Orioles Options in Left Field
One of the Orioles’ biggest holes entering this offseason was their lack of a decent left fielder. Nate McLouth was, at the time, entering free agency, and, as we have found out, the O’s had no intentions of bringing him back. The roster is now left with the fringe ability and perennially injured options of Steve Pearce, Francisco Peguero, who was non-tendered by baseball’s other black and orange-clad team, and Nolan Reimold. The Orioles have some options for signing and trading for a player to round out their outfield.
Discuss who you want to see in left field here.
A name already familiar to most Orioles fans, Choo is popular for his astonishing on-base percentage. Reaching base safely in 42.3% of his plate attempts in 2013 would easily be the best rate in the Orioles lineup, and he doesn’t even need to hit 53 home runs to do it. Choo’s OBP in 2013 was by far the best of his career, but his lifelong .389 OBP would be a huge boost for an Orioles team that struggles to accrue runs in any form but the longball. Choo’s dWAR, according to Baseball Reference, has been negative in every year since 2008 and is seemingly getting worse. FanGraphs has Choo a defensive liability in the last two years, giving up 17 runs and recording a -15.5 UZR in 2013 with similar numbers in 2012. It seems that Choo’s defensive woes stem from his range, with his Range Runs Above Average worth -16 runs in each of the last two years. Choo is listed as a natural right fielder who has played some center. I can’t say how well right field skills translate to left field, but I imagine that learning a different position at age 31 would cause some complications and that Choo’s defense would further suffer if the Orioles moved him to left. The biggest knock against Choo, though, is his price. His agent, Scott Boras, has made it known that Choo will be seeking more than five years for over $100 million, with MLB Trade Rumors predicting 6/$100M. That’s a serious chunk of change for a franchise usually unwilling to reach that deep into its pockets, especially for a team built on defense that thrives on the growth of young players.
A name we haven’t heard yet is that of Yankees outfielder Brett Gardner. With the signing of Ellsbury, our rivals to the north (all of our rivals besides Tampa Bay are to the north) have a major logjam in the outfield. The Yankees roster currently lists Zolio Almonte, Jacoby Ellsbury, Ramon Flores, Brett Gardner, Slade Heathcott, Alfonso Soriano, Ichiro Suzuki, and Vernon Wells as outfielders. I’m pretty comfortable saying that Brett Gardner is the most appealing outfielder on that list in terms of trade candidacy for the Orioles. Gardner has racked up some pretty serious WAR in his time with the Yankees, and both FanGraphs and Baseball Reference list favorable dWAR figures as a part of that. Gardner has played significant time in left and center, so he’s a viable candidate to fill in at center for Adam Jones when he’s given a day off from the field, much as McLouth did last year. Gardner is cheap on the salary side, making just $2.85M in 2013 and entering his third year of arbitration in 2014. He is a trade candidate though, and, as expected, the Yankees are looking to use their abundance in the outfield to solve their scarcity on the mound. The team has turned down a proposed Gardner-for-Brandon Phillips trade with the Reds and has indicated that they would really only accept starting pitching for Gardner. With starters being a prime target for the Orioles, I doubt we could work anything out.
There are conflicting reports regarding which starting outfielder the Dodgers would like to move. Like the Yankees, the Dodgers have a number of outfielders and are looking to trade one to gain strength elsewhere. LA’s National League team has four legitimate starters: Carl Crawford, Andre Etheir, Matt Kemp, and Yasiel Puig. First, let’s look at the former MVP candidate Matt Kemp, who suffered a string of injuries in 2012 and 2013 that made it impossible to live up to his 8-year, $160M contract. Kemp was a stud before his shoulder injury, recording 8.1 bWAR in his MVP-caliber 2011 at age 26. Since, Kemp has been worth just enough WAR when he’s on the field to merit a starter’s spot. He has a great eye at the plate, recording an OBP of .350 over his career with a high of .399 in 2011. He hits for average and for power, and has recorded an OPS of over .900 in his last two relatively healthy seasons. His true OPS is probably somewhere in the .800-.850 range. Kemp has spent his whole career in center field, but is below average in defensive metrics there. According to Baseball Reference, he has recorded a negative dWAR in every year except 2008. Via FanGraphs, Kemp is worth negative runs saved and carries a negative Range Runs Above Average and UZR. He’s actually slightly worse in these metrics than Adam Jones, who some have suggested is a better defensive fit in left, so might be able to improve with a transition to left field. Kemp has 6 years and $128 million remaining on his contract, which is definitely too large for the Orioles to take all of. I think that Dodgers would need to get that number down to around $100M by adding cash in any deal for the Orioles to consider it. That number would bring up a Choo-or-Kemp question, with Kemp being two years younger but a greater risk/reward proposition. The Dodgers are apparently telling Kemp that they won’t trade him, so this possibility may not even be available, despite what some people think.
In my mind, Ethier makes the most sense to trade since he’s being paid a ton and his output is relatively predictable. He’s 31 and entering the more expensive years on his 5/$85M deal, but hasn’t shown any indication of making a jump from being worth about 2.5 WAR to someone resembling an All Star. Ethier may even be a platoon candidate: his splits against right-handers over the last three years are incredibly favorable, while his numbers against southpaws are lacking. Since 2011, Ethier has logged an OBP against righties of .401 compared to just .271 against lefties. Ethier is due $15.5M in 2014 and $18M in both 2015 and 2016, which are pretty significant funds for a platoon candidate. Oliver predicts a 2.8 fWAR for Ethier in 2014, making him a comparative deal at full price when you consider the average $7M spent on a win in free agency. Like Choo, Ethier is a natural rightfielder with minimal experience in left, nearly all of which came between 2006 and 2008. In the outfield, Ethier has been a pretty average defender. He’s not worth many DRS, but it’s better than almost assuredly dipping into the negatives with other candidates. Ethier hovers around 0 for both RngR and UZR. If the Dodgers were willing to throw in some cash to help the O’s make it through the next few years, I think Ethier is a real option. It’s all about how much LA will take on though, and apparently it isn’t enough for the Orioles. Four teams are still talking to the Dodgers about trading for Ethier. The Orioles should be one of them if they can get the Dodgers to give up about $12M, putting the Orioles’ cost at $15M annually for the outfielder. Ethier also comes with a club option for 2018 that costs $2.5M.
This is where the prospects for a good left fielder get a little bleak. After denying any interest in the Mariners’ Raul Ibanez, the Orioles may take an interest in 30-year-old outfielder Franklin Gutierrez. Gutierrez was listed as the 33rd best free agent at the start of the offseason, below outfielders like Nate McLouth, Raul Ibanez, and David Murphy. Gutierrez had a promising mid-20s run where he was worth more than 2 bWAR for four consecutive years, reaching a high of 6.6 bWAR. During that time, his OBP stayed above .300 but was never spectacular. Since 2011, Gutierrez has been worth less than 1 WAR every year and has struggled to even get on base 30% of the time. The Giants are looking into Gutierrez to fill their left field hole, but I don’t see him as a significant upgrade over Peguero, who they non-tendered at age 25. Gutierrez’s best days are likely behind him, and with a lingering hamstring issue that has landed him on the DL in Seattle multiple times, I’d be surprised to see him be much more than a 0-1 bWAR player for the rest of his career.
Even less inspiring options abound lower on the list of available free agent outfielders, so let’s move on to what will likely come to be in Baltimore: The Carousel
The Orioles as currently assembled have a trio of left field options that all bat from the right-handed side of the plate. Peguero has just 45 at-bats at the major league level, so his numbers don’t mean much yet. This is a good thing, because his numbers are not inspiring. His career average is .200 and his OBP is .217. He’s young and could get better with more time at the Major League level. According to the scouting report on Peguero, he’s fast and developing on-base skills and profiles as a line drive hitter.
Reimold is disappointing because of the great promise he showed early in his career. After getting on base more than 35% of the time in extended action in 2009, Reimold has been riddled with injuries and has failed to play 100 games since. If he’s healthy in 2014, it would be great to see him return to form, but I would expect a long period of cobweb removal before he he resembles the Reimold of old. Surprisingly, Reimold has hit righties better than lefties over the last three years. He’s sporting a triple-slash of .248/.323/.459 against right-handed pitchers compared to a .232/.275/.419 against lefties. His best year, 2009, showed more traditional splits that favor lefties, but only very slightly. His splits were just about even, but he posted a .480 SLG against righties compared to .442 against lefties in his rookie year. The Orioles are bringing him back for $1.025M in 2014 to hopefully get some sort of return on the money and time that they’ve spent on Reimold. I like the guy and hope he’s healthy from here on out and gives the Orioles a reason to play him consistently. I don’t think that’s a realistic scenario, if only because spinal surgery sounds painful and difficult to play professional sports after.
Finally, Steve Pearce has bounced around from club to club over his career, and the Orioles have offered him $700k to land in Baltimore once again. Pearce’s OBP from the last three seasons is an okay .322, but he seems to shine as a platoon player in limited time. While his .244 average against lefties since 2011 isn’t much better than his .229 average against righties, he appears to track the ball better against southpaws. He’s got a .339 OBP and a .396 SLG against lefties compared to a .303 OBP and .320 SLG against righties. The Orioles could go with the hot hand or hope Reimold is healthy enough to platoon with Pearce and actually cobble together a decent left fielder.
My Preferred Option
With Kemp allegedly off of the table, and the Dodgers unwilling to throw in enough cash to make it worth the Orioles’ while, my preferred option changes. Obviously, first and foremost, I want Nolan Reimold to be healthy and productive for 162 games and worth the 3+ WAR he would have been worth in a full season in 2009. Since that’s probably unlikely, let’s talk about mixing two options together.
If the Orioles can work out a deal for Ethier, they should. It’s hard to say what the Dodgers are asking for, but the Orioles can reasonably offer a Major League-caliber catcher or shortstop. As Jeff recently pointed out, the Orioles farm system is lacking for mid-level prospects and I certainly would not want to sell our top young pitchers for an expensive outfielder on the wrong side of 30. Ignoring what it would take to bring Ethier here, he could be inserted as a primary left fielder with platoon help against lefties. Reimold and Pearce are strong enough when healthy to carry a right-handed half of a platoon. If Ethier put together an OBP of .380 against righties and a Reimold/Pearce timeshare can go for a .330 OBP against lefties, neither of which are a stretch, that’s pretty close to Shin-Soo Choo’s OBP splits (.333 against lefties and .414 against righties, 2011-2013). All of that could be had at a cost of $2M for Reimold/Pearce plus an estimated $15M for Ethier, which comes out to pretty much exactly what Choo is expected to cost: $17M annually. If the Orioles, for example, can sell the Dodgers on someone like Hardy and get them to throw more cash into the deal, an Ethier-led platoon could be much cheaper and just as effective as premier free agent Shin-Soo Choo.
The Orioles have a number of options, and all but the carousel with no additions would cost some serious cash and/or players. Here’s the thing: the O’s have been good with Nate McLouth, an average 1-2 bWAR player, in left field. To maintain their .500+ ways, they don’t really need to upgrade at that position, just find a way to piece together that value over a season. But with so many of their positions locked in, there are few places to really add wins to this squad: left field, pitcher, and second base. I expect some regression from Davis and Manny, so adding to the team somewhere seems necessary for improvement. With starting pitching costs skyrocketing and the 2B market relatively thin, left field seems like a logical place, and maybe the only place, to do it.