The Orioles Play in the Shallow End of Free Agency

For a team hoping to contend in the much vaunted AL East, the Baltimore Orioles have had a relatively uneventful offseason. However, uneventful does not mean that they’ve sat quietly like the Milwaukee Brewers (who have yet to sign a free agent to a major league contract). Baltimore has signed over half a dozen free agents, settled with a handful of arbitration eligible players, and even made a trade. Despite the apparent activity, the Orioles focus has been building depth at the bottom of the roster rather than adding to the core. Spring training will prove to be a crowded battle.

Earlier in the offseason, the Orioles traded incumbent closer Jim Johnson to the Oakland Athletics for second baseman Jemile Weeks. Johnson was expected to earn $10 million in arbitration – a figure which exactly matches the settlement he reached with the A’s. The Orioles clearly preferred to free up that payroll to address another area of the roster, which has yet to happen. They’re still widely assumed to sign an additional free agent starter and have been most closely tied to Bronson Arroyo. Meanwhile, Weeks will compete for the starting job at second base.

Interestingly, the Orioles have handed major league contracts to three minor league free agents, namely outfielder Francisco Peguero, right-handed pitcher Edgmer Escalona, and left-handed pitcher Kelvin De La Cruz. It’s unusual for a team to give a major league contract to one minor league free agent, let alone three of them. Clearly, the Orioles coveted these players and believed that a major league guarantee was necessary to bring them aboard.

Of that trio, only De La Cruz has no major league experience. He used to feature a fastball that could touch 95 mph, but his velocity has averaged just 90 mph during the past two spring trainings. Some pitchers don’t reach their top speed in March, so it’s possible he has more in the tank. Throughout the minors, De La Cruz has struck out batters at a high rate while issuing far too many walks. The Orioles may see something fixable in his video, or they may simply want to take a chance on him as a lefty specialist.

Peguero may be more athletic than a fourth outfielder like Steve Pearce, but he’s also not somebody you would mistake as a center fielder. His best scouting remark is that he generates great bat speed, but he also lacks power and rarely draws walks. Injuries have derailed his minor league career and he’s only once eclipsed 500 plate appearances.  Despite signing a major league deal, it appears that Peguero has an uphill battle for a job on the active roster.

Escalona is probably the most understandable major league signing of that group. He’s spent parts of four seasons in the majors with the Rockies organization. He has displayed a 94 mph fastball and a solid slider. His fastball was a bit too hittable, and he’s allowed more home runs than expected. You might be inclined to blame Coors Field, but he’s actually shown slightly better numbers at home throughout his career including a lower home run to fly ball ratio (HR/FB).

Another fringe talent who is said to have signed a major league contract (unconfirmed) is Tyler Colvin. He has spent parts of five seasons in the majors and has alternated between very good and terrible performances. From 2009 through 2013, his major league wOBA’s read like so: .205, .351, .218, .364, .204. Those fluctuations are largely driven by his BABIP and ISO. Since he’s hit much better against right-handed pitching in his major league career, he’s been used as a platoon outfielder. It’s possible that he’ll compete with Henry Urrutia at designated hitter.

In addition to the major league signees, the Orioles have acquired several major league veterans on minor league contracts. Some of them are presumed to be favorites to make the opening day roster. That list includes Delmon Young, Alfredo Aceves, Alexi Casilla, Quintin Berry, Xavier Paul, Julio Borbon, and Luiz Vizcaino. Those options provide good depth in case of injury.

Young and Casilla are the most likely to make the opening day roster – potentially in place of Weeks and either Colvin or Urrutia. The current speculation is that Young will platoon at designated hitter with Urrutia. Aceves could make the team with a strong spring and/or injuries to the pitching staff, while Berry might have a shot simply due to his ability to play center field. The Orioles current backup center fielder is David Lough, and he is expected to start in left-field.

While this quantity of depth is not unheard of going into spring training, it does shed an interesting glimpse into the Orioles’ thought process. It would seem that they are happy to stand pat with the core roster they used last season. However, based on the estimates from FanGraphs depth charts, the club currently projects to finish fifth in the AL East. Even recognizing shortcomings in those projected standings as well as the fickle nature of the 162 game season, the Orioles roster has to be considered a long shot to contend.

However, there is a flip side to these projections. Depending on how readily you accept the relationship between wins and WAR, the O’s could be as many as 14 wins from contending for the division title and eight from being a strong candidate in the Wild Card race. The club has given no indication that they are prepared to massively expand their budget, so top end free agents like Shin-Soo Choo or Robinson Cano were never practical options. We’ve talked about the win curve frequently in the last few weeks, but it seems that the Orioles aren’t in the right place to sign a big ticket item.

Despite that the club probably needs more high quality talent to contend, there is always that chance for a fluke season. Focusing on the back end of the roster is a cost effective way to ensure that any surprise opportunity is not missed. Since the club lacks high upside prospects to fill the back of the roster, the O’s have turned to the Who’s Who list of fringy veterans. And because they had spots available on their 40 man roster, they were able to hand out a few guaranteed contracts to the players that interested them most. Usually this is a strategy best employed by a team like the Red Sox, who have plenty of quality talent and just need to survive the usual batch of injuries.

The Orioles are under no obligation to keep all of these players, in fact many of them will trigger opt out clauses if they don’t make the major league team. Others will be cut outright. By focusing on depth, depth, and more depth, Baltimore acceded that they are a second rate team in the AL East, while recognizing that they still have just enough talent to be a surprise contender. In this, they probably learned from their surprising 2011 experience.



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Brad is a former collegiate player who writes for FanGraphs, MLB Trade Rumors, The Hardball Times, RotoWorld, and The Fake Baseball. He's also the lead MLB editor for RotoBaller. Follow him on Twitter @BaseballATeam or email him here.


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travolta19
Member
travolta19
2 years 8 months ago

So, I guess this is the optimist’s take on the O’s offseason. Still pretty grim…The Orioles have added 12-13 guys who will compete to be on their bench.

Juan Lucky Pierre
Guest
Juan Lucky Pierre
2 years 8 months ago

This team will be lucky to go .500. Such a shame too, with the core that is in place. Why wouldn’t this team be interested in Tanaka? So no real 2nd base option. No closer. No everyday left fielder and stop gaps at DH with no help in an already shaky rotation. If your strategy is to succeed via flukery, then you need a new strategy.

Josh
Guest
Josh
2 years 8 months ago

Why on Earth would they be lucky to go .500? They won 85 games last season and 93 in 2012. The team is largely the same as they were the past two years minus Jim Johnson. Nate McLouth and Scott Feldman are not and never were pivotal players who carried the club. David Lough looks to profile like McLouth and Feldman is just a guy.

So what gives?

Bill
Guest
Bill
2 years 8 months ago

I agree they will be above .500, but I still think they are a long shot to make the playoffs. I think they will have a similar win total to a year ago. Thor won’t be as good, but others will play better and they won’t blow 10 saves.

Vince
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Vince
2 years 8 months ago

“The Orioles current backup center fielder is David Lough, and he is expected to start in left-field.”

The first half of that statement is not a problem.

Josh
Guest
Josh
2 years 8 months ago

Impactful left fielders aren’t hard to come by at or before the trade deadline. That’s pretty common knowledge.

Joshua Choudhury
Member
Joshua Choudhury
2 years 8 months ago

‘Impactful’ players at any position, at any time, tend to be hard to come by.

Josh
Guest
Josh
2 years 8 months ago

Yeah but left field is arguably the easiest position to fill via mid-season trade. There’s always a few non-contending teams looking to trade off a solid player.

Dflynn1162
Guest
Dflynn1162
2 years 8 months ago

I think there is something to this comment. I come down in the middle. I think they got lucky in 2012 but had some bad breaks in 2013, making me think they will win somewhere between 85 and 93 games. That wont get them into the wild card, but if they are in striking distance, maybe a mid-season pickup will do the trick. Seems risky, but maybe. Meanwhile the O’s biggest problem is the owner, no doubt..

Tito Landrum
Guest
Tito Landrum
2 years 8 months ago

I agree. As an O’s fan, I can concede they were “lucky” in 2012 (which doesn’t mean they didn’t earn each one of those 93 wins and make a good showing in the playoffs) BUT they were also a bit unlucky last season, IMO. This didn’t show up in their pythag, which was right with their record, but more so, ironically in their record in one run games. That being said, they were more lucky in 2012 than they were unlucky in 2013. But this team has managed to outperform their win projections in 2012, by a lot, and even in 2013 where projections had them between 74 and 78 wins.

walt526
Member
walt526
2 years 8 months ago

I’m surprised that there is no mention of the Balfour debacle and the shadow that might cast on future negotiations between the Orioles and free agents. The perception that a club has not negotiated in good faith is a likely obstacle to their signing free agents, particularly in the short-term. Once the free agent starter market starts to clear, the Orioles may be able to get a lower tier starter.

That said, given that the Orioles have no real shot at competing in 2014 even if they signed a high profile free agent who didn’t disappoint, I think that signing a bunch of relatively cheap lottery tickets isn’t the worst idea in the world. There’s a non-zero chance that they can discover the next Chris Davis.

iz
Guest
iz
2 years 8 months ago

This. Duquette has a decent enough record with picking lotto tickets, I think this is a worthwhile strategy. Bring talent in, worry about “windows” later.

Anthony
Guest
Anthony
2 years 8 months ago

So far, the front office is squandering a good chance to win with a great core of players. This baseball cereal box comes with Davis, Hardy, Jones, Wieters, Machado, and Markakis. Just add pitching! We are one front line starter FA away from being a real PIA in the AL East.

They should not care about the draft pick, the O’s have the best shot to win now. Please DD, go get the arm. Tanaka will sign soon and the rest of the FA contracts will fall in place. DD, do the O’s fanbase a solid and bring us something to get excited about. Can’t be cheap forever. The A’s are going for it, and they draw less fans to the park.

RC
Guest
RC
2 years 8 months ago

So, basically the Orioles have a core of 6 players:

(Steamer projections)
Hardy: 2.8 WAR
Davis: 3.4 WAR
Jones: 3.1 WAR
Wieters: 3.2 WAR
Machado: 2.7 WAR
Markakis: 1.3 WAR

I think Davis and Machado are probably a bit low, but Markakis is a below average player, Hardy is a slightly above average player who is on the wrong side of 30, etc. That’s not a strong core by any means. Especially with the Rays and Red Sox in the same division.

Seriously, go through the Red Sox lineup, and compare it to the Orioles. The Red Sox are better at the majority of the positions, AND they have a pitching staff.

I think this whole “the Orioles are going to be good” thing is a product of the orioles being so terrible for the last decade that their fans have forgotten what actual good teams look like. They mistake slightly above average players (like Wieters) for superstars.

Eric Feczko
Guest
Eric Feczko
2 years 8 months ago

The projections for steamer are probably 2 wins below what should be expected for machado (projected to play only 100 games), davis and 1 win below what should be expected for Adam jones (projected to play only 130 games despite playing 149+ for the past three years).

In terms of a core, this puts the Orioles core position players on par with what the Rays core position players produced last year.

Nevertheless, the huge gap in pitching essentially dooms the Orioles. The Orioles have no starters that can match up against price, cobb, moore, lester, lackey, or buchholz. Unless Dylan Bundy becomes an ace MLB pitcher next season, the Orioles need at least two frontline starters to compete.

O's Fan
Guest
O's Fan
2 years 8 months ago

Weren’t the O’s projected to be in last in 2012 and 2013, with essentially the same roster? But they won 93 and 85 games.

Not that the O’s offseason hasn’t been a massive disappointment.

Jason B
Guest
Jason B
2 years 8 months ago

It did happen, but the 2012 record was greatly aided by 1-run game flukery, which was known to be unsustainable. Lightning could strike twice, of course…I just wouldn’t count on it.

Tito Landrum
Guest
Tito Landrum
2 years 8 months ago

And the 2013 record was aided by a poor recorded in one run games. A .500 record in one run games makes the 2013 Orioles a 90 win team.

I have no idea what to expect from the 2014 Orioles, the pitching is mediocre and they just don’t get on base enough or simply see enough pitches like the Sox, Rays and Yankees do.

Juan Lucky Pierre
Guest
Juan Lucky Pierre
2 years 8 months ago

Classic Orioles fan apologist comment. It’s like saying my husband wouldn’t beat me if I was a better spouse. And you will have the odd successful season when your strategy relies on the flukey nature of outcomes.

Vil
Member
Member
Vil
2 years 8 months ago

I’m all for improving depth. I’m all for panning for gold, i.e., trying to find another surprise contributor like a McLouth or Chris Davis.

What I don’t get is this: the various players signed by DD indicate that the team is not going to try and change the overall approach to batting.

The Orioles led all of baseball in HRs last year–but they didn’t lead the AL in runs scored. In fact, they weren’t even close.

Maybe I’m missing something, but isn’t it helpful to have more base runners than fewer? The leaders in team OBP in the AL last year: Boston, Detroit, Tampa Bay, LAA, Oakland and Cleveland. Five of these teams made the playoffs.

Only one team drew fewer walks in the AL last year than the Orioles. Chicago.
Top four teams in BBs: Tampa Bay, Boston, Oakland, Cleveland. Again, all playoff teams.

Coincidence?

mendoza
Member
mendoza
2 years 8 months ago

I’d like to see the Orioles raise spending to give this current core the best chance to win, but they’re not as far off as some people seem to think. They lost Jim Johnson but got Webb, who’s basically an identical player. Lost McLouth but got Lough, who may be better due to defense. Got a bunch more depth guys who could surprise, and the rotation looks about as solid as it has in the past few years, with Norris coming back and Gausman on the doorstep. Machado and Davis have established themselves. Objectively speaking this team will look better on opening day than the 2013 team did.

The Humber Games
Guest
The Humber Games
2 years 8 months ago

To extend the metaphor – if the Orioles are playing in the shallow end, were the Reds not even allowed in the pool area?

Mr Punch
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Mr Punch
2 years 8 months ago

The O’s approach looks like a cheap version of how the Red Sox rose from last to first in the AL East last year. (The Sox also recovered, eventually, from not paying $10m/yr to keep their closer.) As iz notes, Duquette has had some success along these lines. It probably won’t work, but it’s something.

RC
Guest
RC
2 years 8 months ago

The difference is the Red Sox had a bunch of superstars (Pedroia, Ortiz, Ellsbury, Lester, Lackey, Buccholz, etc), and the Orioles really don’t.

KS
Guest
KS
2 years 8 months ago

“Depending on how readily you accept the relationship between wins and WAR, the O’s could be as many as 14 wins from contending for the division title and eight from being a strong candidate in the Wild Card race.”

I assume that eight game figure comes from the early projection that showed the 2014 Orioles with 34 WAR. But with the subsequent additions (particulary Lough and Young) it’s not hard to see that the team should be projected for another 3-4 WAR using LF and DH platoons, along with a mid-season promotion of Jonathan Schoop. I’m also not at all convinced Chris Davis will regress as much as projected. Making up an extra 4-5 wins to be a wild card contender is entirely within the realm of possibility. Let’s say DD signs Bronson Arroyo (or similar SP), Markakis improves somewhat on last season and the bullpen is somewhere between the 2012 and 2013 versions… and you have a playoff contender.

Yes, Peter Angelos is still a money grubbing S.O.B. who’s holding back this team, but the sky is not falling, O’s fans. The offseason hasn’t been exciting or sexy, but incremental improvements can add up. I fully expect the Orioles to be a viable contender in 2014.

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