Recently, the Orioles have finally gotten active with regard to improving their ballclub. Such behavior was long overdue, because inactivity was likely to leave the Orioles in a non-competitive place despite a roster littered with upper-level talent. Their offseason, for a while, was as disappointing as Cincinnati’s, and on the heels of the Ubaldo Jimenez acquisition, writers all over the place have emphasized that the Orioles are working with a short-term window. That is, the Orioles need to win in 2014 or 2015, because after that, they could easily be without both Matt Wieters and Chris Davis.
Wieters is good, and next year is his last year of team control, and he’s represented by Scott Boras. Davis is good, and next year is his last year of team control, and he’s represented by Scott Boras as well. Certainly, the Orioles would rather have more good players than fewer good players, and if they do lose these two, they’ll have to work hard to make up for it. But I want to talk about the Orioles’ perceived window, just as I talked some time ago about the Royals’ perceived window, because the actual reality is always more complicated than the sound-byte reality. For Baltimore, it doesn’t have to be two years or bust.
The first thing to talk about: how good are the Orioles, actually? Like, right this second? Is this even really a good window for them? They have won 178 games over two years. Much of that talent is still around. And yet, they aren’t quite projection-system darlings. Steamer has them as the worst team in the AL East. PECOTA also has them as the worst team in the AL East. ZiPS doesn’t seem to think they’re very different from the Blue Jays. One message: the Orioles aren’t bad. A second message: the Orioles, at least this year, will have an uphill battle. For a team supposedly with a short-term window, the shortest term is less than encouraging.
Some young talent could and should arrive down the stretch. It could and should be in place for 2015, so maybe next year would be when the Orioles are at their best. Some of that depends on how good Davis and Wieters actually are. Wieters hasn’t shown much improvement, and Davis looks like a regression candidate, if only because his most recent numbers were so insane. I think if you’re going to talk about a team with a window, it should at least be clear that they’re a real contender during. The Orioles simply might be. The teams around them are also pretty good.
Now, let’s say that Wieters and Davis both walk after 2015. It’s the current course of things, and let’s say they become highly sought-after free agents. Lose Wieters and the Orioles are down, say, 3-4 wins. Lose Davis and they’re down, I don’t know, 3-5 wins. The specific numbers aren’t important — what’s important is that they’re big losses. But those aren’t just losses of wins; they also represent cleared payroll. Wieters might easily end up making about $10 million in 2015. Davis could earn upwards of $15 million. This is the easy part to forget about — when you lose a highly-paid star, you lose a star, but you also gain some flexibility.
Of course, Wieters will probably be more valuable than $10 million, and Davis will probably be more valuable than $15 million. Those are estimated third-year arbitration figures, and you can’t use that money to buy the same wins back on the open market. But then, there’s also the Nick Markakis factor. Markakis will make $15 million this season. Then there’s a bigger club option, with a $2-million buyout. Markakis has been worth 7.5 WAR over five years, and his most recent year was his worst, and he’s entered his 30s.
Unless Markakis turns things around, the Orioles will happily clear that money, and then they’ll be able to re-invest it, probably better. Between Markakis, Wieters, and Davis, the Orioles could lose a lot of talent over two years, but that talent would’ve come at a cost of tens of millions of dollars, and dollars are basically wins without a corporeal form. Even if they can’t totally make up the gap in lost wins, they can get a lot of the way there.
And now’s when we consider the potential long-term assets. If the talk is about the Orioles losing Wieters and Davis, the talk should also be about the players the Orioles would have left. Because every baseball team is bigger than one or two players, and though you can never be confident in projections a few years off, the Orioles have reason to hope they could still have a pretty strong core a few seasons down the road.
Adam Jones is there for a while. He’s locked in and he’s good. Manny Machado‘s there for a while. He’s under club control, and he’s good. The Orioles just signed Ubaldo Jimenez for four years. Chris Tillman isn’t arbitration-eligible until 2015. Less sexily, Miguel Gonzalez isn’t arbitration-eligible until 2015. Hell, the Orioles signed Suk-min Yoon for three years, whatever he might be, and that contract’s interesting. It’s looking like the front office could sign J.J. Hardy to a long-term extension.
And what the Orioles have is a top-heavy farm system, which means it’s light on depth, but big on potential impact talent. Our own Marc Hulet put five Orioles prospect in the top 100. Keith Law put the same five in the top 100. Baseball Prospectus put the same five in the top 101. Those five are real good and, for the most part, they’re close to being major leaguers.
Dylan Bundy is on the other side of Tommy John surgery, now, and he’s an operation removed from being baseball’s consensus top pitching prospect. He’s 21 years old. Kevin Gausman is 23 years old, and he’s had few problems in the minors, and while his big-league cup of coffee featured a near-6 ERA, it also featured a near-3 xFIP, with a strikeout an inning. Eduardo Rodriguez is 20 years old, and he just struck out a batter an inning in his first exposure to Double-A. Jonathan Schoop is 22 years old, and he’s thought to be close to a big-league infield provided he’s over a 2013 back injury. Rounding things out, Hunter Harvey was just drafted 22nd overall, and he’s 19, and while he’s a few years away, he’s also a potential fast riser. Hulet has given him a high ceiling, albeit shy of ace-level.
Odds are, not all those guys will work out. Bundy’s already been hurt. Harvey’s a low-minors prep arm, and Schoop hasn’t hit a whole lot for a while. But some of those guys should work out, and if, say, Bundy and Gausman succeed, they could be impact starters real soon under cheap team control for several seasons. And there’s absolutely nothing more valuable to a big-league franchise than a good young player making a tiny fraction of his market-value salary.
Jones, Machado, and Tillman are already good and in place. Jimenez is something of a mystery, and Hardy is a different sort of mystery, but there could be value there, too, and then you throw in the prospects, who could make significant impacts. Mix that together and it’s not unreasonable to think that the Orioles could still be pretty good in 2016 and beyond. If Bundy and Gausman deliver in the nearer term, the 2015 O’s could be a force, but a force without Matt Wieters and Chris Davis is still a force with some money to spend. So, you can paint a hopeful picture.
You can also paint a depressing picture. A lot depends on a group of young arms, and there’s no less-reliable set of players in baseball. If the pitchers bust, the Orioles would need new pitchers, non-busted pitchers, and those pitchers would cost them money, and they’d run out of money fast. But Bundy could be real good. Gausman could be real good. Rodriguez could be real good, and Schoop could at least be an all-right infielder for cheap, and so on. Life for the Orioles doesn’t have to end after 2015, even if Wieters and Davis both leave. Solutions could be found from within the system, because a system’s the real key to sustainable winning.
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