Winter Report Card: Baltimore Orioles
With one week 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 2014. You can find all previously published Winter Report Cards here.
2014 Results: 96-66 (.593), first place in AL East (Hot Stove Preview)
After a 14-season drought, the Orioles have reached the playoffs twice in three years. In 2014, they claimed their first division title since 1997, finished with the league’s second-best record and made it as far as the ALCS despite season-ending injuries to Matt Wieters and Manny Machado, as well as Chris Davis' suspension for performance enhancing drugs. Amid a winter in which they've shed more talent than they've added, however, general manager Dan Duquette's apparent plan is to cross his fingers and hope that the aforementioned trio can not only return at full strength but also pick up enough slack to offset the loss of slugger Nelson Cruz.
It's a questionable enough strategy to start with, one that raises a few more eyebrows in the wake of the division rival Blue Jays' mid-January attempt to trade for Duquette in order to make him their president/CEO. With the engineer of the franchise's turnaround under contract through 2018, owner Peter Angelos took a particularly frosty view of the matter, and attempts to negotiate a deal with Toronto broke off over the package of prospects that Baltimore would have received in compensation.
Back to the roster. In delivering an MLB-high 40 homers and a .271/.333/.525 line for $8 million, Cruz was one of the year's best bargains. While one can understand the reluctance of the O's to approach the four-year, $57 million deal that the Mariners made for the slugger's age-34 to -37 seasons, in letting him depart, Baltimore needed to do more than simply collect the draft pick. Unless, that is, the O's have a crystal ball that can tell them that Davis' renewed therapeutic use exemption for Adderall — the lack of which led to his 25-game suspension late last season — will be enough for him to overcome a nightmare campaign (26 homers but just a .196/.300/.404 line) and restore his ability to approach his 2013 output of 53 homers and 370 total bases.
Baltimore also needs Steve Pearce to avoid falloff from the out-of-nowhere season that he delivered at age 31 (.293/.373/.556 with 21 homers in 383 plate appearances) to offset Davis' woes, as well as for Machado to return from his second straight season-ending knee injury (this time he had surgery to reconstruct the medial patellar femoral ligament of his right knee, matching the 2013 procedure for his left one) and for Wieters to make the most substantial return of any major league catcher to have undergone Tommy John surgery.
At the very least, the catching situation could use more fortification beyond backups Caleb Joseph and Steve Clevenger. Joseph hit .207/.264/.354 in 275 PA as a 28-year-old rookie, though he did throw out 40 percent of would-be base thieves and was 13.2 runs above average in the framing department via Baseball Prospectus' metrics. The team declined a $5 million option on Nick Hundley, whom they acquired in late May once Wieters went down, and while his performance between the Padres and Orioles was the definition of replacement level, the remaining catchers on hand may not even be that.
Clevenger owns a career -0.9 WAR and subpar defense (-4 Defensive Runs Saved and a 13 percent caught-stealing rate). Ex-Red Sox prospect Ryan Lavarnway, a career .201/.249/.315 hitter in 301 major league PA, caught just 15 games at Triple A last year, which helps to explain why he passed through the hands of the Dodgers and Cubs this winter and then was outrighted off the Orioles' 40-man roster. Non-roster invitee J.P Arencibia is coming off a season in which he hit .177/.239/.369 — his second straight season below the Mendoza Line — with 10 homers and -6 Defensive Runs Saved en route to -1.0 WAR. Where's Rick Dempsey when you need him?
Duquette did make one upgrade with the potential to pay off, swapping out Nick Markakis for Travis Snider in rightfield. The 31-year-old Markakis, who manned the position for the past nine seasons, was solid last year (.276/.342/.386, 14 homers), but his 2.1 WAR represented his best showing since 2011, and declining his $17.5 million option was a no-brainer. The two sides were expected to work out a less expensive, longer-term contract, but Markakis wound up leaving to sign a four-year, $44 million deal with the Braves, one that was quickly followed by the revelation that he needed fusion surgery to repair a herniated disc.
The 27-year-old Snider, though he has never fully delivered on the promise that made him a consensus top-10 prospect back in 2008-09, put up his best major league showing to date with the Pirates (.264/.338/.438 with 13 homers in 359 PA, 2.1 WAR). Acquired in exchange for Low A lefty Stephen Tarpley and a player to be named later, Snider is making $2.1 million and has one more year of arbitration eligibility remaining. He can fit into some kind of job-share with Pearce and the re-signed Delmon Young, who in his age-28 season finally found a team that could shield him from lefties and defensive duty more often than not. After hitting a brisk .302/.337/.442 with seven homers in 255 PA, Young re-upped for $2.25 million.
Like the lineup, the bullpen is down a significant weapon with the departure of a free agent. Andrew Miller, who during his brief stay whiffed 42 hitters in 27 1/3 regular and postseason innings, signed a four-year, $36 million deal with the Yankees. It's asking a whole lot for 30-year-old Wesely Wright to pick up the slack, but he's likely the third lefty in the bullpen behind closer Zach Britton and Brian Matusz. Wright pitched to a 3.17 ERA in 48 1/3 innings for the Cubs last year, though he whiffed just 6.9 per nine; he signed a $1.7 million deal. Meanwhile, the team picked up the $4.25 million option on righty Darren O'Day, an obvious move after he put up a 1.70 ERA with 9.6 strikeouts per nine.
As for the rest, we hardly knew ye: Joe Saunders, who threw all of 3 1/3 innings, remains a free agent at this writing, as does Johan Santana, who tore his left Achilles tendon in June just as he was nearing a return to active duty. Kelly Johnson, who made all of 45 plate appearances, returned to the Braves via a minor league deal.
Unfinished business: Second base, rotation
It's too soon to give up on 23-year-old Jonathan Schoop, but he's coming off a brutal rookie campaign in which his 16 homers were offset by a .209/.244/.354 line featuring a 122/13 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 481 PA. Amid all the swings-and-misses, he did prove himself more than capable at second base (+10 DRS and +6 UZR in 123 games there), but it's fair to say that he could probably use a few months at Triple A. A better fallback than Ryan Flaherty (.221/.283/.369 in 750 career PA) would give Schoop more time to develop. While veteran utilitymen such as Nick Punto and Ramon Santiago are off the board, taking a flyer on free agent Mark Ellis, who was terrible in limited duty with the Cardinals in 2014 (.180/.253/.213) but worth a combined 5.3 WAR in 2012-13 with the Dodgers (.264/.328/.357, +22 DRS), isn't a bad idea.
For a more substantial upgrade there or at catcher — if Wieters’ return doesn’t go as smoothly as hoped — Duquette could tap the team's pitching depth, though his and manager Buck Showalter's ability to juggle six starters via the disabled list and the minor leagues has been a significant part of Baltimore's comeback story. At some point, the training wheels have to come off Kevin Gausman so that he can assume a full workload, and Ubaldo Jimenez can't spend the next three seasons as the world’s most expensive long reliever. But thinning the pack probably depends upon the progress of 22-year-old prospect Dylan Bundy, whose 2014 return from Tommy John surgery was abbreviated by a strained latissimus dorsi, leaving him stuck at a grand total of 18 1/3 innings above High A.
Preliminary grade: D+
The O's won what was expected to be a competitive division by 12 games last year, but they've sat far too still this winter while the Red Sox, Yankees and Blue Jays have significantly revamped. Barring further moves, they need best-case scenarios from the returns of Davis, Machado, and Wieters to offset their inactivity.