, in 2012, though he was on track to do so in 2013 before his suspension. Aside from PEDs, he may be an injury risk anyway.
FanGraphs puts Cruz at an estimated 1.5-2.5 WAR for 2014 (from Steamer and Oliver, respectively). David Lough or the carousel in left field may not seem ideal to many fans, but I’m certain that either or a combination of the two would be able to provide at least 1 win over the next season. Spending another $7-10M and a second pick on a left fielder with an apparent inability to play a full season that adds almost no additional value in terms of wins sounds bogus to me.
Kendrys Morales is pretty much only useful as a DH, though he can slot in at 1B if Chris Davis gets injured or needs a day off. In a full season, he seems to be a pretty solid lock for 20 home runs. He’s got a few shortened seasons that don’t show well, but the biggest gap in playing time was due to a freak broken ankle during a walk-off celebration. That’s not a recurring problem that the team would need to be concerned about the way a knee or shoulder would be.
The 30-year old switch hitter is expected to be worth 1.5 WAR via both Steamer and Oliver, but the questions is whether that production is better than the rotating DH the Orioles would use otherwise. The blended services of Reimold, Flaherty, Weeks, Lough, Young, Pierce, and Urrutia may not get people excited about this season, but getting 1.5 WAR from that group is a possibility. Last year’s DH rotation netted 0.5 fWAR despite being atrocious to open the season. Valencia’s platoon contribution in September will be hard to replicate, but I don’t really see the DH going hitless for the first month of the season again. September Valencia notwithstanding, the 2014 DH possibilities sound better than or the same as the 2013 crew. With the law of averages always looming large, I’d be hard pressed to think that Baltimore’s DH options couldn’t regress positively and I’d expect the 2014 DH platoon to be worth more than 0.5 fWAR.
Morales doesn’t strike me as a smart pickup. He can hit – well (.280/.333/.480 career) – and is better against lefties than righties, which would be nice to add to the Orioles’ stable of bats. He won’t and shouldn’t contribute in the field, though, so he would have to come at the right price for me to consider signing him. The question with Clearly, the Orioles think that they can get him for a low enough price to justify maintaining contact and possibly giving up a second round pick, so maybe his ask has plummeted. Something like $7-8M annually would be okay in my book, since the pick they’d give up isn’t worth as much as a first rounder, but that seems like a hefty price to pay for a DH that adds about 1 WAR.
Stephen Drew is an interesting QOFA that I think would be a sneaky-smart pickup for the Orioles under the right conditions. It wouldn’t be particularly sneaky to sign a great defensive shortstop, especially one that can more or less replicate the triple slash output of JJ Hardy. Drew doesn’t hit as many homers as Hardy, but gets on base more often and still has a career SLG of .435. Drew would immediately slot as the team’s starting second baseman, since it’s unlikely that he would replace the reigning AL SS Gold Glove winner and his dWAR is a solid 1 win or more below Hardy’s, via baseball-reference.
Slotting a good shortstop at 2B for the time being would be sneaky-smart if the Orioles planned to deal Hardy or believed themselves unable to sign him for the long term. Filling the 2B spot with a good hitter and very good OBP guy for the time being would shore up the current lack of a recognized and top-flight second baseman and would allow the Orioles to backfill the SS position from within the organization, using someone already signed for a number of years. It would give Jonathan Schoop an extra 6 months to one year to get Major League-ready, which seems to be the time frame that most expect him to need. The timing is almost perfect for the Orioles to sign Drew, trade or let go of Hardy, and promote the prospect expected to be the second baseman of the future.
It’s only almost perfect because the Orioles seem to like what they have with Ryan Flaherty. FanGraphs projects Flaherty to be worth about 0.7-2.1 (Steamer, Oliver) WAR in 2014, but I’m slightly more optimistic and have been penciling Ryan Flaherty in for 2 fWAR or more. The same projection systems are showing 1.8 fWAR for Drew, despite his 2013 being worth a whopping 3.4 fWAR. There’s a lot of variance in Flaherty’s projections, and he hasn’t had very much time to establish a track record. Since I’m on the optimistic end of the spectrum, I have to ask whether it’s worth paying a pick and a big multi-year deal for a SS/2B who might perform worse than Flaherty, if given the chance to play every day? In that light, a Drew signing seems a lot more like an exercise in risk aversion, and an expensive one at that: pay more for what you know you’ll get, even if it might be less than what you’ll get from a question mark.
For me, a Drew deal makes sense if the team doesn’t think Hardy would be willing to sign an agreeable deal for the next few years. If Schoop turns out to be as good as he’s being hyped, it’d be silly to block him from playing at the Major League level with both Drew and Hardy up the middle. If Hardy seems unlikely to stay, or the haul is good enough to trade him, Drew would be worth the short-term cost. If the team can find a way to get Hardy to stay in Baltimore, that money and pick is probably better spent elsewhere.
It’s interesting to me that Jimenez accepted and Santana will likely accept deals with lower average annual values than the qualifying offer would have earned them. Jimenez is going to rake in about $12.5M a year for four years, whereas his QO would have netted him a shade over $14M. Whether these two overestimated the market for starting pitchers is unclear; perhaps at 30 they were seeking longer-term stability. Either way, I’m glad Jimeenz did. If he pitches as well as he can, he’ll be a treat to see in an Orioles uniform. Here’s hoping another deal falls into the laps of the Baltimore Orioles.