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O’s Q&A with National Analysts

Tonight, a clash of Division leaders begins as the Baltimore Orioles start a weekend series vs. the Oakland Athletics.

It has been an eventful season so far for the Birds, with additional intrigue sure to follow. To review what we’ve seen so far, and to project what awaits; Baltimore Sports and Life has reached out to several National Analysts for their thoughts on the O’s.

(You can discuss this on the BSL Board here.)

Those who participated in this Q&A are:

Matthew Kory, Sports on Earth / Baseball Prospectus
Matthew Pouliot
, NBC Sports / Hardball Talk
Dan Szymborski, ESPN

BSL: The O’s arrived at the All-Star Break with a similar offensive profile to their past two seasons. Plenty of power (5th overall in slugging %), with mediocre on-base (13th overall in on-base %) skills. Currently 9th in runs scored, how do you view the Baltimore offense overall?

Kory: I think where they’re at is about their true talent level. Nelson Cruz isn’t as good as he’s showed this season, so I wouldn’t be shocked to see some regression there. The same goes for Steve Pierce. Matt Wieters isn’t coming through that door so the catcher position is likely going to continue being a black hole offensively (baring a big trade), but Chris Davis, though I’m not expecting a repeat of 2013, is better than this. If the offense gets a jump anywhere, it will likely be from Davis hitting and getting on base better than he has in the first half of the season.

Pouliot: I’d say the production to date matches up really well with expectations, and I’d expect more of the same going forward, with improvement from the underperformers (Chris Davis, Jonathan Schoop) countering declines from the overachievers (Steve Pearce, Nelson Cruz). That Manny Machado has already turned it around makes me feel a lot better about the group as a whole.

Szymborski: I see them primarily as a middle-of-the-road offense.  They’ve received too little from too many positions this season to be much more and while they’ll get some sort of improvement there, at some point their 1B/DH pickups will start putting up surprise MVP-type seasons.

BSL: Baltimore and Nick Markakis hold a mutual option for $17.5M in 2015 ($2M buyout if the O’s decline), that nobody expects to be picked-up. My guess is we see ’15 redone, with two additional years tacked on at a lower average annual value. Do you agree? How do you see things working out with Markakis and the Birds?

Kory: An extension would make sense for the player, but I’m not sure what the Orioles would get out of such a deal. We know what Markakis is at this point and what he is is a mediocre outfielder. He’s already 30 years old, the power isn’t there anymore, the speed isn’t there anymore, and he’s never been much of an on-base machine outside of a few specific seasons. Don’t get me wrong, he’s not a bad guy to have on the team, and I know Peter Angelos likes him personally, but I don’t see the urgency to get anything done. Unless he’s going to sign for two years and $15 million or something like that, I’d wait until free agency set his market a bit and wouldn’t be afraid to upgrade the position and let him walk either.

Pouliot: Barring an improved second half, I’d peg Markakis for a Marlon Byrd-type contract (two years, $16 million) on the open market. On the plus side, his defensive reputation is a lot better than that of most of the quality outfield bats available this winter. However, UZR isn’t nearly so kind to his glove, and while his bat has been better than last year, his power hasn’t come back much.

I like Markakis on the Orioles, and considering the amount the team would have to spend to bring in an upgrade, it will probably make sense to re-sign him this winter. Still, they should hold the line initially. If Markakis isn’t willing to accept $8 million-$9 million per year, let him test free agency. I doubt he’ll do better elsewhere (although, come to think of it, I can totally see the Phillies bidding for him if they trade Byrd).

Szymborski: I think they’ll re-do the contract as well.  Markakis’s free agent value is likely to be extremely limited – the O’s likely value him more than most other teams would.

BSL: Coming off his PED suspension last year, the O’s surrendered their 2nd pick in the June 2014 Draft to sign Nelson Cruz to a 1 year $8M deal. Cruz headed into the All-Star game with 45 xbh’s, and a wOBA at .393. The O’s figure to extend a qualifying offer, that will likely be rejected. What type of deal will Cruz (now 34) be looking at on the open market?

Kory: That all depends on how Cruz’s second half goes. As mostly a power-only threat, he’s entirely capable of having a lousy second half of the season. Then we’re not even talking about extending the qualifying offer. If he duplicates his first half in the second half then he’s probably looking at a two or three year deal. Remember, he’s not good defensively and he’ll be 34 next season. There’s a possibility I’m underselling his skill here, as power from the right side is a highly prized commodity or at least it should be. Maybe Cruz gets three years, $50 million from someone, but if I wouldn’t be the one to give it to him.

Pouliot: The reports last winter had Cruz seeking about $75 million over four years. Maybe some team will give it to him this time around, though $50 million-$60 million for three years seems more reasonable. As great as Cruz has been this year, he’s an awful bet to remain effective through age 38. But at least he’s been good enough that the qualifying offer won’t be much of a drag on his market.

Szymborski: He’s going to get better offers this time around, but most teams these days aren’t going to drastically change their opinions on a player based on his career season at age 33.  He’ll get an offer above $10 million per, but it’s probably in his best interest to sign with the Orioles, even if he has to take a discount.

BSL: It was an interesting 1st half for JJ Hardy. He missed some time early due to his back, but seemingly got past that. He had 18 doubles, but just 3 homers in his first 328 ab’s (each of the homers in last 152 ab’s). Compared to 2013, his K% is up, his BB% is down. The defensive metrics continue to love his play at SS. It would not shock me to see him finish with +/- 15 homers. As with Cruz, I expect a qualifying offer to be made and rejected. If you were in the Orioles Front Office, would you advocate a 3 year deal?

Kory: I wouldn’t advocate a three year deal. This coming off-season will be a great one to need a shortstop. In addition to Hardy, Adrubal Cabrera, Jed Lowrie, Stephen Drew, and possibly Yuniel Escobar will all be free agents. At least one of those guys isn’t getting three years and I’d expect that most of them aren’t. None are perfect, but then Hardy isn’t perfect either. Put it this way: I’d rather have Drew or one season than Hardy for three. There is no reason to lock yourself into a three year deal with a soon-to-be 32-year-old shortstop unless you have to and in this particular instance the Orioles decidedly don’t have to.

Pouliot: I called it the most bizarre line of the season when Hardy was hitting .300 with no homers a couple of months in. Fortunately, normalcy has returned recently.

My guess is that Hardy gets a four-year deal this winter. He’s the only guy on the market who figures to still be a starting shortstop three or four years down the line. Hanley Ramirez needs to move to third, Asdrubal Cabrera should play second and Stephen Drew probably won’t be a regular come 2017.

At this point, it seems like the ship has sailed on moving Machado back to shortstop. So, the Orioles probably will go to three years to keep him. I suspect the Yankees will go higher, though.

As for whether that’s the right plan for the team, I’d say no. Plenty of middle infielders better than Hardy have stumbled at 32 and 33, and while Hardy is an exceptional shortstop, he’s overrated offensively. Jed Lowrie for two years or Drew for one would make more sense to me.

Szymborski: I likely would.  He may very well accept the qualifying offer rather than be this offseason’s Stephen Drew.  And I rather sign Hardy for 1-year the QO with at least some chance of a draft pick than a 3-year deal, if given the opportunity.  I wouldn’t want to sign him long-term unless he’s cool with an eventual move to second — even if I’m worried a little about Machado after injury, I don’t want to lock myself into a situation where he’ll never realistically move back to shortstop.

BSL: Now that the O’s have obtained an additional year of service time with Kevin Gausman, the young righty can be expected to be part of the rotation here on out. That means someone has to leave the rotation, and the most logical candidates are Bud Norris and Miguel Gonzalez. Either could potentially be a weapon out of the bullpen; who should stay, who becomes a reliever?

Kory: Norris is probably the better pitcher and considering where the Orioles are in the standings (first place as of this writing) that should be the only consideration. The one who stays in the rotation will throw more innings and so that should be the better of the two and while neither are terrific or really even good, Norris is better and should start.

Pouliot: I’ve always thought Norris would be more valuable as a reliever, but I doubt it’s going to happen this year. It seems to me that the team is happier with him than with Gonzalez, even if the ERAs are practically the same. But even if they were equal as starters, I’d rather see Gonzalez as a fifth starter and Norris vying for a late-inning role than Norris in the rotation and Gonzalez pitching in middle relief.

Szymborski: I’d probably put Jimenez in the bullpen, given a free choice.  I’m still optimistic about the contract long-term, but this is almost a lost season for him and I rather have him in a mopup/spot-starter role given that the O’s are obviously in playoff contention.

BSL: Gausman’s talent is evident to anyone who sees him, but he still lacks much professional experience. What are you expecting from him the remainder of the year? The ups and downs of youth, or someone the O’s will be able to hitch their wagon to?

Kory: It’s always great when a Stephen Strasburg electrifies baseball, or even more recently, Jose Fernandez, but most young players struggle at least initially when called up to the majors. Pitchers are different than position players because their job is active as opposed to reactive, but I don’t think you bring a guy like Gausman up and expect him to push you into the playoffs. That said, he could because he has that kind of talent.

Pouliot: I trust Gausman. He’s not leaving his fastball over the plate nearly as often as he did in his starts last season, and he has the best stuff on the staff. Right now, I’d probably want him starting the second game of a postseason series after Chen.

Szymborski: I think Gausman’s the best starter on the O’s.  Now, he’s probably not an ace — yet — but the O’s don’t have any of those types.

BSL: The O’s are the American League East leader, and pretty clear favorite to win the Division. That said, in the AL hierarchy they likely trail Oakland, Detroit, and the Angels as favorites to represent the league in the Fall Classic. While the O’s would have a punchers (sluggers) chance vs. anyone; the Baltimore rotation does not match those teams. If Gausman is one Wild Card for the O’s, Jimenez is another. It was a poor 1st half for Jimenez, with mechanical issues which impacted his control, velocity, and movement. The O’s signed Jimenez based off of his exceptional 2nd half last  year. Do you think Jimenez can lock in, and be a positive difference maker the rest of the way?

Kory: Jimenez has had an up and down career to say the least. He had a few seasons in Colorado where he was excellent before he came to Cleveland. The issue with Jimenez is walks. The strikeouts and groundballs are all still there, he just needs to throw more strikes. That seems doable especially considering how out of line his walk rate is with the rest of his career. His walk rate has bounced around a bit in his career and it’s never been good, but it’s never been this bad before, at least not in the majors. There are seven seasons of data that argue he has better control than this, and if he can recapture at least a little bit of that lost control, he’s becomes a pitcher that comes closer to startable in a playoff game.

Pouliot: Based on what I’ve seen this year, I don’t expect a turnaround. He’s a mess, and it’s actually kind of impressive that he’s kept it together as well he has. Between the walks and the sub-par velocity, it’s not hard to imagine him with a 5.50-6.00 ERA, rather than his current 4.52 mark.

Szymborski: While he may be able have an excellent second half, I want him in the bullpen for now.  As I noted above, the O’s are in the playoff hunt and as such, should be more risk-averse with their rotation.  If they were 40-50 and out of contention as the Red Sox and Rays are, then I think you should be more willing this season to let him keep trying to work it out.  With a playoff spot and risk — and how valuable the divisional crown now is relative to a wild card — I don’t think you can afford that risk given that the O’s have five other better-than-replacement starters.

BSL: Last year, Chris Davis slugged .634, this year his OPS is currently .701. On July 4th, Beyond the Boxscore pointed out, “His .255 BABIP lies 1.56 standard deviations below the mean, while his 26.1% line drive rate lies 1.53 standard deviations above the mean. In the batted-ball era, no players — NONE — have beaten 1.5 in both arenas.”  Do you like him to finish with an OPS above or below .850? What is your current opinion on the merits of an extension for Davis? Should the O’s be pushing for one, and if so what would you suggest the O’s offer?

Kory: I don’t see how you can extend him now. I mean, sure, the price is probably lower than it’s been since the start of last season, but do you really want to lock this player in at any price? As you said in the question, he’s got a .700 OPS from a first baseman. That’s utterly replaceable production. He’s got to show more to be worth extending, whether that drives the price up or not.

Yes, I expect more from Davis in the second half, but the question is how much more. It’s hard to project him to slug .600 again, after seeing what he’s done this season. Sure, it would be great for them to get the 2013 Davis back, but that seems unlikely at this point. Oddly, I think the way he can really help the Orioles is by getting on base better. The Orioles can already hit for power. More never hurts, but at least right now they’re set in that area. But on-base percentage? That they need! Davis has never had the most selective eye and a large part of his .370 OBP last season came from pitchers who were afraid to throw him a strike, but maybe if he can start to pop a few over the fence pitchers will remember what he did last year and turn the respect up to 11. That could really help the O’s maintain their spot atop the standings.

Pouliot: .850 for the rest of the season seems pretty reasonable to me. Shifting defenses haven’t only stolen stolen hits from him, but they’ve also gotten to him mentally. I think he needs to stop worrying about what the fielders are doing and just worry about putting the bat on the ball.

This would be a really difficult time to do an extension; I know Davis has long been open to it, but he probably isn’t going to want to sign when he feels his value is at its lowest. Ideally, he’ll have a big second half and then something will get done this winter. He’d be in line for at least $15 million in his final year of arbitration, and I imagine it’d take at least $90 million for five years to get a deal done. That’s possibly cheaper than he would have come last winter, but I don’t know that the Orioles will go that high after a down year.

Szymborski: While I believe that his BABIP will likely recover quite a bit, I find it unlikely he finishes with an OPS above .850.  He’d essentially have to hit slightly better the rest of the way than he did last season to get his OPS that high.  I didn’t believe he was a 1.000 OPS guy four months ago and his season to date is certainly not making me more optimistic.  I’d probably offer something like 2/24 to 4/48 but be willing to go to 2/30 or 4/60 or something.  I’ve already gotten his likely best season after all, so I’m not going to pay him for 2013.  I’d be comfortable giving him a qualifying offer when he hits free agency and if I can’t sign him on similar terms, be happy with the draft pick and wish the next team luck.

BSL: With his sinker, Britton overwhelmed hitters in the 1st half. Great location, with strong velocity and movement. He had an extremely high GB%, with the ability to get k’s as well. Are you a believer, or need to see more?

Kory: Am I a believer? Not really, but then he wouldn’t be the first reliever to go a whole season with stats that suggest regression. Maybe he’s turned over a new leaf and he’s of the age (26) where that’s possible, but it’s also 48 innings with a low BABIP compared to his career (and exceptionally low for a ground ball guy) and his runners left on base percentage is super high too. That said, the Orioles are doing the right thing riding him while they can.

Pouliot: He’s a monster. He’s basically looked this good since the moment the Orioles tried him as a one-inning guy in spring training. I expect him to remain a lights-out reliever.

Szymborski: I’m a believer to the extent that he’s a solid, above-average reliever.  That ERA is going to regress quite a bit, though, he’s not actually an elite relief talent.

BSL: Going into this year, my assumption with Wieters was that the O’s would allow him to play out the remaining two years (through ’15) on his contract; and allow him to walk. He was off to a positive start prior to being lost for the year. How does the injury impact what you think the O’s should be looking to do with Wieters (push for an extension, let him play out ’15, look to trade) this off-season?

Kory: I have never got the sense that Wieters was going to stay in Baltimore either. You don’t hire Scott Boras to negotiate a team-friendly extension, you hire him to get you the most money possible. Despite the injury, there will be a market for Wieters in two seasons, but what the injury does (besides hurt the O’s playoff chances this season) is hurt the trade market for Wieters this off-season, when the O’s might have looked to deal him. That all said, were I running the team, I’d hold on to Wieters and see what I get next season.

Pouliot: I don’t imagine an extension is going to happen; I doubt a little thing like major elbow surgery will have Wieters and Scott Boras reversing their stance on taking free agency for a spin. But if I’m the Orioles, my moves this winter are made with one eye on keeping Wieters around. That’s one of the reasons I go carefully with Hardy, Markakis and Davis; I’m saving up for Wieters and hoping the Dodgers don’t decide to back up the truck for him (fortunately, the Yankees and Red Sox probably won’t be in the market for catching).

Szymborski: It of course depends how they feel about his recovery at any given point, they’ll be in the best position to assess that.  I do think that they shouldn’t categorically refuse to see what they could get for him, but it would be likely a sell-low situation to avoid.  It’s in the O’s best interests to sign him long-term.

BSL: Adam Jones became an All-Star for the 4th time. For the 3rd straight season, his OPS is above .800. His BB% has dropped from 4.9% in 2012, to 3.6% in ’13, to 2.7% here in ’14. A superb hitter when hot, easily pitched to when he is not. His UZR/150 – which has been negative every year since ’09, currently shows him to be above average. Does Jones simultaneously not get enough credit for his positives, and not enough credit for his negatives?

Kory: It’s difficult to say Jones doesn’t get enough credit when he just finished making his fourth All-Star Game. Jones is what Jones is: a high power outfielder. Those guys tend to get a lot of credit. When he’s going good he can carry a team and when he isn’t he can bury one. Fortunately for the O’s, Jones gets hot and stays hot long enough to make the cold streaks worth it. We know all that. The end package is a very good offensive player. Defensively, it’s harder to say. A half season worth of UZR isn’t particularly telling. For example, FanGraphs thinks Jones has been worth a bit more than five runs (about a half win) defensively this season while Baseball Prospectus thinks he’s almost cost his team an entire win in the outfield. I’m more likely to look at the last three years and take the median, especially for a guy like Jones who has been playing the same position in the same ballpark during that time, and when you do that you end up with an average to slightly below defensive outfielder, but one good enough to stay in center and good enough not to hurt the value he provides with the bat. The end result is Adam Jones is a very good player.

Pouliot: Jones is probably somewhat overrated by the traditional fan and underrated by the sabermetric community. His increasing abhorrence to taking walks is discouraging — he almost seems to revel in it — and I don’t think he deserved either of his Gold Gloves, but this makes three seasons in a row in which he’s been one of the AL’s best outfielders. Durability is a big point in his favor.

Szymborski: Defensive stats are quite volatile, one-year changes aren’t really all that useful.  As a rule of thumb, a year of defensive stats has as much predictive value as about two months of offensive stats.  Jones is likely better than his worst defensive seasons, stats-wise and not as good as the stats this year.  In other words, a slightly below-average centerfielder defensively that shouldn’t win Gold Gloves, but really isn’t a significant problem.

BSL: Like Jones, Markakis’ UZR/150 was negative each year since ’09, and is positive this year. Are the numbers this year a matter of limited sample size, or do you see something else (positioning?) possibly at play here?

Kory: I don’t know if there has been a change in the way the Orioles have been shifting outfielders and particularly Markakis this season versus the last few so I can’t speak to that, but it seems like a small sample size is the most logical solution to that question.

Pouliot: I don’t watch enough to have a good answer to that question. My suspicion is that it’s just a big fluke, but then, I didn’t think Jones and Markakis were ever as below average as UZR suggested in previous years. Jones has always struck me as average out there.

Szymborski: As I note with Jones, defensive stats are very noisy.  The signal is drowned out by the noise.

BSL: Machado missed April, was poor in his first Month back (not a surprise after not being able to train all Winter), and also lost his mind that weekend vs. Oakland. He’s been turning it on lately though. I think if you are going to pick at him offensively at all, you can look at his BB’s to K’s. (Last year he had 29 bb’s, vs. 113 k’s.) That doesn’t concern me all that much, as I would think that as he grows and matures as a ML hitter, that ratio will improve. (Those ratios – obviously for numerous reasons – were better at the MiL level.) I firmly believe he is going to be a guy that hits for power to all fields; regularly a guy that hits for average and power annually throughout his prime. What do you think Machado will be the rest of ’14, what do you expect from him going forward?

Kory: And, hey, I forgot about Machado when answering the shortstop question! Moving Manny Machado back to shortstop (where he can totally play) might be the best of all possible outcomes for the Orioles. Then you avoid paying Hardy (or Hardy clone) into their mid-30s and you can add a bigger bat at third base than you would’ve been able to at shortstop. But I digress.

Going forward, I expect Machado to be fantastic. Kind of an infield version of Adam Jones, but with better defense and one of the real reasons the Orioles win games over the next half plus decade of time. Yes, the walks are somewhat concerning, but even if he doesn’t conquer that particular demon his defense and power will still make him a terrific player. And he’s 21 this season so there is still reasonable time for growth in that area.

Pouliot: Machado’s approach at the plate leaves something to be desired, but like Jones, he’s plenty talented enough to overcome it. He’s not a star hitter just yet, but it’s only a matter of time, and I’d say he’s the favorite to be the AL’s second best player from 2016-2020 (with Boston’s Xander Bogaerts perhaps becoming his chief rival).

For the rest of this year, I’d expect some continued inconsistency. He’s shown signs of becoming a 25-homer guy already with his recent binge, but that’s probably still a year or two off.

Szymborski: I’m cautiously optimistic with Machado, he’s still a very young, phenomenally talented player and I expect a normal off-season and 2015 will be a pretty nice bounce-back season.

BSL: There has been plenty of talk at the BSL Board of potential acquisitions for the O’s prior to the Non-Waiver Deadline. Bullpen help like the Rangers Jokim Soria, and 2nd Base help like the Rays Ben Zobrist have been mentioned as possible options. Who could be available that you see as potential match for Baltimore?

Kory: I would love to see the Orioles make a run at Chase Utley. That would turn a big negative into a huge positive. Utley is signed to a contract with for $10 million next season and then a repeating $15 million vesting option so the deal could be a one year, $10 million deal, or a four year, $55 million deal, but that option doesn’t vest until he hits 500 plate appearances, so if he gets hurt or becomes not worthy of playing, the O’s are off the hook. What’s more, Philly is close to Baltimore so Utley may be more likely to accept a trade to a city close to his adopted home, and it’s in the AL where the Phillies are more likely to deal Utley so that he doesn’t turn around and beat them nearly as often.

Pouliot: A Zobrist or Chase Utley would be really nice, but Zobrist, with his cheap option for next year, would cost a bundle in terms of prospects and Utley is likely staying put. I wouldn’t want the contracts of Martin Prado ($22 million over next two years) or Aaron Hill ($24 million over next two years) if I’m the Orioles. Better to take a chance on Schoop improving.

I would want to add one right-handed reliever to help out O’Day, Hunter and Webb. Arizona’s Brad Ziegler would be great, as would Boston’s Burke Badenhop if the Red Sox opt to sell.

Szymborski: Zobrist is a lot of fun, but the Rays drive hard bargains and from a game theory standpoint, there’s real justification for avoiding these kinds of trades in-division.  I’d love to Chase Utley in Baltimore for one.

BSL: What has to occur in the 2nd half for you to believe the O’s could claim their 4th World Championship?

Kory: Chris Davis needs to find some larger portion of his 2013 self, Jimenez has to cut down on the walks, Gausman needs to stay healthy and effective and not let the stage get the best of him, and the team needs to add some on-base talent and another starter wouldn’t hurt either. Utley would be a great get, but if not him, someone who knows how to get on base and can bat in front of Jones and Davis.

Pouliot: Gigantic steps forward from Chris Tillman and Jimenez. As shaky as the rotation is, the Orioles are going to be underdogs every postseason series their in. I think Gausman can hold down any lineup and Chen should keep the Orioles in games, but I just don’t have any faith in Tillman or Jimenez at the moment. In fact, I’d pick Gonzalez over either if I were setting the postseason rotation now based on how everyone has looked so far.

So, obviously, I don’t think it’s happening. But if Tillman and Jimenez prove me wrong, then the Orioles would enter October with a solid rotation, one of the better lineups around and their usual underrated bullpen and they’d have about as much of a chance as anyone.

Szymborski: Make the playoffs!  Everyone’s pretty close in the playoffs, so really, I’m a believer in “could” for any team that makes it!

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Chris Stoner

Chris Stoner founded Baltimore Sports and Life in 2009. He has appeared as a radio guest with 1090 WBAL, 105.7 The Fan, CBS 1300, Q1370, WOYK 1350, WKAV 1400, and WNST 1570. He has also been interviewed by The Baltimore Sun, Baltimore Business Journal, and PressBox (TV). As Owner, his responsibilities include serving as the Managing Editor, Publicist, & Sales Director. You can reach him via email at [email protected].


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