The Orioles finished the 2014 MLB season winning the AL East with a 96-66 record and made it to the ALCS before being swept by the dark magic that was the Kansas City Royals. Things looked promising for the O’s as they made it that far despite not having their All Star catcher, Matt Wieters, as well as their young stud third baseman, Manny Machado, for much of the season. Orioles fans looked towards the off season with much confidence in their squad for the 2015 season, looking for the front office to add a few pieces to push the club further towards their first World Championship since 1983. Up until now, however, there hasn’t been much news coming out of the warehouse on Eutaw Street, and that has some Orioles fans wondering just what the heck is going on.
So what’s happened up to now? Well, not much. After leading all of baseball with 40 HRs in the 2014 season, The Orioles slapped a qualifying offer on LF/DH Nelson Cruz and watched him sign a 4-year, $57 million deal with the Seattle Mariners. After signing a 1-year $8 million deal late last off season, it wasn’t out of the realm of possibility that this very scenario would take place. If Cruz bounced back to his previous season’s production, he would probably have been too expensive for the Orioles to re-sign; and that was just the case. While 4 years and $57 million might not seem like a lot of money to spend for a guy who put up the numbers that Cruz had, owner Peter Angelos has been burned by signing sluggers over the age of 30 in the past (see Belle, Albert; Davis, Eric; et al). So you can convince yourself that this move, in and of itself, wouldn’t be a franchise-changing non-move. However, at the same time, the Orioles declined their $17.5 million mutual option on RF Nick Markakis for the 2015 season and watched him walk away from the only professional club he’s ever played for, as he signed a 4-year, $44 million deal with the Atlanta Braves.
OK so let’s analyze this Markakis move, shall we? Markakis spent the first 9 seasons of his MLB career with the Baltimore Orioles, posting a career .290 average with a 113 career OPS+ along with 2 gold gloves. Throughout his career, Markakis has been incredibly durable, only once failing to play in more that 147 games for a season (2012, 104 games). So, why let him go? Well, that might be a difficult row to hoe. Despite being very durable, and playing good-to-great defense over his career, his offensive numbers the last two seasons have left much to be desired and he spent much of the 2014 season nursing a neck injury that might have led to some of his lack of offensive output. Markakis had surgery on December 17 to repair the herniated disc in his neck and the Braves say that he should be ready for spring training in late February. Now, is Nick Markakis worth $17.5 million for 2015? I don’t think anyone would tell you he is.
According to baseballplayersalaries.com, only 25 players made more that that last season. With all due respect to Mr. Markakis, he isn’t one of the top 25 players in the league. So, you can’t begrudge the Orioles for being fiscally responsible and declining the mutual option. To allow him to walk away for $44 million over 4 years, though? That might be another story. Based on his 162-game career averages of .290, 17 HRs and 78 RBI’s, it might be a bit of a stretch to say that a 30+ year old Nick Markakis was going to be an $11 million a year player. But, oh, what about those “intangibles”? Those lovely, unquantifiable, intangibles. Markakis was a quiet clubhouse leader, and a fan favorite. Go anywhere in Maryland and you’ll likely see someone with a “Markakis” #21 shirsey as soon as you walk out of your house during baseball season. After his deal with the Braves became official, Adam Jones went so far as to say that Markakis exemplified the “Orioles Way”. Jones, and most of his former teammates had to be surprised and distraught over losing a beloved player the likes of Markakis. Would that alone be worth possibly overpaying an already fading fan favorite? Orioles fans would probably tell you much differently than the rest of the country, and that’s an argument for soothsayers and people who are much smarter than I.
Another question going into the 2014 off-season was the health of All Star catcher Matt Wieters. Wieters underwent Tommy John surgery in mid-June and was lost for the remainder of the season. According to all reports, he should be ready for the beginning of the 2015 season. But as we have seen before, recovery from TJ surgery can be quite tricky. The Orioles traded for veteran catcher Nick Hundley, and he teamed up with the likes of Steve Clevenger and Caleb Joseph to handle the catching duties for the remainder of the season. The Orioles were quick to decline the $5 million option on Hundley following the 2014 season and seem to be content with Caleb Joseph as the primary backup catcher for the 2015 season.
However, if you have ever read anything on Joseph, you would know that scouts around baseball don’t see him sticking behind the plate. Joseph has hit before in the minors and showed some decent pop in his bat and some decent plate discipline. But his footwork and arm behind the plate leave much to be desired as he has a weak and inaccurate arm and doesn’t block pitches very well. Couple that with the fact that MLB pitching ate him alive during his half-season in the Show in 2014, and you can see why this writer isn’t very confident with the prospect of having Caleb Joseph on the 25-man come the end of spring training. It should also be noted that the Orioles signed J.P. Arencibia to a minor league deal on January 7th with an invitation to spring training.
What seemed to be more confusing was the front office’s lack of understanding of the talent available in the Rule 5 Draft. After losing 2/3 of their starting outfield, as well as the aforementioned hole at backup catcher, there were decent options for the Orioles to choose from in the Rule 5. First was the on-base machine, OF Mike O’Neill of the Cardinals. O’Neill was drafted by the Cardinals in the 31st round of the 2010 draft and hit the ground running as soon as his professional career began. A center fielder, by trade, he might profile more as a left fielder in the future with his weak arm. However, at every level he’s been at over his professional career he has been incredibly adept at getting on base, posting a career .414 OBP over 5 seasons. He also displays decent speed, but struggles at stealing bases. His career SB % of 66.6% (48 for 72) is less than what many would see as desirable in a base stealer.
So, his offensive game might be one-dimensional, but his value as a leadoff hitter cannot be understated given the OBP-driven environment we live in. Is he a game-changer? No. But, his value to a team who just lost their leadoff hitter (with virtually no better in-house options available) would seem to be well worth the $50,000 the pick would have cost the franchise. Outfielders who are down with OBP (Yeah, you know me) aside, there were a few options available during the Rule 5 draft at catcher, too. Steven Baron of the Mariners, as well as Roberto Pena of the Astros profile as excellent defensive catchers right now, and could have easily stepped in and provided a team lacking a legitimate backup catcher (such as the Orioles) with a great defensive option behind the dish.
So, what have the Orioles done to move themselves forward? Surely, they would have signed a top free agent to replace one of their departed outfielders, right? Well…………… Not so much. Replacing 2/3 of a starting outfield on a contending team can be quite the daunting task. Doing so after so many dominoes have fallen already, might be downright impossible. The Orioles missed out on Melky Cabrera, and his .339 career OBP, as well as reclamation project candidate Alex Rios as they signed with the White Sox and the Royals, respectively. There were a few rumblings of the Orioles kicking the tires on Nori Aoki, who could have fit right in the vacated leadoff spot. But, he signed a 1-year, $4 million deal with the San Francisco Giants.
There are a few in-house options available to the Orioles, however. The Orioles brought back Delmon Young a few weeks ago, signing the former top prospect to a 1-year, $2.25 million deal. They also have Alejandro De Aza under club control for the 2015 season, as well as David Lough. In a recent article on mlb.com, Orioles GM Dan Duquette said that he is “looking forward to giving Dariel Alvarez a shot this spring”. Alvarez is a 26-year-old signed out of Cuba in July of 2013 who is said to have a tremendous arm and plus power and speed. Although, it’s widely believed that he could use some more time in the minor leagues to develop his plate discipline, and further acclimate himself to living in America. Lough profiles more as a fourth outfield option as he displays good defense, but doesn’t hit enough to warrant a starting position on any major league team with playoff aspirations. Delmon Young has put up decent offensive numbers throughout his career, to the tune of a 99 OPS+ (virtually replacement level), but has played a grand total of 124 games in the outfield the last 3 seasons. De Aza was acquired from the Chicago White Sox in a post-deadline trade last August, which should tell you about all you need to know about his career up to this point.
The Orioles made some news a few days ago, however, when they sent RHP prospect Stephen Tarpley (and a PTBNL) to Pittsburgh for outfielder Travis Snider. Travis Snider, you say? We’re getting excited for Travis Snider? Yes, Travis Snider. Snider was a former top-ten prospect for the Toronto Blue Jays and was rushed through the minors before making his debut with the Jays in 2008. Snider spent time at 4 different levels that season, beginning in high-A ball before finishing the season with the big club. Throughout his career though, Snider has been a bit of a disappointment. Including his partial season in 2008, Snider played a grand total of 232 games in the majors from 2008-2011, oft injured and struggling mightily with the strike out. Snider was sent to the Pittsburgh Pirates during the 2012 season for another failed top-prospect, Brad Lincoln. Snider was absolutely abysmal for the Pirates in 2013, posting a 74 OPS+ and a .215/.281/.333 slash line in 111 games. In fact, prior to last season, Snider had a career OPS+ of 89. That’s sub-replacement level.
So, what’s to be excited about here? Well, Snider seemed to turn a corner in 2014. He accumulated a career-high 359 plate appearances while appearing in 140 games, and posted a 2.5 WAR while slashing his strikeout rate and slightly increasing his walk rate. Snider, also, posted a positive (albeit slightly) defensive WAR for just the second time in his career. Snider is a left-handed bat who could see his numbers increase playing his home games at Camden Yards. He could be a decent option in the lower third of the lineup, provided he can stay healthy and continue what he started last season.
Projected 2015 Lineup:
Alejandro De Aza LF
Manny Machado 3B
Adam Jones CF
Chris Davis 1B
Steve Pearce DH
JJ Hardy SS
Matt Wieters C
Travis Snider RF
Jonathan Schoop 2B
The Orioles’ lack of maneuvers on the free agent front might be due to the fact that the status of current GM Dan Duquette has been in a state of flux over the last month or two. There have been stories that have come out that said he was ostensibly trying to trade himself to the Blue Jays and become their new team president. Orioles owner Peter Angelos, however, put the kibosh on those rumors a few weeks ago and denied that they were in discussions with the Jays on any possible acquisition of Duquette. With this, seemingly, sorted out maybe the Orioles will make some more moves in the near future. It might be a little too late, however, as most of the top free agents have already signed and the crop of available outfielders is populated by the likes of Reed Johnson and Nate Schierholtz. The Orioles might use some of their starting pitching depth to make a trade, although Angelos and Duquette were very quick to quell any rumors of them trading for Justin Upton and Marlon Byrd earlier in the offseason. Duquette has found success off the scrap heap the last two offseasons with Nate McLouth and Steve Pearce, so he might be content going into 2015 with the players currently in-house. Only time will tell what the 2015 Orioles will look like after spring training. Regardless, though, it has been a very curious offseason for a team that reached the ALCS this past season.Next post: Pine Tar & Donuts: Michael Taylor, Washington Nationals
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