It’s no secret that the Baltimore Orioles have been mighty quiet this offseason. Other than agreeing to a one-year deal to bring back outfielder Nate McLouth and letting Mark Reynolds leave to sign with Cleveland, not much of note has gone down.
Even though Baltimore is coming off a 93-win season, their first winning season since 1997, the inaction of the Orioles’ front office this offseason is unsettling to many fans. While division rival Toronto is infusing their roster with all kinds of talent via trades and signings and teams across the league are injecting new talent and filling voids, Baltimore is standing pat.
No big trades.
No big free agents.
No big contract extensions.
Is this a bad thing? Some fans and media people say yes. After all, the 2012 Orioles reached the playoffs with a lot of luck. Whether it was from timely home runs or clutch one-run wins from one of the best bullpens in recent memory, it’s not like the Orioles were carried by sheer talent. They were able to execute the little things and did that consistently.
The Orioles also churned out wins from a Frankestein-like starting rotation full of outcasts, no-names, post-hype prospects, and journeymen. Most of the members of the starting rotation were not part of said rotation in April. It’s probably fair to say that not a single member of the starting rotation was on a typical fantasy baseball team at the start of 2012.
“Sign an ace,” say the fans.
“Add a middle-of-the-order bat!” cry the media.
It’s undeniable that the Orioles need to keep building in order to keep the winning going for many years to come. But does that building necessarily have to come via the almighty dollar? Do the Orioles need to spend exorbitant amounts of money in order to win a World Series?
Well, at the current juncture, the Orioles are right to stand pat and not make big splashes in the market. First of all, they don’t really know the true identity of their team yet. Sure, guys like Adam Jones, Matt Wieters, Nick Markakis, and J.J. Hardy are the leaders of the club. Obviously Manny Machado is the real-deal. But the overall situation is interesting because all positions are either occupied by a de facto starter, such as the men mentioned above, or they are filled with a bevy of intriguing players who will compete for jobs.
In other words, if the position is not catcher, shortstop, third base, center field, right field, closer, and, really, most of the bullpen, there will be competition among multiple players.
The Orioles still need to learn who they are before they go out an make big trades or signings. As the saying goes, learn to walk before you run.
However, some will hear that and say that they won 93 games last season. They know who they are already. They know they’re a winning ball club. The Orioles already know how to walk. Now it’s time to run!
Not so fast.
Again, even though this team won many games last year and made the playoffs, I’m convinced they’re still uncovering their identity. Let’s look at some of these position battles to get an idea of why the Orioles need to make 2013 their last ‘wait-and-see’ season before they really can start dropping some eight- and nine-figure contracts on superstar players, not to mention making those blockbuster ‘Blue Jays trades.’
Left Field: This position was bookended by two players in 2012: Nolan Reimold at the start of the season, Nate McLouth at the end. In between their stints as the primary left fielders was a jumble of spare parts; guys like Endy Chavez, Steve Pearce, Lew Ford, Steve Tolleson, and Xavier Avery were checking in and out of the lineup so regularly, even the most ardent fans had trouble keeping up with the changes. McLouth then came on the scene in early-August and the club never looked back. A reclamation project by Duquette and Showalter, McLouth is a former All Star who, at age 31, rekindled his skills and gave the Orioles a potent lead-off hitter.
Early indications look like McLouth will the main man at the position again in 2013. However, with Reimold seemingly healthy again, it could be a platoon situation as each player hits from a different side of the plate (McLouth a lefty, Reimold a righty). McLouth is the better fielder, however, and should get the lion’s share of the starts in left; Reimold should spend most of his time at designated hitter.
Many fans would prefer to see the Orioles fill this position with an impact player such as Justin Upton, a player who is being dangled by Arizona. However, the price to land a player of Upton’s caliber is extremely high and some argue the Baltimore farm system is still not at the point where the club can mortgage much of its future to acquire a player like Upton. Though he would slot right in to the lineup very well, Upton’s chances of landing in Baltimore, much to the chagrin on many fans, are slim to none.
Going forward with McLouth and Reimold, not to mention using Spring Training to check in on guys like L.J. Hoes, Trayvon Robinson, Conor Jackson, and others, is a prudent decision. Besides, if McLouth and Reimold can replicate what they offered last year, the Orioles will have a pair of very solid left fielders, a pair that, combined, cost Baltimore $3 million in 2013.
First Base: At the start of 2012, Chris Davis looked to be the guy going forward. His immense power, athleticism, and youth screamed ‘future star.’ However, he struggled with the glove and ended up losing time at first to Wilson Betemit, Nick Johnson, and even Nick Markakis a couple times. But, after scuffling yet again at the hot corner, in stepped Mark Reynolds and the Orioles suddenly had a guy with a golden glove. After the team finally put the nail in the coffin on Reynolds at third base, he found a home a first. It seemed like, when he was playing first, Reynolds could do no wrong.
However, the Orioles did not bring him back for another year so Reynolds is now a Cleveland Indian. It now looks like it’s back to Chris Davis for the Birds.
This is a situation that is not something to be overly concerned about in my view. It looks like Davis just had a bad year last year. You don’t hear about players having a bad year in the field too often but that really seems to have been the case. In the past, whether in the minors or when he was a Texas Ranger, Davis was a more-than-competent first baseman. He should rebound.
Davis’ bat plays very well from first base since he looks to be good for at least 30 home runs every single year. His effortless left-handed stroke is a sight to see. But Reynolds showed that a great fielder at first with the ability to scoop up all throws that come his way is something the team should no longer take for granted. Again, Davis should rebound and prove to be a solid option there, but it’s going to be hard to go back to having a mere mortal manning first. Reynolds was just that good.
Second Base: Here is where things get really messy. The first question is, obviously, what will Brian Roberts bring to the table this season? Will he contribute? Will he still suffer from post-concussion symptoms? Is he done now at age 35? If Roberts is healthy again and has kept himself in top shape during his time on the shelf, he’s an option for 2013. After all, the Orioles are paying him many millions of dollars and he’s been a great player for them in the past. However, the Orioles can not and should not rely on him at all. If he’s back, great, but they should not plan on it.
Here’s where guys like Ryan Flaherty, Alexi Casilla, Yamaico Navarro, Jonathan Schoop, and even Danny Valencia come in to play. All of these players are, or were at some point, notable prospects. All of these guys bring something to the table whether it’s power, speed, fielding, or all-around skills. However, it doesn’t look like any of them, save for Schoop, are guys to really get excited about.
If Roberts is a no-go, who is the one to step up here? My money is on Flaherty; at age 26, he’s still young enough to make a mark and has nice power from the left side. Flaherty spent the entire 2012 season on the 25-man roster due to his then-Super Two status. Though he had numerous opportunities last season he was unable to latch on to the full-time job. However, at the end of the year he began to catch a little fire. Perhaps that flame is still burning and will remain lit for 2013 on.
Navarro is a wild-card but even if he is a ‘hit,’ he’s likely going to give teams only 10 or 12 HR with decent average at best. He’s not a bad player by any measure, he’s just not an impact player like Flaherty could be. Casilla and Valencia seem to be guys who can fill in in a pinch but not anything more. Each has considerable big league experience as both played considerably with the Minnesota Twins in recent years. In fact, both saw decent success at times. Though neither had the same kind of success that a guy like McLouth had during his days with the Pirates, perhaps both find their stroke again and see a reemergence with Baltimore. After all, they’re both still relatively young (both are 28) and can still stick around for many more years, at least as reserve players.
As for Schoop, he will probably need another year or so to develop. This is a guy who can be a legitimate impact player in Major League Baseball. Some look at him as a future 20/20 guy but, again, it’s not likely to happen in 2013 (more like ’14 or ’15 as Schoop is still just 21 and not nearly as polished of a player as Machado).
In my view, this position is the biggest concern for 2013. It’s the one with the most questions. If the Orioles were to go out and trade for a player or sign someone, this would be the one. However, at this point, it’s looking like they’re going to go with who’ve they’ve already got. After all, with Roberts still on the scene and making a cool $10 million, it looks like they should wait to see what happens with him and then go forward with the rest of the pack if he’s done.
Designated Hitter: Buck Showalter is an advocate of not having a full-time DH. Odds are this will be a match-up-based situation. Nolan Remiold will likely occupy this spot most of the time; Wilson Betemit will get his time here, too, as will Chris Davis. Matt Wieters will DH on days he doesn’t catch as the Orioles want to keep that bat in the lineup as often as they can. Perhaps Brian Roberts, Nick Markakis, and J.J. Hardy will DH on the rare occasions they take a rest.
This is a position of minimal concern considering Showalter’s philosophy on the position. Someone will be DHing every day, it just won’t be the same guy every time out. It’s not like the Orioles are wedded to a player who must DH as he can’t play the field. Although it would be a dream to be able to have a Big Papi or Billy Butler occupying that four-spot in the order, it’s nice to have the flexibility to mix and match every day.
Starting Pitcher: There are five spots in a starting rotation, as we all know, but the Orioles are entering 2013 with at least a dozen viable options for the rotation. Jake Arrieta, Zach Britton, Dylan Bundy, Wei-Yin Chen, Kevin Gausman, Miguel Gonzalez, Jason Hammel, Tommy Hunter, Steve Johnson, Brian Matusz, T.J. McFarland, Chris Tillman, Tsuyoshi Wada, and a bevy of minor leagues comprise the group vying for a spot in the rotation. I’m probably forgetting someone but, regardless, that is quite the group right there.
It appears Chen, Gonzalez, Hammel, and Tillman have the inside track for the first four spots. However all four of these frontrunners each have their own concerns. Has it finally clicked with Tillman? Is Chen a legitimate major leaguer? Will Gonzalez revert to his old ways that saw him become relegated to indy league ball? Can Hammel maintain his performance from last year and not fall back to ‘innings eater’ status that he had in Colorado and Tampa Bay? These are all valid points to consider entering 2013.
It also looks like Tommy Hunter and Brian Matusz have found themselves as relief pitchers. Matsuz may move back to the rotation at some point, though it’s hard to deny the success he had as the top left-hander coming out of the ‘pen. Aside from the untimely home run he surrendered to Raul Ibanez in the ALDS (my apologies for reminding you of that moment), he was lights-out for the whole time he was pitching in relief. Still, the Orioles drafted him to be a starter so it’s hard to imagine him as a reliever from here on out for the rest of his career.
Hunter, on the other hand, looks like a great option going forward as a power bullpen arm and should stay in this role for good. This is a guy who bumped his fastball up from the low- to mid-90s to 100mph. He looked to be untouchable at times and really grabbed on to that 6th and 7th inning role. I see Hunter’s chances to rejoining the rotation as slim to none; Matusz, on the other hand, still may be viewed as a starter but there’s no shame in him finding his niche as a stud lefty reliever.
The lack of a sure-fire ace is concerning, though. However, the fact that Bundy and Gausman exist makes it far less likely that the Orioles break the bank for a pitcher of that caliber at this current time. These two are widely considered to be two of the best pitching prospects in the game; once they come on the scene, that is two less spots in the rotation to worry about. Odds are both are, at a minimum, good major leaguers. However, there is a real possibility both are top-of-the-rotation horses that the Orioles can lean on for years to come. Once they come to the big leagues, which could be sooner rather than later at the rate they’re moving through the farm system, the other dozen guys in the mix will be battling for those remaining spots in the five-man rotation.
Bundy and Gausman are that good.
It looks like the Orioles will stand pat and not make any significant moves. After all, pitchers and catchers report in a month and the season starts in less than three months; one would imagine they’d have already brought a new player on board. Still, there are plenty of players still on the market . . . but, again, it doesn’t look like the Orioles will pursue these guys.
Could this come back to bite them? Sure. They could end up seeing a bunch of their ‘nugget’ guys, as Buck calls them, fizzle out, thus leaving them with a bunch of spare parts and no one to build with. However, all this would tell them is they now know who to target in free agency and trades. They’ve got the core of Wieters, Jones, Markakis, Hardy, and the bullpen, now they just need the rest of these players to either continue their 2012 success or grab on to a job and not let go.
However, with the sheer quantity of quality guys as their disposal, it’s very likely the Orioles find a very good group of 25 to head up to Baltimore with (along with a few extras to boot). It’s probable that the Orioles are going to be in good shape for the season and will even be able to be somewhat active for once at the trade deadline. Maybe they’ll even enter the 2013/14 off-season ready to nab one of those hundred-million-dollar men.
Either way, a whole lot of questions will be answered in Spring Training and throughout the 2013 season. The Orioles, who are now winners for once, will really know themselves a lot better by the end of the year. And we can all rest easy at night knowing that, any day now, it will be announced that Buck will be sticking around for several more years, too.