Monday, November 13, 2006

Looking Ahead: Baltimore Orioles

Before we start, a few quick free agent notes, including a few deals I forgot to discuss last week:

  • The Dodgers are getting desperate and stupid. It was widely rumored that GM Ned Colletti would panic into giving Nomar Garciaparra a new contract, and he's done exactly that: 2 years and $18.5 million. It's not the contract that bothers me so much, but the fact that the Dodgers don't need him. Colletti has Sabean-itis, a need to sign old guys to take the place of young guys. Two years isn't bad, but you're counting on Garciaparra continuing what was a 2-month hot streak in 2006. He's not going to hit well enough to play first base, which is sad when they've got a cheap rookie (James Loney) who does.
  • And now for the really stupid: word is that the Dodgers are about to finalize a 5-year, $45 million deal with Juan Pierre. Excuse me a moment . . .


  • I'm sorry, I was just under the impression that the Dodgers weren't completely f***ing stupid. $9 million a year for 5 years is a deal for a true All-Star. Juan Pierre is NOT an All-Star. He's a career 303/350/377 hitter with poor defense in center who just happens to be very fast. Juan Pierre is someone you can stick in center field who won't hurt you too much. In 2006 with the Cubs, he hit a woeful 292/330/388 and went 58/78 (74%) in steals. He's a below-average hitter, below-average defender and he adds only a handful of bases each year via steals. This deal will be inscribed on Ned Colletti's tombstone, and I'm sorry that we all have to suffer through the slow realization that he's just acquired a giant piece of dead weight on the payroll. The only thing worse will be having to listen to all the mainstream media types talk about what a great signing this is. That kind of thing gives me severe gas.
  • The Yankees signed Mike Mussina to a 2-year, $23 million contract. The Yanks need Mussina, and it's good for them that they kept him, but I'm slightly troubled by the contract. Mussina turns 38 in December and has only been healthy and effective once in the past three years. Unfortunately, that kind of money is a bargain in this market, and the Yankees need pitching bad enough to overpay anyways.
  • Frank Catalanotto has signed a 3-year, $13 million deal with the Rangers. This is a pretty reasonable deal, although the Rangers will probably have to find a platoon partner for him. Even if they can, it leaves them with the less-than-scary outfield of Catalanotto/Brad Wilkerson/Nelson Cruz.
  • The Angels signed reliever Justin Speier to a 4-year deal worth $18 million. Speier is a good relief arm, and I thought some team would nab him and convert him into a closer. But it looks like the Angels want him just to fill out their bullpen. This could mean that they're about to trade someone. Speier's not a bad guy, but I think the Angels should put offense at the top of their shopping list.
  • The Reds traded catcher Jason LaRue to Kansas City for a PTBNL. I'm not LaRue's biggest fan, but I don't see who the Reds plan to replace him with. If they think that David Ross' 2006 was for real (255/353/579, compared to a career 231/313/469), they're crazier than they look. The Reds will also pick up part of LaRue's $5 mil. 2007 salary.

And now for a couple deals I forgot to discuss earlier:

  • The Chicago Cubs re-signed Aramis Ramirez to a 5-year $70 million deal. It was considered to be less than what Ramirez would have gotten on the free agent market. It's a huge commitment for the Cubs, but it is unfortunately a necessary one if they want to rebuild their offense. Perhaps the Ramirez and Drew incidents will make teams much less likely to include an "out clause" in someone's contract.
  • I'll talk more about this below, but the Yankees did indeed trade Jaret Wright to Baltimore for relief pitcher Chris Britton. Even though they'll be paying $4 million of his $7 million salary, it's a good move for the Yankees to cut bait here. They're also getting a good, young, and cheap middle reliever in Britton. I said before that I don't know what the Orioles see in Wright, unless they think pitching coach Leo Mazzone can recapture the magic that propelled Wright to an excellent 2004 season with Atlanta. Although I guess even a pitcher as dodgy as Wright is a bargain for $3 mil.
  • The Mets re-signed second baseman Jose Valentin to what appears to be a 1-year, $3 million deal. This is a good move; there aren't any better options out there for such a low price, and the Mets need to save their money to spend on pitching.

For the AL side of my "Looking Ahead" series, I decided to change the format a bit. Instead of splitting it up into "good news" and "bad news," I've decided to just split it into "offense and defense" and "pitching." It wasn't always easy to separate the good from the bad, and the two often ran together so much as to make the distinction arbitrary. I think it makes more sense to just discuss everything together, split into the two halves of player personnel.

And now, having said that, on to the Baltimore Orioles. Uggh.

2006 W-L Record: 70-92
2006 pW-pL Record: 69-93
Runs Scored: 768 (10th of 14 in AL)
Runs Allowed: 899 (13th of 14 in AL)
Free Agents: Bruce Chen, Steve Kline, Kevin Millar, Russ Ortiz

2007 Projected Lineup:
1B -- ??
2B -- Brian Roberts
SS -- Miguel Tejada
3B -- Melvin Mora
LF -- Jeff Fiorentino?
CF -- Corey Patterson
RF -- Nick Markakis
C -- Ramon Hernandez
DH -- Jay Gibbons

2007 Proj. Rotation
Erik Bedard
Kris Benson
Daniel Cabrera
Jaret Wright
Adam Loewen/Rodrigo Lopez/Hayden Penn

2007 Proj. Closer
Chris Ray

The O's have, for several years, been an offense-heavy team with no pitching. Now, they're slowly turning, as their offense gets older. It's been almost a perfect switch, as the team hasn't managed to get both good hitting and pitching on the team at the same time. Their hitters are not only aging (Tejada, Mora), but they've made a few errant free agent signings (i.e. Javier Lopez). Not only that, but they've spent money almost exclusively on offense, and the diminishing returns indicate that it has not been money well spent.
For better or worse, Tejada is still the centerpiece of the team. Rumors are that the O's would like to trade him. I really don't understand why they would want to; Tejada will be just 31 next year and is only under contract for 3 more years (making about $13 mil. per year). He's still one of the best-hitting shortstops in baseball (330/379/498 last year), and although his defense is declining, it's nothing to get alarmed about. I'm flummoxed as to why the Orioles would trade their best player when they have no one to replace him and no pressing reason to get rid of him. For God's sake, he's still one of the 10 or 15 best players in the league! If they want to cut bait on him and pick up prospects, that's one thing. But since when have the Orioles planned for the future?
Another reason they may want to trade him is that he's been clearly unhappy in Baltimore. I can't say that I blame him; it's been hell. The team has sucked, the clubhouse has splintered into factions, and Tejada was caught right in the middle of the Rafael Palmeiro steroid controversy. Not only that, but the front office has been either indifferent or dreadfully incompetent at fielding a winner (thank you, Mr. Angelos). But although Tejada may not be happy in Baltimore, I don't think the Orioles should trade him unless they're getting a really good return.
The other reason they shouldn't trade him is that there's no one to replace him, and the lineup would really miss him. While there is hope for the pitching staff in the future, there is little for the offense, as their 10th-place finish in runs scored last year would suggest.
The only real star on the team after Tejada is young Nick Markakis. Markakis is widely considered to be one of the best hitting prospects in the game, and he should be in the Baltimore outfield for at least 5 more seasons. Markakis had a strong debut in 2006, hitting 291/351/448 in his rookie year, and should improve upon that much more in the years to come.
But alas, there isn't much depth behind those two to encourage Oriole fans. It looked like the team was going to cut bait on 34-year-old Melvin Mora, which would be a good move given Mora's declining offense (274/342/391 in '06). But alas, they were pressured into giving him a terrible contract extension: 3 years and $25 million. So Mora will be stinking up the Oriole lineup for a while yet, barring an unlikely comeback from last year's decline.
The Orioles have gotten some solid contribution from other places that should at least give the lineup some stability for the near future. Catcher Ramon Hernandez was very overpaid on the free agent market, but he's at least done well enough to partially justify it (275/343/479 last year), especially if he can stay healthy and durable (144 games in '06). Second baseman Brian Roberts isn't the MVP candidate he looked like in 2005; he's more likely the above-average contributor we saw in '06 (286/347/410). The O's even got good returns from Corey Patterson (276/314/443) who was at least solid and relatively cheap. The trade picking up Patterson (for Jerry Hairston, Jr.) was an uncharacteristically shrewd one by Baltimore management.
The club also has DH Jay Gibbons, who is a good hitter, but was also given another ill-advised contract extension. Gibbons is an "old-player skills" kind of guy -- a career 263/319/464 with good power but little athleticism. The O's have gotten good work from him in the past for little money, but instead of leaving the table while they were ahead, they gave Gibbons a 4-year (!) extension for $21.1 million. It's not a lot of money, but the contract should run longer than Gibbons can stay effective; his type of player falls quickly after age 30.
The O's still have several holes to fill in the lineup. They tried Kevin Millar as their first baseman last year, which wasn't nearly as laughable as everyone expected (272/374/437). Hopefully, they won't tempt fate again on him, as he'll be 35 next year. They also need another outfielder -- or a DH, if they can stomach Gibbons' defense.
The O's need good hitters to fill the first base and left field slots. Hopefully, they'll actually get good hitters and not fall into the Cubs trap of buying something just because it's expensive.

While the team continues to wallow in misery, grumpiness, and utter mediocrity, there are some signs that the pitching staff is getting better. Leo Mazzone didn't turn straw into gold his first year in Baltimore, but I've always maintained that it may take a while to see noticeable results from Mazzone's system, especially since he's bringing it to a new team. There's a lot of potential in the starting rotation, but Orioles fans would be wise to be pessimistic.
Erik Bedard is the classic "keep him healthy and he's great" pitcher. Bedard had a full run in 2006, throwing 196.1 innings with a fine 3.76 ERA. It's wishful thinking to call him an "ace," but he is the best pitcher on the Baltimore staff, and that's not the dubious compliment it once was.
Behind Bedard is Daniel Cabrera. Cabrera is another archetype: if he ever gets control, he'll be great. Cabrera throws some nasty-looking pitches. At times he is dominant, and at other times he pitches like he just stepped off a roller coaster. After a disappointing rookie year in 2004, Cabrera stepped forward by nearly doubling his strikeout rate (from 76 to 157 in about 15 more innings), lowering his ERA to 4.52. Better yet, the increased strikeout rate didn't affect his walk rate, which was still very high, but not dangerously so.
2006 was his first season under Leo Mazzone, and unfortunately, Cabrera's performance took a step back. His walk rate rose (104 in 148 IP) much more than his strikeout rate, and he again proved incapable of going deep into ballgames. Cabrera averaged barely 5 2/3 innings per start, which is great from a 5th starter -- not from a potential ace. He's started 27, 29, and 26 games in his career and never topped 162 innings. It's beginning to look like Cabrera is a bigger mess than even Mazzone can clean up.
With Kris Benson and Rodrigo Lopez, the Orioles have two reliable sources of innings -- it's just that the innings aren't that good. Benson's first year in the AL saw him post a 4.82 ERA in 183 innings of work with a dreadful 58:88 BB:K ratio. Lopez set a career high with a 5.90 ERA in 189 innings. Lopez has always walked the line; the line where your durability is either an asset or a liability. He can't be counted on for anything but replacement-level innings.
The trade of Jaret Wright does give the team another alternative. After a terrible 2005 in New York, Wright rebounded with what was, all things considerd, not such a bad year. His ERA was a tolerable 4.49. However, he was still limited to just 140.1 IP and posted a dismal 57:84 BB:K ratio. Wright might be able to provide better-quality innings than Lopez, but unless Mazzone can work his magic again, Wright will just be taking up space.
And the worst part is that the Orioles have a couple young pitchers who deserve a shot in the rotation. Adam Loewen moved quickly through the minors before reaching Baltimore in 2006. His big-league numbers were pretty poor (5.37 ERA, 62:98 BB:K ratio in 112.1 IP), and his minor league numbers don't make him look like a star, either. But he's a cheaper alternative than guys like Wright and probably deserves a shot.
Hayden Penn got the call to the majors in 2005, but wasn't ready. He spent most of 2006 at Triple-A Ottawa and now appears to have earned a shot in the bigs. Granted, his 2006 cup of coffee was a disaster (15.10 ERA in 6 starts), but he's still valuable. Teams like Baltimore shouldn't take for granted the cheap, major-league ready arms they have in their own system.

Offseason Game Plan:
The O's are rumored to be big players in the Carlos Lee sweepstakes. Unfortunately, I just don't see that one ending well for Baltimore. Lee would provide good power, but he's another unathletic guy who probably shouldn't be signed long-term. Lee turns 31 next year, and it sounds like he'll get at least a 5-year deal worth something like $15 mil. a year.
It's very tempting to try and solve all of your problems by writing one check, but it's also a quick way to dig your hole even deeper. Lee would likely be worth the money for a year or two, but I doubt it would be worth subsidizing his age 36 or 37 season for MVP-money. It would also keep the club on the wrong side of Father Time; if anything, they should be pursuing J.D. Drew, a not-so-flashy guy who's probably a sounder investment, especially over the long term.
There's not much the team can do to improve their offense over the short run. They're stuck with a a few solid players and a few millstones, and really can't afford to add to the latter. The club either needs to get younger or try to contend now without spending money recklessly. But that's a faint hope in Baltimore, where reckless spending might as well be Peter Angelos' nickname.

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