Orioles Were Wise to Stand Pat

The Baltimore Orioles shocked the baseball world by winning 93 games and beating the favored Texas Rangers in the wild-card playoff last year, breaking a streak of 14 consecutive losing seasons that dated back to the Cal Ripken Jr. era. The AL East has long been a brutal division to compete in, but the usual powers in Boston and New York have finally begun to show signs of vulnerability, and Tampa Bay has to overcome the losses of James Shields and B.J. Upton. At long last, the timing would have appeared right this winter for the Orioles to capitalize on their success and take advantage of what might be a small window of opportunity.

That’s clearly the way the Toronto Blue Jays saw things, making big splashes in trades with the Miami Marlins and New York Mets, but Baltimore general manager Dan Duquette chose a different, much quieter path. The Orioles didn’t sign a single new player to a major league contract this winter, and even the team’s trading activity merely netted them bit players like Yamaico Navarro and Trayvon Robinson.

The lack of action was most notable in the team’s unstable rotation, where 12 different pitchers made at least two starts for the team last season, and only Wei-Yin Chen made more than 20. Rather than attempting to import a stabilizing presence, Duquette decided to stay with his various internal options for the rotation.

Despite the playoff berth, the Orioles outscored their opponents by only seven runs — good for an expected record of 82-80 — and much of the 2012 magic in Baltimore was built on a record-setting 29-9 record in one-run games. That’s good for a fantastic story for a fan base which desperately needed one, but it’s not indicative of their true talent level and almost certainly not sustainable going forward.

For this reason, Duquette has been criticized for not making a splash, But when you examine the three courses of action he had this winter, he made the right choice.

Course No. 1. Trade young talent for a big-time starting pitcher.

This is the largely unpopular route Dayton Moore took in Kansas City, cashing in star-in-the-making Wil Myers and three other decent-to-good prospects to add Shields and Wade Davis to his rotation. Duquette could have done the same, but it would likely have cost him stud prospects like pitcher Dylan Bundy  one of only three prospects to top Myers on Keith Law’s Top 100 — or infielder Manny Machado, each of whom made their MLB debuts in their age-19 seasons last year.

Had Duquette made those players available, he certainly could have swung a deal for a Shields or a comparable starter, but the long-term cost would have far outweighed the present benefits for a team that isn’t as close as hometown fans may believe.

2. Spend a lot of money (and potentially a first-round draft pick) on a free agent.

If you figure that the Orioles were never going to be in the race for Zack Greinke and that lesser choices like Joe Blanton or Kevin Correia weren’t enough of an upgrade to matter, the midrange market for impact starting pitching was exceptionally thin this winter. Other than Greinke, only two pitchers who moved to new teams signed for more than $15 million total — Ryan Dempster with the Red Sox and Edwin Jackson with the Cubs. Kyle Lohse remains available, of course, but in addition to being an imperfect fit for the AL East, he would have cost Baltimore its top draft pick since the Cardinals made him a qualifying offer. This is the toughest part of the market to find value in.

3. Stand pat.

This is the path the Orioles have taken, conserving their resources, and it makes sense because Duquette has no shortage of intriguing candidates to fill out his rotation. Only Chen and veteran Jason Hammel, who was surprisingly effective before going down with a knee injury, appear to have solid holds on jobs. Manager Buck Showalter has indicated that righties Miguel Gonzalez and Chris Tillman are in line to get the next two, but it’s difficult to envision a scenario where both keep those positions all season.

Gonzalez was a 28-year-old rookie who impressed with a 3.25 ERA that wasn’t backed up by a 4.38 FIP or a less-than-stellar minor league track record. Tillman’s 2.93 ERA looked even better, but mediocre peripherals along with a .221 BABIP gave him a 4.25 FIP and make it unlikely he prevents runs as effectively again. In Tillman’s case, even reports of improved velocity may not be accurate, since it was skewed largely by a spike in his first game of the season that didn’t last.

Battling for the final spot — and for those that inevitably open up during the season — is a cast of seemingly thousands. The Orioles have former prospects who haven’t quite put it together yet (Jake Arrieta, Zach Britton, Steve Johnson, and Brian Matusz), they have veterans trying to prove they can stay healthy and effective (Tommy Hunter, Jair Jurrjens, and Tsuyoshi Wada), and both groups should be looking over their shoulders at the next wave knocking on the door (Bundy and Kevin Gausman).

This is where the Orioles can look for breakout potential, because the first four starters are unlikely to provide a whole lot more than we’ve already seen. It may seem odd to say about a pitcher coming off a 6.20 ERA season, but Arrieta might be the most likely of this group to come alive and provide value. In his age-26 campaign, he increased his strikeout rate to 8.56 per nine innings while also lowering his walk rate to 2.75 per nine, good numbers that continued the steps forward he’d made there in 2011. The resulting 3.11 strikeout-to-walk ratio was better than successful starters like Dempster, Matt Garza, Jackson, Mat Latos and Brandon McCarthy, and the upward trend in that metric is generally a good indicator of a pitcher doing something right.

Arrieta turned 27 this week, and scouts still love his multiple fastballs and plus secondary pitches, so the conditions are there for him to shave that ERA number significantly.

By this time next year, or perhaps even later in 2013, it’s quite possible that stud prospects Bundy and Gausman each occupy spots in the Baltimore rotation. Duquette knows that they are the future of the rotation, so there was no sense spending a lot of money (or talent) to bring in guys who might not be much better than their in-house options.

The Orioles need to sort out once and for all which of their many current starting options are going to join Bundy and Gausman, be a part of their bullpen or move on entirely. It may not be the most popular decision to stand still, but acquiring someone like an Aaron Harang only serves to ensure mediocrity and prevent young players like Arrieta from proving they’re part of the future.

Given the options available, Dan Duquette made the right decision for Baltimore’s long-term success — even if, in the present, it’s hard for fans to swallow.

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Mike Petriello used to write here, and now he does not. Find him at @mike_petriello or MLB.com.

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