Should the O’s Sign a DH or Starting Pitcher?
Today Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe suggests that agent Scott Boras will target the O’s as a potential landing spot for Kendrys Morales. Now that Boras has helped get deals for his other premier free agents, his focus will likely turn to Morales and finding a significant payday for the DH/First Baseman. Cafardo notes:
The draft pick compensation is hurting Morales’s market, but at some point a team such as the Orioles may give it up to have a superb hitter in the middle of their order. Boras scoffs at the notion that the market has dried up. Morales is a heck of a hitter and can play first base, and we should never underestimate Boras’s ability to create a market.
The question then is this: with a limited budget, should the O’s spend significant money on a DH or SP? Getting to the answer is fairly complicated though, and it takes looking at various aspects of the team’s performance, roster construction, the players in question, and more. For the purpose of this discussion we’ll take a look at whether, given $15MM in salary per year to spend, if the O’s should target Kendrys Morales or Matt Garza.
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First let’s take a look at Morales, and how he fits in the O’s roster. MLBTradeRumors suggested that Morales would be looking at a deal close to 2/$28MM with a third year vesting option. This seems reasonable to me, but I’ll use 2/$30MM with a vesting option for a third year at $15MM as the contract I expect Morales to sign. After all, the signing team will have to forfeit a draft pick, so it’s my guess that they’ll want more than 2 years out of Morales to offset that additional cost.
To understand how Morales fits in, let’s quickly take a look at how the O’s performed last year offensively. The Orioles actually ranked 9th in MLB in wOBA last year, which helped them post the 5th best total WAR from their position players. This is no doubt helped by the excellent defense provided by Matt Wieters, JJ Hardy, and especially Manny Machado. The club made up for an awful OBP (19th overall – .313 as a team) by being one of the top 3 slugging teams in baseball (.431 SLG). Overall, the offense was pretty good, but there was a clear lack of on-base percentage on the roster, and the O’s relied heavily on the long ball as a means to stay competitive in games.
Enter Morales, who posted a very good .277/.336/.449 line in Seattle last season, despite playing half his games in a stadium that was 3% worse overall than Camden Yards for batters. It should also be noted that when it comes to home runs, Camden Yards is about 10% more conducive to home runs than league average, while Safeco is about 3% worse than the average. No doubt Morales’ bat would be helpful in the middle of the O’s lineup, as it would provide solid OBP with decent power. Additionally, you don’t have to worry about platoon issues with Morales, as his lines against righties (.275/.327/.453) and lefties (.282/.353/.440) are roughly equal thanks to him being a true switch hitter.
A lineup with Morales mixed in would look something like what I’ve outlined below (note – this is based on how I would set up my lineup, not what I expect Buck’s to be. Batting lines from 2013 unless otherwise indicated).
- RF – Nick Markakis (.329/.375/.441 in the leadoff spot for his career)
- DH – Kendrys Morales (.277/.336/.449)
- 3B – Manny Machado (.283/.314/.432)
- 1B – Chris Davis (.286/.370/.634)
- CF – Adam Jones (.285/.318/.493)
- SS – JJ Hardy (.263/.306/.433)
- C – Matt Wieters (.235/.287/.417)
- LF – David Lough (.286/.311/.413)
- 2B – Ryan Flaherty (.224/.293/.390)
(May 14, 2013 – Source: Al Bello/Getty Images North America)
Morales slots in second behind Markakis as arguably the second best overall hitter on the team. He’s also likely to post a top 3 OBP which makes him an ideal fit for the second spot in the order. This lineup would be greatly improved, not only from replacing the DH production from lat year (Oriole DH’s hit .234/.289/.415 last season) but also from slotting the DH higher in the lineup moving guys like Hardy and Wieters down in the lineup.
It seems obvious that the O’s lineup would be improved by slotting in Morales, and that they’d be likely to produce more than the 26.6 WAR they combined for last season. The question though, is would that be the best use of $15MM? As I outlined previously, the O’s offense was already in the top 10 in baseball without Morales. While OBP is obviously an issue, spending $15MM on one player might not be the best way to use a limited pool of money.
One alternative is to spend that money on a starting pitcher that would help stabilize the rotation. For the sake of this exercise, I’ll use Matt Garza as the starting pitcher who could be signed. Rumor has it that Garza will sign for something in the 4 year and $60-65MM range, which gives him an AAV of exactly $15MM. So for the sake of payroll, 1 Matt Garza = 1 Kendrys Morales.
Garza spent 3 seasons in Tampa Bay becoming one of the most reliable starters in baseball over that time. He threw an average of 197 innings per season, and never posted an ERA above 3.95. Since then Garza has been a front of the rotation arm for the Cubs, posting ERAs of 3.32, 3.91, and 3.17 in 2011, 2012, and 2013 respectively. Last year he was traded to Texas in the hopes that he would help stabilize their rotation for the stretch run. Unfortunately for Garza and the Rangers he struggled, putting up a 4.38 ERA over 84.1 innings for the club. Interestingly though, Garza’s peripherals with Texas were actually better, though he was a bit unlucky with bumps in his home run rate and BABIP coming after the trade.
The Orioles struggled at times last season when it came to pitching, posting the 8th worst ERA in baseball (4.20). Narrowing it down even further, we can see that the O’s had the 4th worst ERA (4.57) from their starters in 2013. The Orioles had 14 pitchers start at least one game in 2013, including 10 pitchers who made at least 5 starts. Of those 14 pitchers, only 2 posted ERAs under 4 (Tillman & Gonzalez). Two others (Chen & Feldman) posted ERAs under 4.50. Freddy Garcia made 10 starts, posting a 5.88 ERA in those outings. Jason Hammel was a bit better, putting up a 5.14 ERA over 23 starts for the Orioles last season. I could keep throwing stats out, but the end result is ultimately the same. The Orioles used a lot of pitchers to start games last year, and most of them weren’t any good.
Not only were they not any good, but they weren’t very durable either. Only one pitcher threw over 175 innings (Chris Tillman – 206.1 IP). Three others reached the 130 IP plateau (Hammel – 133, Chen – 137, Gonzalez – 170).
Matt Garza’s durability seems to be a question mark because he failed to throw 160 IP over the past two seasons, but he never threw fewer than 180 in the four seasons prior to that. The Orioles are likely to take issue with Garza’s medicals, especially the elbow issue he had with the Cubs. He has however, bounced back strong from that injury (among others) and any physical would indicate to the team if they’re ok with his health or not.
What the team would likely get in Garza is a reliable starter who will throw more innings than 80% of their starters, while posting a respectable ERA. Having pitched effectively in the AL East previously, any concerns about Garza’s ability to perform at a level that helps the team should be squashed. Assuming he’s healthy and passes a physical, he could be counted on for at least 160 innings which means the O’s likely wouldn’t have to go 14 pitchers deep for starters next season. Adding Garza would likely result in a rotation that looks something like this:
- RHP – Chris Tillman
- RHP – Matt Garza
- LHP – Wei-Yin Chen
- RHP – Miguel Gonzalez
- RHP – Bud Norris
This rotation pushes Kevin Gausman to AAA Norfolk to start the season, something that will likely help his development, while also strengthening the MLB rotation. It also means that the O’s won’t have to squeeze Zach Britton or Steve Johnson into the rotation in order to keep Gausman in AAA. This in turn strengthens the bullpen, because you have more players fighting for a limited number of spots in the back end of the rotation and bullpen. To put a finer point on it, let’s take a look at how much better the O’s would’ve been with Garza last year.
(September 10, 2013 – Source: Ronald Martinez/Getty Images North America)
Without Garza the O’s starters posted a 4.57 ERA, good for fourth worst in MLB. If you replace the worst 154.2 innings from O’s starters last year (including starts from Josh Stinson, Freddy Garcia, TJ MacFarland, Jair Jurrjens, etc.) and replaced them with Garza, the team’s ERA drops to 4.13. That would put them between the Diamondbacks and Yankees, good enough for 13th worst in baseball, and much closer to the league average of 4.01.
There’s also an intangible benefit of bringing in a guy like Garza as he can mentor the relatively young pitching staff in Baltimore. The ramifications here would arguably be more significant than with Morales, for the reason that it will literally push players down the depth chart making the team’s performance improve overall.
If the Orioles do in fact have $15MM or so to invest in an impact player, they could certainly do worse than Kendrys Morales or Matt Garza. Morales comes with a bit more expense given the draft pick compensation tied to him. However, it’s easy to see how signing either player would significantly improve the Orioles’ chances of succeeding next season. The only question is which signing would improve the team more?
The answer to that question, for me anyway, is Garza. The O’s rotation simply lacked another steady starter that could be counted on to provide an ERA near the league average over 160+ innings. The Orioles’ offense would undoubtedly get better by having Morales and his solid OBP in the middle of the order. The offense however is already in the top half of the league. Meanwhile, the starting pitchers were in the bottom five last season, and adding Garza would quickly move them back up into the middle of the pack.