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
The Orioles have an interesting decision on their hands when it comes to figuring out what to do in left field next season. Let's jump right in.
Opting not to sign someone like Nick Swisher to play left field last offseason, the Orioles instead decided to re-sign Nate McLouth, who didn't get much serious attention from other teams looking for outfield help. The O's were likely going to use McLouth and Nolan Reimold in some sort of platoon. That didn't work out exactly, but the decision not to sign Swisher doesn't look so bad right now. Swisher signed a four-year, $56 million deal with the Indians (plus he has a 2017 vesting option for $14 million). McLouth, however, signed for just one year and $2 million and ended up having a similar year to Swisher. Swisher primarily played first base and only played part time in right field, but he hit .246/.341/.423 while playing mostly bad defense between his two positions. McLouth, on the other hand, played nearly all of his innings in left field, performed slightly below average defensively, and hit .258/.329/.399.
McLouth wasn't supposed to play as much as he did, but, well, things happen, particularly to Reimold, who just can't stay on the field. It was eventually discovered that Reimold needed surgery to fix a spinal fusion procedure he received in 2012, and he appeared in only 40 games. McLouth, meanwhile, appeared in 146 games and received nearly 600 plate appearances. The only two other left fielders of note were Steve Pearce, who played 107.1 innings in left, and Chris Dickerson, who was in left field for 46 innings. Dickerson was mostly a fourth outfielder type who didn't hit well (.291 wOBA in 109 plate appearances), but he played well defensively in all three outfield positions (which is his calling card). Pearce hit well (.345 wOBA in 138 plate appearances) but battled a wrist injury for most of the season and went on the disabled list a couple times.
So, basically, there was McLouth. The average major league left fielder ended up with a batting line of .252/.320/.399, and McLouth barely exceeded those numbers. (For what it's worth, O's left fielders hit a combined .241/.308/.381.) So, considering McLouth's contract, the O's did a solid job with that signing. Still, McLouth had some holes. He started out the season on fire, hitting a combined .346/.452/.513 in March and April. But, predictably, he cooled off. Here are his first- and second-half splits:
1st half: .275/.347/.399, 42.4 GB%, 32.5 FB%
2nd half: .233/.304/.400, 32.6 GB%, 43.0 FB%
He also walked slightly less in the second half and struck out more. In August, Jon discussed the new line-drive-hitting version of McLouth and the potential of the team bringing him back. But McLouth reverted to hitting more fly balls and fewer balls on the ground, and his numbers suffered. He is not a power hitter, and he's better when he's hitting the ball hard on the ground and using his legs to take the extra base.
McLouth also did not hit lefties very well last season, which has been a career-long issue for him:
2013 vs. RHP: .272/.342/.411
2013 vs. LHP: .209/.283/.357
McLouth is a decent player, but he's probably more valuable in a platoon role (which, as noted above, was likely the original plan).
So now what? McLouth is a free agent yet again. And, according to Roch Kubatko, the O's wouldn't risk handing him a two-year, $10 million contract, which may be a bit risky but doesn't seem that unreasonable. Expecting Reimold to stay healthy, let alone return to being a decent hitter, is a mistake. And Pearce and Dickerson shouldn't be considered anything other than bench guys. The O's also do not have anyone in the minors who could step in and take over the left field job (no, Henry Urrutia is not that guy).
I think two years and $10 million is about the maximum I'd pay McLouth. If they can bring him back yet again for a one-year deal, that's even better. But who knows if he'd want to do that again, and it's also possible that his decent season caught the eye of another team that would be willing to pay him more money. It's hard not to be a bit wary about continuing to count on McLouth, who turns 32 in a few weeks. He was close to being out of the game before his resurgent 2012 efforts, and the ineffective McLouth could resurface at any time.
So, even if McLouth re-signs, the O's may still be in the market for a new left fielder. Who's out there?
Free Agent Options
Let's start out with the expensive/unlikely group: Shin-Soo Choo and Nelson Cruz. (I discussed Jacoby Ellsbury in my center field post; he's obviously a part of the unlikely group.) Choo will probably command a contract in the range of what the Giants just paid Hunter Pence: five years and $90 million. Choo's career .389 OBP would give the O's lineup a huge boost, but I seriously doubt they spend that kind of coin (especially with Adam Jones making $13 million next season and the club still on the hook for Nick Markakis for one year and $15 million). Those two players are scheduled to be the team's highest paid players; spending that kind of money on yet another outfielder probably won't happen.
Cruz is not a free agent just yet, but he could be one if he wanted to. The Rangers are likely going to offer him a qualifying offer (worth about $14 million), which would be a nice chunk of change for someone coming off a 50-game suspension. At the plate, he's similar to Jones: lots of power with an OK on-base percentage. He walks more than Jones, but he also plays bad corner outfield defense, which is obviously much less valuable than Jones's combination of below average defense and strong offense from the center field position. If Cruz does become a free agent, it'll be interesting to see the offers he receives. It's worth noting that he's also 33 years old and hasn't come close to replicating his career year numbers (.318/.374/.576) from 2010. One more thing: Cruz has played more than 6,000 innings in right field in his career and just 384.2 in left. So he may be reluctant to join the Orioles and play left field.
In all likelihood, none of the names above are realistic options, so let's focus on more cost-effective names.
Jason Kubel. Kubel, who's currently under contract with the Indians, has a 2014 club option worth $7.5 million, with a $1 million buyout. I'd be surprised if the Indians picked up his option, so he very well may be available. The Orioles have inquired on Kubel in the past (which I was not a fan of), so it's not unreasonable to believe they'd consider signing him. Kubel, 31, battled a nagging knee injury and put together the worst season of his career. He batted just .216/.293/.317 in 290 plate appearances. Considering that what Kubel does offensively is essentially what makes him valuable -- he is an awful outfielder and is not a good baserunner -- that is not a good sign. Like McLouth, Kubel struggles against lefties but hits very well against righties, but he doesn't bring much else to the table. Kubel might be someone the O's could sign for relatively cheap, but I'm not a big fan of signing him to play in the outfield.
David Murphy. Seriously, what happened to Murphy in 2013? After hitting .304/.380/.479 in 2013, he had a horrible year at the plate, batting .220/.282/.374. His plate discipline numbers weren't wildly different; neither were his fly ball and groundball percentages. But he did start putting the ball in play more (walked less, struck out less), and his BABIP plummeted to .227 (career .302). Before the 2013 season, Jerry Crasnick of ESPN guessed that with another good season, Murphy could have commanded a deal similar to Angel Pagan (four years, $40 million) or Shane Victorino (three years, $39 million). That seems awfully unlikely now. Like fellow lefties McLouth and Kubel, Murphy is not a good hitter against left-handed pitching. But he thrives vs. righties -- plus, he's above average defensively in the outfield, as long as he's not playing center field. He has flaws, but he could be a nice buy-low candidate.
Rajai Davis. Davis turns 33 next week, but he could also be a decent signing if used properly. He's a much better hitter against lefties (.343 wOBA) than righties (.288 wOBA). He's not very good defensively, but he has excellent speed and is outstanding on the basepaths (he had 45 steals and was caught only six times last season). For his career, his stolen base rate is about 80%, which is also very good. Considering Davis signed for one year and $2.5 million last season, and didn't have a particularly strong overall year (.260/.312/.375), he could probably be signed for cheap. A Davis/McLouth platoon might not be ideal, but it would be interesting.
Marlon Byrd. Byrd, 36, had a very strong season between his time with the Mets and Pirates. He hit .291/.336/.511 and was OK defensively, and he did this after being signed to a minor league contract in February. His numbers were fueled by a dominant season against left-handed pitching (.406 wOBA), a .353 BABIP (career .325), and the highest HR/FB rate of his career over a full season (16.4% vs. career 9.3%). Sometimes players just have unexpected, ridiculous seasons, and this was one of them. I wouldn't count on Byrd having a 2014 season like this one, but he wouldn't be the worst third or fourth outfielder to have around, as long as his price hasn't jumped exponentially. McLouth's didn't after 2012, but Byrd is also performing better than McLouth did, and he's doing it over a full season.
Michael Morse. Morse had a stretch from 2010-2011 when he was effective at the plate. But he's not an outfielder, and the Orioles should not view him as any kind of option in left (or right) field.
Others of note: Coco Crisp (has a 2014 option with the A's that will presumably be picked up); Carlos Beltran (still very good offensively but doesn't really play left field); David DeJesus (can play all outfield positions but has a 2014 option with the Rays for $6.5 million (and a $1.5 million buyout); is good against right-handed pitching); Corey Hart (mainly a right fielder; can't stay healthy).
I believe that's most of the notable free agents, though obviously the O's could delve deeper into the outfield options and sign a few guys to minor league deals (which Dan Duquette is usually in favor of).
What to Do in 2014
Signing Choo would be a fantastic move (even if they would have to sacrifice their first-round pick in next year's draft), not only because he does an excellent job of getting on base (which is a category the Orioles desperately need to improve), but because he would not have to play center field (where he is not very good). But that would cost around $100 million, most likely, and the O's also have to figure out what to do at second base, in the rotation, and possibly in the bullpen. Signing Choo would be expensive, but it would also give the team one of the most productive hitters in the game.
The O's probably should do that, but they won't. My guess is they do something similar to last year, when they re-signed McLouth and planned on a left field platoon. I would stay away from Kubel and Morse, but bringing in some combination of McLouth, Davis, Murphy, or Byrd would probably work. Murphy probably has the most upside of those names, but he was also the worst of that group at the plate. Also, I guess the O's could explore a trade, but they shipped away some of their fringe prospects last year in the stretch run, and I doubt they would offer up any of their precious few valuable prospects anyway.