Winter report card: Baltimore Orioles
With just a few weeks before pitchers and catchers report, we’re checking in on how each team has fared in conducting its offseason business while acknowledging that there’s still time for its prognosis to change. Teams will be presented in reverse order of finish from 2012, and I’ll revisit and adjust their grades to account for late-winter deals as spring training begins.
2012 Results: 93-69, 2nd place in AL East. (Hot Stove Preview)
Key departures: 2B Robert Andino, OF Endy Chavez, OF Bill Hall, DH Nick Johnson, IF Omar Quintanilla, 1B/3B Mark Reynolds, LHP Joe Saunders, DH Jim Thome, LHP Randy Wolf
Key arrivals: IF Alexi Casilla, 1B Travis Ishikawa, RHP Jair Jurrjens, UT Yamaico Navarro, OF Trayvon Robinson, 3B Danny Valencia
Few teams shocked the baseball world last year to the extent that the Orioles did. Coming off a dismal streak of 14 consecutive losing seasons, not to mention a seemingly unimpressive winter under new general manager Dan Duquette, Baltimore didn’t figure to contend. Thanks in large part to a record-setting .763 winning percentage (29-9) in one-run games, however, the O’s not only won 93 games, they battled the Yankees for the division title right to the last day of the season, falling short but securing a wild-card berth. They proceeded to beat the heavily-favored Rangers in the wild-card game, then took the Yankees to five games in the Division Series before falling.
Baltimore’s amazing run wouldn’t have happened had Duquette not worked furiously to upgrade the team on the fly. Of the nine players who started in the wild-card game, only five — Chris Davis, J.J. Hardy, Adam Jones, Mark Reynolds and Matt Wieters — were in the Opening Day lineup, and both Reynolds and Davis were playing different positions from the ones where they had begun the season; starting pitcher Joe Saunders was also an in-season addition. Duquette appears content to let the late-season unit take on all comers in 2013 with only minor additional tweaks. He has signed just one new free agent to a major league deal (Jurrjens) this winter, re-signed one of his in-season acquisitions (Nate McLouth), and swung a handful of low-impact trades which have brought in players best suited to backup roles.
The 27-year-old Jurrjens signed an incentive-laden one-year, $1.5 million deal after a dismal 2012 in which he made just 10 starts and put up a 6.89 ERA with the Braves; he pitched his way back to Triple-A in late April, was ineffective when he returned for six weeks in June and July and didn’t pitch in the majors after that due to a groin strain. He did put together three solid years out of four for the Braves with a combined 3.34 ERA before that, though he was limited to just 43 starts in 2010-2011 due to injuries, including recurring problems with his right knee. If he’s healthy, he’ll slot into the rotation behind Jason Hammel, Wei-Yin Chen, Chris Tillman and Miguel Gonzalez; if not, he won’t cost much.
Chen was the only one of the quartet above to make more than 20 starts for the team last year. Hammel pitched well in the first half but was limited to three starts in the second half due to knee surgery to remove loose bodies, while Gonzalez and Tillman picked up the slack in the second half in impressive fashion. That starting five would appear to earmark Tommy Hunter, Brian Matusz, Steve Johnson, Jake Arrieta and Zach Britton for the bullpen, Triple-A or points yonder. Hunter and Matusz, one of the team’s former blue-chip prospects, both improved considerably after late-season moves to the bullpen thanks in part to increased velocity, while Arrieta and Britton both have considerable work to do to restore their former promise.
As for the lineup, the one-year, $2 million deal to which Baltimore signed the 31-year-old McLouth represents a low-risk/low-reward bet that the .268/.342/.435 he hit in 55 games with the Orioles is a better indicator of his future performance than the .203/.312/.313 he hit in 158 games from the beginning of 2010 until his release by the Pirates late last May. As things stand, he’ll be the long half of a leftfield platoon with another mercurial player, Nolan Reimold. The 29-year-old righty got off to a hot start last year but was limited to just 16 games due to a bulging disc in his neck that required fusion surgery, and he hasn’t played in 100 major league games in a season since his 2009 rookie campaign.
Robinson, a 25-year-old switch-hitter acquired from the Mariners in exchange for Andino, represents an alternative, but he has hit just .215/.272/.330 in 319 major league plate appearances over the past two years, and he’s stronger against righties, just as McLouth is. Lew Ford, a 36-year-old who hit .183/.256/.352 in 79 PA after a four-season absence from the major league scenes, has been brought back on a minor league deal; he’s righthanded, which is the best that can be said about him in this context.
In right field, the return of Nick Markakis from his season-ending broken thumb shifts Davis back to first base, where he’ll replace the departed Reynolds. With Manny Machado slated to spend the full season as the team’s regular third baseman, Valencia is merely around as a shaky insurance policy; the 28-year-old hit an unfathomably awful .188/.199/.299 in 161 PA split between the Twins and Red Sox and now owns a .234/.274/.365 in 769 PA since his 2010 rookie season.
Meanwhile, Duquette hasn’t done a whole lot to protect his club from the inevitability of another injury-plagued season from 35-year-old Brian Roberts, whose inability to stay healthy has left the Orioles with virtually nothing to show for the first three years of his four-year, $40 million contract. Roberts played just 17 games last year, down from 39 in 2011 and 59 in 2010; no sooner had he worked his way back from a devastating concussion than he tore his right hip labrum. After undergoing surgery to repair the hip on Aug. 3, he needed additional surgery to repair a sports hernia in December.
The O’s received just a .213/.273/.323 line from their second basemen in 2012, including Rule 5 pick Ryan Flaherty (.216/.258/.359) and the since-departed Andino and Quintanilla (who signed with the Mets). Casilla, a perennial disappointment in Minnesota who was plucked off the waiver wire after hitting just .241/.282/.321, is barely suitable as utility infielder fodder, let alone as a replacement if/when Roberts gets hurt again. Navarro, a 26-year-old acquired from the Pirates in a deal for a minor leaguer, is even less promising given a career .191/.244/.250 line in 168 PA.
Unfinished business: Designated hitter The Orioles received a fairly uninspiring .240/.323/.407 line from their DHs, with the bulk of the production — 15 of the 24 homers — coming from Davis. Right now, the team has just half a solution in place at DH in the form of Wilson Betemit, a switch-hitter in name only; he hit .302/.357/.502 in 280 PA against righties, but a brutal .140/.219/.186 in 96 PA against lefties, and his career splits are nearly 200 points of OPS apart. The obvious options on the free agent market, such as Thome, Aubrey Huff and Jason Giambi, are lefties who are coming off down seasons. Thome hit just .257/.348/.396 in 115 PA after being traded from the Phillies to Baltimore in late June and missed 75 games via a pair of DL stints, one for his lower back (while he was still with Philadelphia) and one for a bulging disc in his neck, so he doesn’t rate as a particularly promising option.
Given the dearth of free agents and Duquette’s penchant for digging up long-lost players, one wonders if he might give Vlad Guerrero another shot. Guerrero, who turns 38 on Feb. 9, played just 12 games in the Blue Jays chain last year after hitting a thin .290/.317/.416 with the Orioles in 2011. He has yet to retire, and did play a bit in the Venezuelan League this winter, so it’s not unreasonable to think he could be brought in for a springtime look. There’s little chance that he could recapture his former glory, but outdoing last year’s production at the position isn’t all that high a bar to clear for a hitter with his track record.
Preliminary grade: D. It took a perfect storm for the Orioles to make the playoffs last year, but even with the Yankees, Red Sox and Rays having relatively unimpressive winters, it doesn’t appear as though Baltimore has done enough to do much more than hope that a similar storm hits again.