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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. ┬áDespite 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.