Orioles look like a team that will decline
January, 15, 2014
By David Schoenfield | ESPN.com
Al Messerschmidt/Getty ImagesThe Orioles need to get a better year at the plate from Matt Wieters.Congratulations, Orioles fans, your team finally made a major offseason move! You signed Delmon Young.
Yes, Orioles fans probably have the right to be more furious about their team's offseason than any other group of fans. After a surprising run to the playoffs in 2012 when they won 93 games, their big moves of last winter were signing Alexi Casilla as a free agent and purchasing Danny Valencia from the Red Sox. When the bullpen predictably declined from its record-setting 2012 performance, the Orioles dropped to 85 wins, despite Chris Davis' monster 53-homer campaign.
And this winter? More silence from general manager Dan Duquette and owner Peter Angelos. After losing left fielder Nate McLouth as a free agent, they did swap Valencia to the Royals for David Lough, sort of a poor man's McLouth. They traded closer Jim Johnson to the A's for former highly regarded second baseman Jemile Weeks, who hit .221 for Oakland in 2012 and spent nearly all of the 2013 season at Triple-A Sacramento. They did sign reliever Ryan Webb and tried to sign closer Grant Balfour, but backed off after discovering some red flags in Balfour's medical results.
Otherwise, it has been digging into the bargain basement aisle for the likes of Young, Quintin Berry, Xavier Paul and Liam Hendriks. They re-signed Casilla to a minor league deal. This is not how you compete with the Red Sox and Rays. Attendance has increased nearly 600,000 the past two seasons. This is how you reward your fans?
Maybe the Orioles are just waiting for the price to come down on one of the free-agent starters still out there -- Ubaldo Jimenez, Ervin Santana, Bronson Arroyo or Matt Garza. Maybe they'll end up signing designated hitter Kendrys Morales. "I can't really handicap that," Duquette recently told the Baltimore Sun. "But we are talking to a couple of pitchers."
But signing Jimenez, Santana or Morales would mean the Orioles would forfeit their first-round draft pick, which seems like a perfect excuse not to sign one of them.
To be fair, we should ask: Is there room in the budget for the Orioles to make a major free-agent signing? It would certainly seem to be the case. Their Opening Day payrolls in recent seasons:
2011: $86.9 million
2012: $84.1 million
2013: $92.2 million
Right now, Baseball-Reference.com estimates the Orioles' 2014 payroll at $81.5, which includes arbitration raises for the likes of Davis (estimated at $10 million), Matt Wieters ($8 million) and Bud Norris ($5 million). Still, that's a drop from 2013 -- and remember, each team is receiving an additional $26 million in national TV revenue this season.
Maybe they're holding out for Masahiro Tanaka. Maybe the Orioles believe they're good enough without making a major addition. Maybe the Orioles don't think Santana or Jimenez are any better than what they already have.
My feeling is the Orioles are a team ripe for a decline. A few reasons why:
1. Regression from Davis.
Davis hit .245/.339/.515 in the second half -- a far cry from the .315/.392/.717 and 37 homers he had in the first half. He's a legit middle-of-the-order power bat, but hitting 53 home runs again is probably wishful thinking.
2. Team-wide on-base problems.
Thanks in large part to Davis, the Orioles led the American League with 212 home runs. Power isn't an issue ... but getting on base remains one. Of the team's regulars only Davis posted an OBP above .330. McLouth was tied with Nick Markakis for second best at .329. Young, a notorious hacker, isn't going to help there and Lough walked only 10 times in 335 plate appearances with Kansas City. If the Orioles don't hit home runs, they don't score.
3. Matt Wieters isn't a star.
Wieters is a good player but his bat just hasn't developed and his production regressed last year as his OBP dropped to .287. Yes, he provides some power (22 home runs), but he's making too many outs. Maybe it was a bad year; but maybe he'll never learn to hit for a high average from the left side (.214). Right now, Wieters is a guy you need to hit eighth in a playoff lineup, not fifth or sixth.
4. Manny Machado's injury.
The Orioles are still hopeful that Machado will be ready for Opening Day, but until Machado starts seeing game action in spring training it's hard to predict when he'll be ready to play following his knee surgery. Even if healthy, there will be issues about what Machado will produce at the plate. After hitting .317 with 35 doubles in his first 78 games, he hit .249 with 16 doubles over his final 78 games.
5. The starting rotation.
Orioles starters had a 4.57 ERA, 12th in the AL, and allowed the most home runs per nine innings (1.32). OK, some of that is Camden Yards. But it's a group that lacks a No. 1 starter. Or a No. 2.
No, Santana and Jimenez aren't aces, but in lieu of signing Tanaka, Duquette should be looking to add better depth behind Chris Tillman, Miguel Gonzalez, Wei-Yin Chen and Norris. Even then, Chen struggled in the second half (4.90 ERA) and Norris wasn't that good after coming over from the Astros. Sure, by now the Orioles were counting on Dylan Bundy and Zach Britton, but that's not the case. Kevin Gausman has a big arm, but was too often a one-pitch pitcher last year. He's a wild card for 2014. I just don't project any improvement with the current group; if anything, Gonzalez and Chen could be ripe for worse seasons.
6. The closer.
Right now, it looks like a spring battle between Tommy Hunter and Darren O'Day, neither of whom effectively retired left-handed batters a year ago. Both are best deployed as setup guys when Buck Showalter can maximize the platoon advantage. By June, Orioles fans may be wishing for Johnson to return. (OK, maybe not.)
The offseason isn't over. There's still time for the O's to make a couple of moves. They need to, because right now they're looking like a .500 team at best and if Adam Jones or Davis gets hurt or Machado can't play until June, it could turn into a Blue Jays-like disaster of a season.
Time to step up, Angelos. Find the money. Why own a team if you don't want to win?