Winter Report Card: Orioles still have holes to fill but few options left
With less than four weeks before pitchers and catchers report to spring training, we're checking in to see how each team has fared thus far this off-season while acknowledging that there's still time for that evaluation to change. Teams will be presented in reverse order of finish from 2015. Now up: the Baltimore Orioles. You can find all previously published Winter Report Cards here.
81–81 (.500), third place in American League East (Hot Stove Preview)
(*free agent, still unsigned; +Rule 5 pick)
Off-season In Review
Judged simply by the players on the outbound and inbound routes above, the Orioles' winter doesn't look like much, but the real news is that the team retained three of its key free agents in Chris Davis, Darren O'Day and Matt Wieters, a prospect that appeared unlikely at the outset of off-season. At least in the short term, their return to the fold should help Baltimore remain competitive in a division still very much up for grabs.
The big move, of course, is the signing of Davis to a seven-year, $161 million deal in which $42 million is deferred, lowering the present-day value to $147.7 million, according to the players' union. That's still a massive expenditure on a late-blooming, soon-to-be 30-year-old slugger who just a year ago was coming off a .196/.300/.404 season that included a 25-game suspension for banned stimulant use. Davis rebounded to hit .262/.361/.562 with an AL-best 47 homers and 5.2 Wins Above Replacement, but the all-or-nothing nature of his game—he struck out an AL-high 208 times—makes him a more risky investment than, say, Justin Upton. Crunching the numbers in our "What's He Really Worth" series shows that a whole lot has to go right for Davis's value to be in the ballpark of the Orioles' investment, but for the moment (and so long as he gets his therapeutic use exemption for Vyvanse), he should provide some mid-lineup thunder.
O'Day's four-year, $31 million deal is sizable in the context of those for relievers—particularly non-closers—in terms of both guaranteed amount and length, but it’s not ridiculous. It's a reflection of the team's comfort with the 33-year-old sidearmer, who earned All-Star honors for the first time last year via a 1.52 ERA and 11.3 strikeouts per nine in 65 1/3 innings and who has given the O's a 1.92 ERA in four exceptionally consistent seasons, averaging 68 appearances, 61 innings and 2.4 WAR per year. It's worth keeping in mind that he only needs to be worth about half of that $31 million for this to be a break-even move, given the market cost of a win ($6.5 million per year) and expected inflation.
Almost as surprising as the Orioles issuing Davis a club-record contract is their retention of Wieters. Despite being a Scott Boras client (like Davis), the 29-year-old backstop became just the second player ever to accept a qualifying offer, in this case valued at $15.8 million. That he did is recognition that the nine-figure deal that Boras once envisioned for his client was nowhere near happening, given that Wieters caught just 55 games in his return from Tommy John surgery and hit a modest .267/.319/.422 with eight homers, a 100 OPS+ and 0.8 WAR. He's been worth just 2.1 WAR over the past three seasons, only the first of which was complete, so it no longer appears that the sky's the limit for him. But the possibility of his overpayment being limited to one year instead of, say, seven is acceptable in light of the circumstances. Wieters will presumably do the bulk of the catching ahead of Caleb Joseph, with Francisco Pena (son of Tony and a .251/.305/.430 hitter at Triple A Omaha last year) on hand as the organization's third-string catcher. He'll replace the departed Steve Clevenger, who was dealt to the Mariners in exchange for Mark Trumbo and fringe lefty reliever C.J. Riefenhauser, the owner of a 6.30 ERA and more walks than strikeouts in his 20 big-league appearances to date.
Trumbo, who just turned 30 and is making $9.5 million in his final year before free agency, is coming off a full-season-low 22 homers in a season that saw him dealt from Arizona to Seattle; he hit a combined .262/.310/.449 for a 108 OPS+, two points below his career mark. It's fair to expect his power to recover at least somewhat with the move from Safeco to Camden Yards, but he’s not an everyday option in the outfield, so the hope is that the team can park him at designated hitter. As to what happens to last year's DH, Jimmy Paredes: He's a proven menace afield, but nobody should fret the loss of his 2015 production (.275/.310/.416 with 10 homers in 384 plate appearances en route to 0.2 WAR) if he’s squeezed out.
One real question mark is what to expect from Hyun-soo Kim, the 28-year-old South Korean outfielder whom the team signed to a two-year, $7 million deal. Kim hit .326/.438/.541 with a career-high 28 homers for the Doosan Bears of the KBO; his line was 318/.406/.488 over the course of nine seasons in the league. He has good plate discipline and contact skills (101 walks versus 61 strikeouts in 630 plate appearances last year), but his power may get lost in translation. But for a team whose leftfielders—including the recently departed Steve Pearce, David Lough, Gerardo Parra and Junior Lake, not to mention seven other players—hit just .210/.287/.353 in 2015, the bar is set exceptionally low for an upgrade, and the cost is negligible in the grand scheme.
For those keeping score at home: Pearce, who failed to recapture his 2014 breakout form, just signed a one-year deal with the Rays; Parra signed a three-year, $27.5 million deal with the Rockies; Lake was claimed on waivers by the Blue Jays; and Lough remains a free agent at this writing. Back in the 410 area code is L.J. Hoes, who played all of three games for the Orioles in 2012–13. The 26-year-old is a career .237/.289/.328 hitter in 337 plate appearances and is presumably battling for roster space with Rule 5 pick Joey Rickard, a 24-year-old speedster out of the Rays' system who hit .321/.427/.447 with 23 steals and two homers in 480 PA split between three levels of the minors. He could stick, but his upside is limited.
Unfinished Business: Rotation, rightfield
The biggest question for Dan Duquette and Buck Showalter at this juncture is how to replace Wei-Yin Chen, who signed a five-year, $80 million deal with the Marlins. In his strongest season to date, Chen led the Orioles' staff with 191 1/3 innings, a 3.34 ERA and 3.8 WAR last year. His departure leaves the erratic Ubaldo Jimenez as the only remaining starter who was better than league average in 2015, and we're talking barely: a 4.11 ERA (101 ERA+) and 4.01 FIP in 184 innings. Given the disappointing nature of the seasons of Chris Tillman (4.99 ERA/4.45 FIP) and Miguel Gonzalez (4.91 ERA/5.01 FIP), that's a whole lot of pressure to put on a rebound from Kevin Gausman, who was limited to 112 1/3 major league innings with a 4.25 ERA and a gaudy 1.4 homers per nine due to shoulder tendinitis. The addition of Vance Worley, who made eight starts and 15 relief appearances for the Pirates en route to a 4.02 ERA in 71 2/3 innings, isn't anything more than a stop-gap solution.
It's not as though the O’s can count on the once highly-touted Dylan Bundy to hold down a rotation spot, either. The former top prospect managed just 26 1/3 competitive innings last year due to shoulder and forearm woes, and he's thrown just 63 1/3 innings over the last three seasons. The 23-year-old right is out of options, however, so for him, finding a home in the big club's bullpen—like past prospects such as Brian Matusz and Zach Britton have before him—is a best-case scenario for 2016.
If the O's are to contend, they need an upgrade in the rotation, and given reports that they don't want to part with a draft pick, that would appear to rule out Yovani Gallardo. Baltimore is said to be in contact with Doug Fister, who's coming off an injury-shortened season (4.19 ERA in 103 innings) during which he was sidelined by a flexor strain, but the team is balking at his desire for a deal in the ballpark of two years and $22 million. Ex-Oriole Alfredo Simon, coming off a 5.05 ERA in 187 innings with 1.2 homers per nine allowed in Detroit—still better than the 1.7 he allowed in his 2008–11 stint with Baltimore—isn't exactly an appealing option, so Duquette will have to get creative to fill this need.
Meanwhile, the team's unwillingness to sign a free agent attached to a qualified pick also rules out the pursuit of Dexter Fowler. As it stands, however, the current rightfield situation is some combination of Davis (who has 60 games of experience there), Trumbo (who has at least shown he can be an adequate first baseman, with +12 DRS in about two seasons of playing time, allowing Davis to shift), Hoes, Rickard and the ubiquitous Nolan Reimold; that brings Paredes back to the parade as the DH. Without a time machine to dial back to 2008, the free-agent pickings—Marlon Byrd, Alex Rios, Jeff Francoeur, Grady Sizemore, Shane Victorino, et cetera—are slim. Assuming Baltimore doesn’t have the prospect package to obtain Carlos Gonzalez from the Rockies—to say nothing of the desire to make a last-minute play for Yoenis Cespedes—Duquette will have to use his imagination to find a better solution.
Preliminary Grade: B-
The long-term implications of the Davis contract aren't easily dismissed, but in the short term, the Orioles need production of his caliber to contend, and the team's other moves to date have been relatively economical if not tremendously inspiring. With the $119.7 million they've committed to 15 players, payroll is already on the rise beyond last year's Opening Day figure of $119.0 million, so it will be a real test for Duquette to fill the remaining items on their shopping list in a sensible way.