Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Offseason Plan #2: Baltimore Orioles Edition

Earlier this week, Nelson Cruz officially became a Seattle Mariner. And yesterday (well, it was yesterday when I started this…), Nick Markakis became a member of the Atlanta Braves for the next few years. As an Orioles fan, Cruz moving on was expected for more or less all of 2014. And Markakis, while a sentimental favorite as a nine-year veteran of the Orioles, seemed gone as soon as rumors began to surface that he and the Orioles had hit a rough patch in negotiations.

However, that doesn’t change that the team has lost two outfielders (or “outfielder”, in the case of Cruz) in a week (this also isn’t even to mention that the surprisingly effective Delmon Young might also depart, as he’s a free agent). So where does the team go from here? Well, first it helps to look at what they’re losing. (Note: While reliever Andrew Miller, I won’t focus on him as much both because they only had him from the Trade Deadline on and because it’s easier to limit the scope of this article to what the Orioles can do for their offense.)

Let’s start with Cruz. In 159 games, the slugger put up 40 home runs to lead the league. However, that doesn’t tell the full story; his weighted Runs Created+ was only 137, indicating he was only 37% better than league average. That’ll happen when you have a .333 OBP. Granted, that’s still respectable (tied for 17th in the majors last season), but it’s not like leading the league in homers. And to be fair, at 34, it’s unlikely that Cruz himself will duplicate that performance in 2015. Add in that he was primarily a DH, and that when he did field, he did so poorly, and you have yourself a player who was worth just shy of 4 Wins Above Replacement in 2014 (3.9, Fangraphs).

By WAR, Markakis is an even easier replacement. The right fielder was worth 2.5 Wins on the strength of a 106 wRC+ and better fielding metrics than he’s posted in years. Like, a full win better than anything he’s done in five seasons (although still not deserving of the Gold Glove award he received), in fact, which makes me expect regression in that department in 2015. Add in that he’s apparently facing neck surgery (albeit offseason surgery), and I’m even more glad that the Orioles didn’t get into a bidding war with Atlanta.

But still, those are two players the Orioles will have to replace. What are their options?

1. The Free Agent Market
This is the obvious place to start. However, a lot of the biggest names here are already gone and/or are infielders (an area the Orioles appear set in), making replacing the offense from those two more difficult. The best position players left are probably third baseman Chase Headley (which more or less rules him out for Baltimore) and outfielder Melky Cabrera.

Cabrera was worth 2.6 WAR last year, actually, after a 2013 season marred by injuries (including a spinal tumor). His bat was somewhere in between Cruz and Markakis, with a 125 wRC+, while his glove was actually pretty close to the numbers Markakis usually posts. He is trending down with the glove, which is expected for a player his age (he’s currently 30), but getting off Toronto’s turf might help him (as might the Orioles’ increased use of shifts, although I’m less sure how their amount of shifts compares to the Blue Jays’ use). However, as the top outfielder left, the Orioles will certainly encounter competition for Melky, and he’s probably not worth getting in a bidding war over. With the cost of WAR probably inflating to around $6 million per Win this offseason, I can see going something like $45 million/3 years, but I’m not sure I would add significantly more money to that (maybe top out a little over $50 million?), and I would be hesitant to add a fourth year. A fourth year would take Melky through his age 33 season, which is perilous territory on the aging curve, but for a discount in the per year value of the deal, it might be worth it. For what it’s worth, Fangraphs’ reader poll on what the top free agents would get pegged Melky for 3.5-4 years and $13-13.5 million per year, so I think that seems reasonable. But again, desperate teams bidding might inflate that, and that’s about the maximum I would offer.

There are a few other interesting players on the market. Nori Aoki was remarkably similar to Nick Markakis last year, with putting up 2.3 WAR while hitting 104 in wRC+. His above-average fielding numbers and slightly above average hitting are both in line with his career numbers, and he isn’t expected to command the years or dollars that Markakis did; Fangraphs’ poll came up with something in the range of 2-2.5 years and $7-$7.5 million per year, which sounds much more reasonable. Of course, he’s a little older (he’ll be 33 in January), so there’s a little extra risk there.

There are a few other options, too. Alex Rios will turn 34 in February and has seen his offensive numbers slip each of the last two seasons (from a 126 wRC+ in 2012 to 104 last year to 92 this year). He was still good last year thanks to his defense, but even that seems to have taken a downturn in 2014. For a 1-year deal at the right price, it might be worth it. 

Colby Rasmus might also be worth a flier, even if he would either need to move from center field or force Adam Jones out. After a 2013 season that looked like a break-out, with a 129 wRC+, good defense, and 4.8 WAR (with injuries, though, so he only managed 118 games), he regressed hard in 2014, with 104 games of a 103 wRC+, mediocre defense, and only 0.6 WAR. However, he’s still young (only 28), so he’s probably a better “buy low” option than Rios, even if it might take a second year to entice him.

The O’s could always try for more of a DH-type to replace Cruz, too. Michael Morse signed a 1 year, $7 million deal last year, and put up a 133 wRC+ in 131 games. However, he can’t field in the slightest, which is part of why he only put up 1 WAR. Staying at DH might keep him healthy (he’s only played 131, 88, and 102 games each of the last three seasons), although at 33, it might also not be that simple. Again, he might make a good one-year deal, although I’m not sure what the price would be after last year, or how much to expect him to regress. He’s probably a better option than Kendrys Morales, at least.

2. Trade
The Orioles have already been linked to several players in trade, most notably Matt Kemp. The biggest problem with Kemp is that he’s 30 and still has five years and over $100 million on his contract. He’ll hit enough to justify it…it he’s healthy, which is a huge if. He’s played 150, 73, and 106 games going back to 2012, while hitting to the tune of 140, 103, and 145 wRC+. Even if he is healthy, though, he probably shouldn’t be in the field, and he definitely shouldn’t be playing center (poor defense is partly why he wasn’t even worth 2 Wins last season, despite hitting so well). Really, this comes down to how much of his salary the Dodgers will eat, and what they’ll expect in return for doing so. I’d say they’d need to eat at least $30-35 million of his remaining $107, and even if they did that, I’m not sure it be worth giving up a prospect in addition to taking on $70+ million in contract for a DH.

There are certainly other targets on the trade block. The Braves have discussed Justin Upton with several teams, although the corner outfielder will be a free agent after this season. The team just traded away Jason Heyward for four years of Shelby Miller and prospect Tyrell Jenkins, so that could be a starting point for what they might expect for Upton. Upton isn’t on Heyward’s level, but it would probably take one of the Orioles’ better prospects for the 27 year old, who hit a 133 wRC+ and posted 3.9 WAR last year.

The Rockies have also apparently considered trading Carlos Gonzalez. He’s under contract for the next three seasons, at a cost of $53 million. He only played in 70 games this year due to injuries and wasn’t great when he played, but he was better in the years before that. Even then, he’s missed time in each of the last few seasons (70 games in 2014, 110 in 2013, 135 in 2012, 127 in 2011), and it’s fair to wonder how well he’ll hit outside of Coors Field. I’m not really sure what it would cost to get him.

They could also try and work something out with a team that has an outfield surplus. The Red Sox’s recent spending spree left them with a log jam, between veterans Hanley Ramirez, Yoenis Cespedes, Allen Craig, Shane Victorino, new Cuban defector Rusney Castillo, and prospects Jackie Bradley Jr. and Mookie Betts. There’s a wide range there, from the reclamation projects of Craig and Victorino to the valuable but uncertain prospects to the in-demand Cespedes. The Cardinals might also be willing to part with either Peter Bourjos or Randal Grichuk now that they look set with a Matt Holliday-Jon Jay-Jason Heyward outfield. Those ideas are just off the top of my head.

3. Do nothing
This could work. With the return from injury of both Manny Machado and Matt Wieters, a hopeful return to form from Chris Davis, and possibly progress from young infielder Jonathan Schoop, the team could see an increase in offense on it’s own. Add in that Davis and Machado returning leaves surprise 2014 breakout star Steve Pearce (161 wRC+) without a place to play, so he could be move to the outfield. And they aren’t exactly leaving the spots totally open, as they already have Alejandro De Aza and David Lough as fill-ins just in case, both of whom have been decent in the past.

This is probably the option I would stand most by, possibly with a little bit of the cheaper/non-Melky free agents side of the first plan. Maybe try for Rasmus and/or Morse as a backup option and call it a day. It’s certainly more cost-effective than splurging on Melky or Matt Kemp, even if those players are a little bit more impressive. If anything, the Orioles are more lacking on pitching, but unless they’re willing to splurge on someone like Scherzer or Lester, I’m not sure there’s an obvious large improvement to be made there.

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