For a couple of weeks, it seemed as though the Baltimore Orioles would cooperate and accept their place as the worst team in the American League East. With precious few "bad" teams in the American League and a division loaded with teams trying to contend, it made sense for Baltimore to restock slowly and save money. However, the Orioles began to change course when they re-signed slugger Chris Davis to a massive deal last month. Now, with talks between the Orioles and Yovani Gallardo heating up and rumors of a possible Dexter Fowler signing to follow, it appears that Baltimore, too, has designs on contending.
The price will not be cheap. After handing Davis $161 million over 7 years, the Birds will likely have to pay Gallardo somewhere in the range of $45 million over 3 years and Fowler around $20-30 million for 2 years. In addition, both Gallardo and Fowler come with a qualifying offer attached, meaning the Orioles would have to part with the 14th and 29th picks in the draft if they are to sign both players. Estimates on draft pick valuations vary, but even the most conservative conjectures value the two picks at a combined $15-20 million.
For a team like Baltimore that typically avoids expensive free agents, a late offseason spending spree could be costly. However, a return to the playoffs - and potential postseason success - would forgive most ills. If things go according to plan this season, is Baltimore good enough to contend for the playoffs?
Since 2010, it has taken an average of 95.7 wins to take the American League East. In the four years of the two Wild Card system, the second Wild Card has been won with an average of 89.7 wins. In what looks like an especially competitive year in the American League, it appears that the Orioles would have to win at least 90 games to qualify for the playoffs.
Abiding by the theory that a team whose players produce 0 wins above replacement (essentially, a replacement level team) would win 48 games in a season, then Baltimore's roster would have to be worth at least +42 WAR to win 90 games. Currently, FanGraphs' estimates - using a blend of Steamer and ZiPS projection systems - forecast the Orioles to be worth +33.5 WAR. Can the Orioles, through free agency and internal improvements, beat their projections by almost +9 WAR?
As has become common over the past few years, the Orioles offense will once again be the team's strong point. Manny Machado, still just 23 years old, is on most everyone's short list of MVP candidates. Chris Davis, Adam Jones, and Matt Wieters rate as above-average players, and Korean league signee Hyun-soo Kim offers potential in left.
Still, the Orioles have a glaring weakness in right field, where Mark Trumbo, miscast anywhere except designated hitter, is projected to start. FanGraphs projects Orioles right fielders to be worth just a combined 1.1 wins above replacement. In addition, the combination of Jimmy Paredes and Nolan Reimold at DH projects to be 0.4 wins below replacement level. Signing Fowler would fix both of these issues.
The soon-to-be 30-year-old Fowler is coming off a season in which he was worth +3.2 WAR with the Cubs. The owner of a career .346 wOBA, Fowler projects to be an above-average hitter and baserunner and a slightly below-average fielder. Steamer projects +1.6 wins above replacement, but if we're considering best-case scenarios, let's give him +2.5 and value the Orioles' right field position at +3 WAR.
The added benefit of signing Fowler is that it allows Trumbo to play DH. Even if Trumbo is worth just +1 WAR at his new position, it qualifies as an improvement of a win and a half. In total, the signing of Fowler affects two positions and leads to an increase of +3.5 wins to the Orioles' projection.
Additionally, in the spirit of best-case scenarios, let's consider a full, healthy season of Matt Wieters. The erstwhile top prospect has made just 394 plate appearances over the past two seasons combined but has been productive when he plays. Steamer projects Wieters to be worth +2.5 WAR in 445 plate appearances, but if we extrapolate the projection out over 600 plate appearances, Wieters becomes worth +3.4 WAR. Combined with the signing of Fowler, a healthy season from Wieters would improve the Orioles by about 4.5 WAR.
ADDED WAR: +4.5
TOTAL WAR: +38
The loss of de facto staff ace Wei-Yin Chen weakened what was already a middling rotation. FanGraphs predicts just +8.6 WAR for Orioles starters, 29th in the majors (beating out only the lowly Braves). The Steamer projection for Tyler Wilson, penciled in for the fifth starter job, is just 0.7 wins above replacement. Gallardo, if he were signed, would provide a huge boost. Despite seeing his strikeout rate fall to a career low of 15.3 percent in 2015, Gallardo was able to adapt by keeping the ball in the park at his best rate since his rookie season. He will be 30 by the time the season starts but should remain a slightly above-average pitcher in 2016. If we value Gallardo at about +2 WAR, the rotation improves by more than one win above replacement.
Finally, rotation cog Chris Tillman is projected for just +1.5 WAR, which would spell his worst season since 2012. Tillman's ERA ballooned to 4.99 last year despite a stellar hard hit rate of 26.5 percent, down from 29.5 percent the previous season. A .293 BABIP, his highest since 2011, may have been the culprit. Tillman is typically adept at limiting hard contact and sustaining a low BABIP, but despite his strong quality of contact metrics in 2015, his BABIP rose. A return to normalcy next year should enhance his numbers and get him back to about +2.5 WAR. Between Tillman's improvements and Gallardo's signing, the Orioles gain 2.5 wins above replacement.
ADDED WAR: +2.5
TOTAL WAR: +40.5
This brings us to a total WAR of just over 40. Despite forecasting the signings of Gallardo and Fowler and projecting improvement and health across the roster, the Orioles still fail to hit the goal of 42 WAR. Of course, this is a rudimentary procedure; teams have outperformed their projected WAR by far more than the 8.5 wins prescribed here, and WAR is an imperfect metric in the first place.
In addition, improvement could come from elsewhere; perhaps Machado makes another leap and posts a +9 win season, or Kevin Gausman breaks out in his second full season in the rotation. However, the issue remains: the Orioles, as currently constructed plus Gallardo and Fowler, still grade out as a fringe playoff team. Is this reason enough not to sign the two players? Perhaps not. The Mets were a borderline Wild Card candidate going into last year and reached the World Series. The Giants won the World Series after an 88 win season in 2014. However, it is important to consider that while signing Gallardo and Fowler almost certainly make Baltimore better, it does not necessarily make them a contender.
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Tom O'Donnell is a Contributor at Beyond the Box Score. He is also a junior at Colby College. You can follow him on Twitter @Od_Tommy.