30 September 2013

Making the Orioles a Champion in 2014: Center Field

This post is part of the Making the Orioles a Champion in 2014 Series.  Below you will find links to the other articles.  We will do our best to make sure the links go live with each new update.
C | 1B | 2B (1, 2) | 3B | SS | LF | CF | RF | DH | Bench | SP (1, 2) | RHRP | LHRP | Conclusion 

So, as we are all well aware, the Orioles did not make the playoffs. (Cue sad Robert Andino.) After being ridiculously fortunate in close games in 2012, the 2013 Orioles finished with a plethora of one-run and late-inning losses, which is a shame, especially since they were close to that second Wild Card spot for much of the season. Then again, considering that before 2012 the Orioles hadn't won more than 79 games in a single season since 1997, and also how unexpected and exhilarating the 2012 Orioles' 93-69 record and playoff adventure were, it's hard to complain too much about an above .500 record (85-77, to be exact) in baseball's best division. Unless, of course, the Orioles end up going another 14 seasons until their next postseason trip.

The Orioles still have a solid core of players, so it's important not to panic. (Is anyone panicking? No? OK, good.) But what do the Orioles need to do in the offseason to get back to the playoffs? The Camden Depot staff has some ideas, and Jon, Joe, Stuart, Nate, and I will be examining each part of the team (by position) throughout October to review how the Orioles performed this past season and explore ways in which they can improve heading into 2014.

I'll kick off the discussion by talking about center field and Adam Jones.


Looking Back

In May of 2012, the Orioles signed Jones to a six-year, $85.5 million contract extension. He went on to have the best season of his career, and he was a key part in helping the O's get to the playoffs. The first year of his deal started in 2013 (for $8.5 million), and while he wasn't quite as good as the year before, he certainly didn't make anyone regret the team signing him to a lucrative extension.

In 160 games in 2013, Jones hit .285/.318/.493 (.350 wOBA). His 33 home runs were a career high. Of all qualified MLB center fielders, Jones's wOBA was fifth, behind Mike Trout, Shin-Soo Choo, Andrew McCutchen, and Carlos Gomez -- pretty good company. More or less, though, Jones did what he's been doing for the past few seasons: hit for a pretty good average, an average on-base percentage, and lots of power (especially for a center fielder). Only Trout, McCutchen, and Gomez (again, out of all center fielders) had higher slugging percentages than Jones's .493.

But a typical Jones season at the plate also includes lots of swinging at pitches out of the zone and, unsurprisingly, not many walks. Jones's 3.6 BB% was slightly worse than his walk percentage in 2010 (3.7%), though he's never been able to draw walks consistently (highest = 6.9% in 2009). Jones is not a patient hitter, and he attacked more pitches this year than any other. He swung at 58.1% of all pitches this year (career average just below 55%), and he chased nearly 45% of pitches outside the strikezone (career average around 41%). He swung early and often; sometimes it worked, and sometimes it didn't. It would likely work out better for him if he were a little more selective, and maybe that's something he'll improve on as he gets older. But, at least for right now, Jones is a 28-year-old power hitter who, just about every time he steps to the plate, is thinking about hitting the ball out of the ballpark. He'd much rather swing the bat than walk, and an opposing pitcher has to work pretty hard to throw him four balls out of the zone that he won't swing at. But, hey, that's Adam Jones, and that offensive strategy, while frustrating at times, is working out well for him so far.

Defensively, Jones may have been marginally better in 2013. Per FanGraphs, his -5.8 UZR was his best since 2010, though that's obviously still below average. Per Baseball-Reference's Baseball Info Solutions' defensive runs saved above average, Jones finished at -3, which, again, is below average but is also his best since 2009 (+2). He also committed just two errors in 2013 after having eight of them each in the past two seasons. Error totals are not a good indicator of defensive skills, and maybe those numbers means Jones's range took a step back this past season. He can still make flashy plays, but he doesn't always make more routine plays that you think he'd be able to. (All of which, for what it's worth, has nothing to do with him blowing bubbles.)

Moving Forward

Jones has five years and $77 million left on his contract, as discussed above, so he's not going anywhere. And considering he's only 28, his deal seems more than fair. He's not the best center fielder in the game, but he's still relatively young, hits for average and power, and is a bit below average defensively in center field. He's a big part of why the Orioles were sixth in the majors in runs scored. The Orioles still look wise for signing him to that extension during the 2012 season.

If things go south for the O's in the next few years -- really, really south -- it's not out of the question that Jones's name would come up in trade talks. It wouldn't be the first time something like that happened. It's extremely unlikely, but anything is possible. It doesn't hurt that Jones's contract is movable right now -- unlike, say, B.J. Upton's. Still, the O's don't have any strong center field prospects who are close to the majors, and they even got rid of two of their best outfield prospects this past season when they shipped L.J. Hoes to Houston and Xavier Avery to Seattle.

Free Agent Options

To repeat: Adam Jones is not going anywhere. The Orioles are not in rebuilding mode, and Jones is a huge part of the revival of this organization. There aren't many strong center field free agents, though someone like Jacoby Ellsbury would give the top of the O's lineup a huge boost. But signing Ellsbury would cost a lot of money, and it's unlikely the O's spend that kind of money on a single player. Ellsbury would help the O's more defensively in center field than Jones, but signing someone to replace Jones in center just isn't going to happen right now. Maybe that could happen at some point down the road, if the talk of moving Jones to a corner outfield position intensifies, but not right now. And if you believe in any kind of team chemistry issue, that likely wouldn't go over well, anyway. That shouldn't be an overriding factor when it comes to improving a team, but it's still worth considering.

Jones in 2014

Barring injury, Jones will be the team's opening day center fielder in 2014. No surprises here. O's fans should continue to look forward to lots of extra-base hits from Jones. Just don't get your hopes up for better plate discipline.


Jeff said...

Sorry but I think the idea of signing the oft-injured Ellsbury to play CF is a mistake. He would be a huge gamble at the type of money he will command and really a sideways if not downward move. The help at the top of the lineup needs to come from the second base position. A solid player who can work counts and draw walks, slap out some singles and doubles, steal 25 bases and score 95 runs all while playing a solid second base. Next up a DH is critical to offensive success. In 2013 the O's utilized many solid bench players in the DH spot, but these guys simply aren't DH's. And Brian Roberts DHing ... it's novel but still weak. Two starting pitchers and two relievers are on the wish list too!

Matt Kremnitzer said...

This article was only about the center field position, so I won't comment on 2B or DH -- other Depot writers will be doing that. Anyway, the Ellsbury comment, as I mentioned, is more of a pipe dream anyway. The O's aren't going to pay him what he's going to command, but it'd be hard to argue that his speed, defense, and skills at the plate wouldn't be a strong upgrade.

Still, I agree. It would be risky.

Jon Shepherd said...

One thing that the elite tier of free agency has become is a collection of very good players with red flags. If the red flags were not there then these guys would have been signed long term. That is almost always true. Given that to work with, if you need to improve the team from outside the organization then you might have to engage in the free agency market. Ellsbury is not a sure thing, but he has shown in multiple years that he can be a fringe star to star player. He is a first division centerfielder and he might be a first division left fielder.

That said...the team would be maximizing payroll on one commodity instead of spreading out risk among several players like Jeff suggests.

skyeye44 said...

I am still trying to wrap my head around Jacoby Ellsbury as a superior CF. He uses his speed to make up for errors in tracking balls over his head and he has the absolute weakest arm in CF in the majors. I don't know how this gets tracked but everyone, and I mean everyone takes the extra base on Ellsbury. He is a good contact singles/doubles hitter with speed. Maybe it's that magic Boston spin on players but he ain't worth anything near what he will command in salary. CF is not a big worry for the Orioles.

Liam said...

I've heard the idea bounced around (including here, I htink) that Jones could move to a corner outfield position and we sign someone who is plus defensively and less prolific offensively to play center. Any thoughts on this idea?

I don't think Buck will ask Jones to move until his range really starts to plummet, and I know Jones takes a lot of pride in playing center field, so this may not be realistic for a couple years.

Matt Kremnitzer said...

Jones has a very strong arm; it's certainly stronger than Ellsbury's. But he doesn't have the most accurate arm, either. Still, when McLouth is in left and with Markakis's declining arm in right, Jones's arm looks like a rocket launcher at times in comparison.

A strong arm is important, especially for a center fielder. But range is more important, and Ellsbury is much better than Jones in that area.

The Orioles are not going to sign Ellsbury. I only brought his name up because I believe signing him would make the Orioles better. Buck Showalter isn't going to move Adam Jones away from center anytime soon.

Philip said...

Enjoyed this article. Nice writing style.
I think all would agree that CF is the absolute least of our worries, but it will be interesting to see what transpires on the corners.
Here's an enthusiastic vote for nate( Jeremy? An amen, please?)

Anonymous said...

you people need to be drug tested again.Adam jones is one of the best center fielders in the game.you don't get voted to the allstar team back to back,years being average.But I take comfort in knowing players and managers know a hell of a lot more than you idiots.

Jon Shepherd said...

Thank you for the well thought out response Anonymous.