05 October 2013

Making the Orioles a Champion in 2014: Second Base (Part One)

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

Background

From 2003 through 2009, the Orioles were unsuccessful, with records ranging from 74-88 in 2004 to 64-98 in 2009. However, during that time, second base was a position of strength; Brian Roberts was consistently one of the Orioles' best players and twice named to the midseason all-star team. Orioles' fans hoped that the hardworking and popular Roberts would last long enough to be a part of the next contending Orioles team. Before the 2009 season, the Orioles rewarded Roberts with a contract extension through 2013.

Because of injuries, Roberts played only 59 games in 2010; 39 games in 2011; and 17 games in 2012. And second base became an Orioles' weakness, rather than a strength. In 2010, the Orioles primarily used Julio Lugo, Ty Wigginton, and Scott Moore to spell Roberts; they were better suited to corner infield positions and were inadequate defensively. In 2011, the Orioles turned to Robert Andino as Roberts' fill-in. Despite positive reviews from some casual observers, Andino wasn't much more than a replacement-level player either offensively or defensively. But Andino played well enough to be the first fill-in option when Roberts was hurt again in 2012. Andino flopped, with a .588 OPS on offense and barely replacement-level defense.  He fell so far out of favor that Rule 5 draftee Ryan Flaherty started the Wild Card Game and two of the five games in the Divisional Series.

In the 2012-2013 offseason, the Orioles traded Andino to the Mariners for minor-league outfielder Trayvon Robinson and brought in Minnesota castoff Alexi Casilla. Casilla had been a light-hitting utility player with the Twins, mixing fairly good seasons (2008, 2010, 2011) with poor seasons (2007, 2009, 2012). Casilla had been signed through 2013 with a 2014 team option, and the Twins decided not to keep him. The Orioles were hoping that Brian Roberts, after three years plagued by injuries, would return as the full-time second baseman and with Casilla as his backup. Plan C was Ryan Flaherty, the 2011 Rule 5 pickup who had survived his mandatory season on the big-league roster but whom the Orioles hoped could be optioned to the minors for more seasoning.

2013

Roberts started the season as the regular second baseman, but injured his knee in the third game and was out for almost two months. Flaherty and Casilla filled in, and got off to terrible offensive starts. For the first two months of the season, the consensus was that the Orioles had a really good seven-man offense but were sunk by a complete lack of production at second base and designated hitter.

But by the end of the year, Roberts had returned and was playing regularly, and Flaherty rebounded from his terrible start. Roberts, Flaherty, and Casilla -  who played 93% of the defensive innings at second base - combined to hit .232/.297/.374, a .671 OPS. That's about a 79-80 OPS+, not good but substantially better than their performance in the first half. And the real drag was Casilla. Roberts and Flaherty combined for .237/.303/.391, and the resulting .694 OPS equates to an 87-88 OPS+ - better than right fielder Nick Markakis.

I don't put a lot of faith in technical, advanced fielding metrics like dWar; but, for what it's worth, both the advanced and basic metrics indicate that Roberts and Flaherty were average to slightly-above-average defensively, and Casilla was a good defensive second baseman.

Despite the ugly beginning to 2013, second base was not a position of glaring weakness for the Orioles. It certainly wasn't an outstanding strength, but playoff teams got worse production out of a position than the Orioles got out of second base. For example, the St. Louis Cardinals won 98 games while getting less out of their shortstops. The Atlanta Braves won 96 games while getting less out of their center fielders. The Detroit Tigers won 93 games while getting less out of  their left fielders.

2014 Options: The In-House Solutions

The Orioles will have to make a decision about Brian Roberts because his contract expired after the 2013 season, and he will become a free agent as soon as he files the paperwork. As I described above, Roberts had a surprisingly good 2013 once he recovered from his injuries. Because he's going to turn 36 later this month and he's been injury-prone, he's won't get another $10 million long-term contract. The Orioles have to decide whether to offer him any contract at all. If they do, Roberts will have to decide to accept it. I assume that Roberts would be offered an incentive-laden one-year deal.

The Orioles can't count on Roberts as a full-time second baseman. He hasn't played in even half a season's games since 2009; his 77 games in 2013 is the most. But a crude, very unscientific look at recent 35-year-old second basemen shows that if they play at age 36, they typically don't decline much from their age 35 performance. If Roberts can and does play in 2014, it's reasonable to expect him to perform at about the same level as he did in 2013.

The Orioles' consensus top position-player prospect is a middle infielder being converted to second base, 21-year-old (with an October birthday; he'll turn 22 later this month) Jonathan Schoop. Schoop played most of 2013 at Norfolk with a five-game, garbage-time major-league cameo at season's end. Schoop played in only 70 games at Norfolk because of a stress fracture in his back; he hit .256/.301/.396. Factoring in the likelihood of improvement as Schoop gets more experience, the fact that Camden Yards is a better place to hit than Norfolk's Harbor Park, and the difference between the major leagues and AAA, I think Schoop's likely to produce offense at about the same level with Baltimore in 2014 as he did with Norfolk in 2013. I've recently written about Schoop's second-base defense, and believe that he'd be slightly less than league-average defensively in 2014.

I confess to being less impressed with Schoop than many other observers. I saw Schoop play 19 games at Norfolk in 2013 and didn't see anything that indicated that he would be a star. Yes, Schoop is still very young, but he didn't impress me with his athleticism and I couldn't see any obvious room for growth. The ball didn't jump off his bat the way it did off, say, the bat of Ryan Adams at his best. He didn't impress me with his range or throwing arm. I think Schoop really needs to spend 2014 at Norfolk to develop his game to the fullest, but he might be the best in-house option for second base in Baltimore.

Ryan Flaherty is also available. Flaherty had the reputation as a power hitter who lacked the tools to be a middle infielder. In 2013, Flaherty took over the second-base job when Brian Roberts was hurt, and struggled at first. By year's end, Flaherty showed good power - 10 home runs in 246 at-bats - and better defense than expected. Although Flaherty played at slightly above replacement-level as a part-time player, we don't know what effect an increase in playing time would have on his offense and on his defense. Will his bat improve with more playing time, or will pitchers find his holes? Is he defense for real, or will he become more of a liability if he played more?

The Orioles have in-house options at second base for 2014 that will likely contribute about as much as their second basemen did in 2013, but don't have options that will do much better. Fortunately, the Orioles can be a championship team without improving at second base to be a champion. The Orioles will have to improve to be a champion but it may be easier to improve elsewhere.

In my next post, I'll look at some of the second-base options not currently in the Orioles' organization.


4 comments:

Philip said...

Very interesting. I'm surprised that Casilla did as poorly as you seem to indicate. I actually thought he was quite good defensively and hit acceptably, even though it wasn't anything to write home about.
Given that we get plenty of offense from other positions, does it make sense to sacrifice offense from second base and just focus on outstanding defense?
Schoop doesn't offer very much defense, and there's no doubt that the trade-off in increased offense would not be worthwhile.
Btw, what is the stat ops?
I thought it was on-base percentage plus slugging percentage, but this seems to be a different stat that I'm not familiar with

Rembrandt18 said...

The Biggest thing I think I can glean from this, before looking at outside the organization prospects is that they don't need much at second to improve overall and using Schoop at some point with spells with Flaherty could be the best recipe for success if they opt to start him from the spring. I do agree he probably need to spend time in triple A for refinement. I'm not a fan of bringing back B rob though he isn't worse than Casilla.

Joe Reisel said...

I apologize if I used the term OPS when I meant OPS+. OPS+ is adjusted OPS, adjusted for (primarily) park context. 100 is league-average (not position-adjusted) with higher numbers being better.

I was very surprised that Roberts and Flaherty hit as well as they did, or perhaps I should say less poorly than I thought they were hitting. It's not going to be as easy to improve as some people might think. As far as bringing Roberts back, it's a matter of cost and other options. Is it worth bringing him back on a Nate McLouth-level contract?

Liam said...

Casilla's option for 2014 is $3 million- there's no way the Orioles pick that up, is there?

Flaherty's defense was certainly above average according to fangraphs and baseball reference stats- somewhere in the 3-8 runs saved range despite about half a season of playing time.

I could see them bringing back brob on a McLouth type deal and then bringing Schoop up in the second half, with Flaherty being used as a super-utility player with an emphasis on second base.