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Vlad in Baltimore: Mysteries and Opportunities

If you ever get frustrated that your favorite team can’t seem to sign any free agents, just think about the poor fans of the Mystery Team, the perpetual Miss Havisham of the free-agent market. Just when you thought Mystery Team was finally going to seal the deal with Vladimir Guerrero (to whom they totally had offered $8 million), the Baltimore Orioles, like the vicious birds of prey from whom they take their name, swooped in and flew away with the allegedly-very-much-in-demand and soon-to-be-36-year-old designated hitter. Maybe next time, Mystery Fans… But what about those crafty Orioles, huh?

According to the report linked above, Guerrero’s contract is for one year and $8 million (with part of that money deferred). The deferred money makes things a bit murkier, but assuming an average market price of five million dollars per marginal win, the Orioles are paying Guerrero as something like a 1.5 WAR player. Much has been made of Vlad’s difficulties late in the 2010 season by people whose opinions I respect, but unless I’ve missed a Nerdosphere memo, first- and second-half season splits have yet to be found to have predictive significance. What does a more sophisticated forecast say? I usually prefer to use freely-available projections, but for this post I’ve decided to use Brian Cartwright’s Oliver forecasts for offense, as I haven’t used them yet this season and Cartwright’s new approach to minor league translations is intriguing (and useful for when I consider Nolan Reimold below). Oliver’s forecast for Guerrero (not yet adjusted for Baltimore) in 2011 shows some regression and decline, but hardly a collapse: .349 wOBA (.289/.337/.471), about 16 runs above average over 700 plate appearances. Once adjusted for playing time, that’s about a 1.5 WAR player.

If the Guerrero deal is average (that is, neither good not bad) without considering the context, once the specifics of the Orioles’ situation are taken into account, the deal makes much less sense. The Orioles have made some improvements in the offseason, but they aren’t going to contend in the stacked 2011 American League East. They might contend in the future, but at this point, the team is in a position where they should be looking for bargains, not getting leveraged by a 36-year-old right-handed DH who “runs” like he needs a walker.

Moreover, the Orioles did not need to bring in a new designated hitter. Luke Scott is better hitter than Guerrero, and probably (along with Nick Markakis) one of the Orioles’ two best hitters at the moment, Oliver projects a .355 wOBA (.263/.344/.477) for Scott in 2011. Despite spending most of his time lately at DH, Scott isn’t a bad left fielder, it’s just that Felix Pie is far better out there. However, bringing Guerrero aboard now just compounds the mistake the Orioles made when they failed to trade Scott (who turns 33 this coming June) last summer. If the Orioles had traded Scott, they could have still signed Guerrero if they were so inclined and have some sort of prospect(s) from the Scott trade, too.

However, even if they would have traded Scott, the Orioles still shouldn’t have signed Vlad, because they could have played Pie in left and Reimold at DH. No, that wouldn’t project to be as offensively potent as Scott and Guerrero at those positions. However, the difference would be smaller than some might think. Pie hasn’t been much of a hitter, but his superior defensive skills make up for part of the offensive difference between him and Scott (I’ll also confess to being a more optimistic about Pie’s upside than many). Moreover, Oliver projects Reimold to have a .347 wOBA in 2011 — virtually the same as Guerrero. Now, Pie has been up and down in limited chances (although he’s only six months older than Adam Jones), and maybe the MLEs are overly generous to Reimold (who could also be worth playing in the outfield). However, both players are relatively young (but not young enough that they need to waste time time in Triple-A, assuming Reimold has options left; Pie doesn’t) and cheap.

Bringing in Guerrero wouldn’t have been a good idea even if the Orioles had traded Scott last season, but since they decided to keep Scott, it’s even worse. Not only are the Orioles spending a lot of additional money on (at most) a two-win improvement (which might make sense if they were trying for their 87th win rather than their 81st), they’ve made their team older when they should be getting younger, all while also losing out on the opportunity cost in playing younger players who might be part of a future in which they might actually contend. That’s what makes the acquisition of Guerrero a bigger mystery than the identity of the team that the Orioles supposedly beat out for his services.