|Jones will make $16M in 2016 (photo: Keith Allison)|
But the Orioles will have a decent amount of cost-controlled talent. That group currently includes Manny Machado, Chris Tillman, Miguel Gonzalez, Brian Matusz, Ryan Flaherty, David Lough, Henry Urrutia, Troy Patton, Steve Lombardozzi, T.J. McFarland, Zach Britton, and Steve Clevenger along with skilled prospects Dylan Bundy, Kevin Gausman, Hunter Harvey, Eduardo Rodriguez, Jonathan Schoop, Mike Wright, and others. Bundy, Gausman, and Harvey finished in the top 100 of most, if not all, noteworthy top prospects lists, and Rodriguez and Schoop were included in a few of them.
In February, Jeff Sullivan of FanGraphs tackled the Orioles' apparent "short-term window." He noted how losing Davis, Wieters, and Markakis would hurt, but that the Orioles would also gain financial flexibility:
Unless Markakis turns things around, the Orioles will happily clear that money, and then they’ll be able to re-invest it, probably better. Between Markakis, Wieters, and Davis, the Orioles could lose a lot of talent over two years, but that talent would've come at a cost of tens of millions of dollars, and dollars are basically wins without a corporeal form. Even if they can’t totally make up the gap in lost wins, they can get a lot of the way there.If the O's do lose those three, they will have to find suitable replacements at catcher, first base, and right field. If Hardy leaves, that also means finding a new shortstop (unless that new shortstop is Machado, which then means a new third baseman). It's not unreasonable (though unlikely) that Jones could move to a corner outfield position by then. They will also find out soon enough if Flaherty (at second), Lough (in left field), and Urrutia (corner outfield/DH) are everyday players or are more part-time guys (likely the latter).
The O's farm system is rich in pitching that's relatively close to the majors, but they do not have a strong collection of position players. According to some in-depth work from Matt Perez, position prospects are still safer than pitching prospects, though that gap does seem to be shrinking. (You can find more prospect data analysis from Matt here and here.) Obviously having a solid core of young pitching talent is great, but the organization's dearth of young position players is concerning. Schoop is the highest ranked of a group that also includes Michael Ohlman, Chance Sisco, Adrian Marin, Christian Walker, Josh Hart, and Dariel Alvarez. That is not a high-ceiling list, and the Orioles would be lucky if even one developed into a major league regular. (For more on O's prospects, see Jon's 2014 rankings.) It will certainly be possible to improve the organization's position player depth in the next couple of years, but it will be a little tougher without those two high picks in the next draft.
If, say, only one or two of Bundy, Gausman, Harvey, Rodriguez, Wright, etc. turn into good or very good pitchers, then that will still amount to a solid collection of starters along with Tillman and Jimenez. (Tillman won't be eligible for free agency until 2018.) Bundy and Gausman (and perhaps Harvey) all have the potential to become outstanding starters -- obviously there's immense value in having very good and very cheap starting pitching. But Harvey is just 19 years old, and Bundy and Rodriguez are 21. They are not sure things. Neither is Gausman, who's 23. Still, the Orioles could conceivably have a 2016 rotation that consists of Bundy, Gausman, Tillman, Jimenez, and Rodriguez, with Harvey waiting in the wings and Wright and Gonzalez (or any other draft picks) providing depth.
So, in 2016, if the Orioles don't have to focus much on improving their starting rotation, they could then focus on position players, and possibly upgrading the bullpen (if needed). Without the "big three" listed above, the O's would have more than $30 million to plug holes on a young roster. They could have even more than that depending on which veterans they let walk. It won't be easy to find solutions to all of those potential areas of need, but that's also a significant chunk of money to work with.
As the Orioles have demonstrated this past offseason, they are not that interested in chasing the cream of the crop in free agency. They will re-sign their own guys to long-term deals -- Markakis, Jones, etc. -- if they deem it necessary, so it's possible that they could reach agreements with Wieters and/or Davis, depending on the price. It's also possible that they negotiate some kind of extension with Machado that buys out his remaining arbitration years -- something that's becoming increasingly popular because it benefits both the player (guaranteed millions) and the team (saves some money). But in free agency, they will generally go after mid-priced players. They may not go after them with the same apparent strategy used this offseason, but they'll target some and sign some.
Some rambling thoughts:
- Jones will probably still be in center field in 2016.
- Whether the O's eventually want to move Machado to shortstop will affect how aggressively they try to re-sign Hardy. That may also depend on how Machado looks after he returns from the disabled list.
- If the O's don't re-sign Hardy, then offering him the qualifying offer would be a good idea. That may also be a worthwhile option for Cruz (especially if he has a strong year). Those may be two ways to offset the loss of the two 2014 draft picks. The same goes for Wieters and Davis after the 2015 season, if they are still around.
- If Schoop proves that he can hit at the major league level but struggles at second base, he will probably need to play third base. So then what happens at second?
- I'd be surprised if the O's picked up Markakis's option after this season. Perhaps they could bring him back on a smaller deal, but it might be time to move on.
- I don't think the O's will re-sign both Wieters and Davis. I'd be surprised if they brought Davis back over Wieters. Then again, I wouldn't be shocked if they both left, either. (It's worth noting that they are both Scott Boras clients.) Depending on how this season goes, trading one may also be an option to help restock the farm system with some position players (or pitching, which a team can never have enough of). If the season starts to go south and the O's know they won't re-sign one of them, it might not be a bad idea.
- Depending on how Gausman and some of the other young starters eventually look, the O's may be able to deal some of their young pitching down the road for a bat or two. That may end up filling a potential hole at first base, or second, or in the outfield.
There are worse things than having to build a team, position wise, around Jones, Machado, and probably Schoop (and maybe one or two of Wieters, Davis, and Hardy). But that also leaves a lot of questions at other positions. The good news is that the O's have a handful of high-ceiling pitching prospects in the minors. But the bad news is that, barring a trade or two or some miraculous position-player development, they're going to need to spend some serious money on some position players in the near future.