The Orioles have had an interesting offseason, to say the least. It's not the sort of winter Orioles fans wanted. It's hard to understand why the Orioles aren't spending at all. It adds up to very little for a team that needed to make a splash. At times, it's even caused garments to be rent.
Perhaps, however, this is not the sign of a clueless front office and a manipulative owner, but of actual — dare I say it? — expertise and competence at their jobs. Perhaps the Orioles, recognizing the difficulty of their division and the quality of their current talent, have given up on 2014, in hopes of going all in for 2015.
Crazy? Probably. Regardless, this is how I've come to view the issue, and there are a few reasons why it might be Baltimore's best path.
Davis and Wieters might not be birds for long. (Photo credit: Thearon W. Henderson)
1. The Window of Opportunity
The Orioles have a thing called a window of opportunity. If they miss the window of opportunity, then the whole project fails. And if the project fails, then the fans get very, very...ANGRY! Now, this is true of all teams, insofar as their structure gives them optimal years for contention, but the Orioles' opening seems to be more clearly defined as the next two years. Why is this their time frame? I'll explain.
Currently, the Orioles have several good position players on their roster; the top five, as defined by Dan Szymborski, would be Manny Machado, Adam Jones, Chris Davis, Matt Wieters, and J.J. Hardy. All should earn at least three wins next year, if ZIPS is to be believed; of the quintet, Baltimore has Machado and Jones locked up long-term (through 2018 for both). The other three, however, could leave soon — Hardy is a free agent after 2014, and Davis and Wieters are free agents in the next offseason.
The Orioles aren't empty in the pitching department, however, as they have some decent arms readily available; Chris Tillman, Miguel Gonzalez, Bud Norris, and Wei-Yin Chen — for whom ZIPS projects 2 WAR each — come to mind. The former two are bound to the team through 2017, but the latter two can leave after 2015 — i.e. the same time as Wieters and Davis.
So, to reiterate, about five-ninths of Baltimore's nominal core could disappear in two years' time. Hence, the window of opportunity, which seems to have a pretty rational basis. Given this, you'd think the Orioles would want to put everything they have into these next two years, starting now. If we look a bit deeper, though, we can see a few reasons why they might want to solely focus on 2015.
With their current talent base, the Orioles won't do well in 2014. (Photo credit: Patrick Smith)
2. The Present Talent
Two years ago, no one expected the Orioles to do much. They were coming off a 69-win campaign, and they had gone 14 years without a winning season. They surprised everyone, however, by winning 93 games and the AL wildcard; after many pundits predicted a harsh dose of reality in 2013, they surprised everyone again, as they won 85 games and contended into September.
We've all grown tired of that story, heard countless times on innumerable websites. The point is, the Orioles overachieved in both years, and they won't contend in 2014. FanGraphs' projected standings for 2014 has the Orioles at 76 wins for next year, last in the AL East and seventh-worst in the majors. This negativity can be attributed to their position players; while they were the fifth-best group in MLB in 2013, they're forecasted to tumble to 20th in 2014. Meanwhile, the pitchers are expected to maintain their mediocrity; they were 20th in the majors last year, and they should be around the same spot this year.
As Dave Cameron explained in January, Baltimore is top-heavy — the best players (i.e. the core nine outlined above) are collectively superb, but the rest of the team is terrible. The stars-and-scrubs model only works if you can find adequate role players to fill the gaps, and the Orioles can't seem to do that. While they've defied the experts for two years running, their luck will run out next year.
So if the Orioles won't do well in 2014, why should we anticipate a better performance in 2015? The answer lies in the farm system, where the future is always bright.
Gausman may not be of use in 2014, but his future is bright. (Photo credit: Joy R. Absalon)
3. The Young Guns
Now, let's talk prospects. The Orioles have quite a few quality players in their minor-league system, enough that Keith Law ranked it as the 10th-best in all of baseball. The cream of the crop was Kevin Gausman, Dylan Bundy, Hunter Harvey, and Eduardo Rodriguez, whom Law ranked #23, #31, #38, and #43, respectively. Given that Baltimore's rotation was the seventh-worst in the majors last season, this kind of life inspires hope in a fanbase, as it should.
The only problem, though, is that the arms won't be of much use in the coming season. Gausman was called up last year, and while his peripherals were strong, his 5.66 ERA in 47.2 innings suggests he'll need some time in AAA. Bundy tore up the minors in 2012, but didn't pitch at all in 2013*; he dealt with elbow issues for a few months before having Tommy John surgery in June. He's supposed to return in June, but it's unlikely he'll make any real contributions. Baltimore just drafted Harvey in 2013, and he has yet to pitch above A-, so he'll have to be seasoned before coming up. Rodriguez has a similar case — he just reached AA last year, and he struggled when he was there, so he probably won't leave the farm.
*If anything, it testifies to Bundy's incredible ability and potential that he can be the 31st-best prospect in baseball without pitching at all in 2013.
Of the quadrumvirate, Gausman could probably add the most value in 2014; ZIPS foresees 1.9 WAR in 147.1 innings, much higher than the figures for the other three. In 2015, though, they should be able to assist the club to a much greater extent, or at least provide substantial depth.
The other ranked prospect is Jonathan Schoop, an ostensible second baseman with a decent future. Coming in at #86 in Law's rankings, Schoop is still fairly raw — he had a sub-.700 OPS at AAA last year — and ZIPS reflects this; his 1.2 WAR in 471 theoretical plate appearances is less than satisfactory. By 2015, he should be ready; Oliver's projections for that year have him at 2.8 WAR in 600 PAs (the standard figure for all Oliver projections). If he can meet that level of production, he'll be a more than suitable player in the 4-hole.
These prospects can make the 2015 team much better, but sometimes a team improves by losing — addition by subtraction. The 2014 team will be weighed down by a player that, assuming all goes right, shouldn't be a part of the 2015 contender.
Originally seen as the face of the franchise, Markakis hasn't lived up to expectations. (Photo credit: Patrick Smith)
4. No More Markakis
Who was Baltimore's highest paid player in 2013? Was it any of the nine players listed above? No, it was right fielder Nick Markakis, the erstwhile top prospect turned albatross. Following his six-win season at age 24, the Orioles bought high, inking him to a six-year, $66 million contract. In retrospect, the devilish numbers that constituted the deal were harbingers of things to come.
Markakis wouldn't come close to replicating that production; his peak WAR from 2009 to 2013 was 2.4 in 2010, and his total WAR over that span was 7.5 — not much more than he contributed in that breakout year. Last year was his nadir, as he compiled -0.1 WAR in 700 plate appearances; ZIPS sees more of the same in 2014, as it prognosticates 0.8 WAR in 639 plate appearances. Overall, the contract turned out pretty poorly for the Orioles, and his $15.35 million salary for next year will considerably hamstring the team.
Nevertheless, there is light at the end of this tunnel. The deal has a 2015 team option, which the Orioles will (hopefully) decline; although the buyout will cost them $2 million, the option itself is for $17.5 million, so declining it will save them $15 million on their payroll. For a team with a budget that will probably be in the eight figures, that's a big chunk of cash. But where would those dividends go? That's where we arrive at the key element in all of this: the 2014 free agent class.
Shields is one of many players who could be available next year. (Photo credit: Ed Zurga)
5. The Free Agents
2014 wasn't a great one for free agents. The best players were signed quickly, and there weren't many good ones out there to begin with. While this certainly doesn't excuse the complete absence on the part of the Orioles, they should receive some credit for not handing out an unnecessary contract simply for the sake of doing something. Next year, however, there is a potential mother lode of players that will hit the market, and the Orioles could benefit from all of them.
First, let's return to the core nine we brought up earlier — Machado, Jones, Davis, Wieters, Hardy, Tillman, Gonzalez, Norris, and Chen. Four of them are here to stay, and four of them can go after 2015. Hardy is the outlier; his extension is up after this year, and while the Orioles are talking with him about another extension, he might not be able to stay. If the Orioles are unable to extend Hardy, and he moves to another team upon hitting free agency, there are still several other shortstop options available in that class: Jed Lowrie, Hanley Ramirez, and Yunel Escobar (although his option will likely be picked up). All should be 2- to 3-win players at the very least, and all should be options for the Orioles.
For the sake of this experiment, we'll assume the Orioles resign Hardy — he has said he wants to stay, he isn't a Boras client, I don't see why it can't happen. Oliver projects the Machado-Jones-Davis-Wieters-Hardy quintet to accrue 19 WAR in 2015; if we add Schoop to the group, we get a combined WAR of 21.8. That figure alone would put Baltimore's position players as the 15th-best in the majors in 2013; if they could gain an additional 20 WAR from the other 19 spots on the roster, they'd be in prime position to make a run for the playoffs.
This is where the free agents come in. Assuming these six are present, and they perform up to expectations, the Orioles will need two corner outfielders and a designated hitter. There is a plethora of options available in the outfield; the top four would appear to be Brett Gardner, Colby Rasmus, Chris Young, and Norichika Aoki, all of whom Oliver projects as 2- to 5-WAR players in two years. Let's be pessimistic, and assume the Orioles only sign one of these four, and that the signee only gives them two wins. Let's also assume Baltimore finds no one else to man the other outfield spot or DH, and that these two spots combined give them one win. That still puts their team WAR at 24.8, which would have been 10th-best in MLB last year.
Pitching, however, is where things get really interesting. The Tillman-Gonzalez-Norris-Chen quartet, and their 7.1 projected WAR in 2015, won't blow anyone away. As the immortal Dave Cameron discussed on Monday, however, there are six pitchers of potentially ace-level quality that could hit the market in 2014. Max Scherzer, James Shields, Justin Masterson, Homer Bailey, Jon Lester, Hiroki Kuroda — all had at least three wins last year, and all should become available after next year. If the Orioles could sign one or more of these six to replace some of the aforementioned four — say, Masterson and Kuroda — they, along with the prospects, could easily approach 17 collective WAR, putting them in the top ten for all teams in baseball. Coupled with the gains for the batters, this will put them at about 40 wins above replacement — widely considered to be the grounds for a contending team.
So, there you have it. The Orioles shouldn't bother trying this year, as nothing good will come of it anyway; instead, they should cut their losses and look to the year ahead. Is this a quixotic fantasy, predicated on exceptional health, an uncharacteristic burst of generosity from a parsimonious owner, and a whooooooooooooole lotta luck? Well, yeah. As an Orioles fan, though, dreams are my only option. And while it's highly unlikely that this scenario will come to pass, well...
Even if 2015 doesn't work out that well, the base for a solid team is still there. This is still a top-10 minor league system with solid major leaguers to boot — I hesitate to say it, but the future might not be so bad after all.
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All statistics courtesy of FanGraphs.
Ryan Romano writes for Beyond the Box Score, the FanGraphs Community blog, and Camden Chat that one time. Follow him on Twitter at @triple_r_ if you enjoy angry tweets about Maryland sports and live tweeting about Community, Thursdays at 8/7c after the Olympics. Cool. Coolcoolcool.