With minimal remaining resources, the Orioles will need to decide whether they should stay the course or shake things up a little. I believe that the Orioles, with an aging team, need to be bold. Therefore, I'm creating two blueprints, one presuming a payroll around $150M and the other presuming a payroll around $160M.
As Patrick and Ryan noted, the Orioles have three main players becoming free agents this year: Mark Trumbo (RF), Matt Wieters (C), and Pedro Alvarez (DH). I believe that the Orioles should offer a qualifying offer solely to Mark Trumbo. Pedro Alvarez had a decent season for the Orioles, but I think everyone agrees he isn't worth $17 million a year and would happily accept a QO.
Matt Wieters is perhaps the hardest decision. With the inability of Caleb Joseph or Pena to contribute any offense, it's pretty clear that the Orioles wouldn't have made it to the playoffs without Wieters last year. Yet Wieters is only an average catcher at this point and the Orioles don't have the resources to afford to spend $17 million on an average player. Even with Wieters on the club, the Orioles' offensive production was 23th in the majors. BORAS thinks that Wieters will receive 2 and $20 million and therefore would happily accept a QO.
On the other hand, I think the Orioles should offer Trumbo a QO. Trumbo has just had a career year and would be better off signing a long-term deal to ensure that he maximizes his earnings. In addition, Trumbo brings a significant amount of offense to the table and can help the Orioles as a DH. BORAS projects Trumbo to receive 3 and $40M and I think that's a high enough amount to ensure that he declines the offer.
Next, the Orioles have to make a decision to tender a number of arbitration eligible players. I recommend non-tendering Ryan Flaherty and T.J McFarland. McFarland is an AAAA player worth only the minimum wage while Flaherty is nothing more than an extremely offensively-limited super sub. The Orioles should keep Britton, Worley, Machado, Schoop, Gausman and Joseph although non-tendering Worley may not be a bad idea. I would attempt to trade Chris Tillman and Brad Brach. The rules for this blueprint do allow for trades, but don't allow using any received players on the 25 man roster.
I think that both Tillman and Brach had lucky seasons in 2016, and are currently overvalued. While some teams may see the 2016 all-star as a potential closer candidate and certainly as a set-up man, I think that he's nothing more than a seventh-inning reliever and primarily a ROOGY unless he can find another pitch to use against lefties. A trade to a team that values him higher could possibly net a generous return in prospects far in excess of his value.
The decision to shop Tillman is more difficult. If one believes that an opposing team will trade for Jimenez, Miley or Gallardo and take on their entire salary, then trading Tillman may not make sense. Likewise, if one thinks that Bundy can't start for a whole year, then it may be impossible to trade Tillman. However, teams need to trade talent to get talent, and it is hard to get strong returns trading mediocre players. If like me, you think that Tillman is due for regression, then better to sell high.
The first player I’d sign is Jason Castro for 2 and $20 million. It seems reasonable to presume that the Orioles are going to have to rely on mediocre starting pitchers next year. If so, the best chance of ensuring their success is by adding catchers with good pitch framing skills. A Castro/Joseph platoon would be able to frame pitches for strikes, thus encouraging Jimenez, Gallardo and Miley to throw pitches near the strike zone and hope their catchers can get them a strike.
In addition, Jason Castro has strong platoon splits favoring using him against right handed pitching (.332 wOBA vs .240) while Caleb Joseph was best against left handed pitching in 2014 and 2015. This sets up a situation where Castro can catch 90-100 games against primarily right handed pitchers while Joseph can catch 50-60 games against primarily left-handed pitchers. This also gives the Orioles more time to assess Chance Sisco and see whether he’s a major league catcher.
The second player I’d recommend the Orioles’ sign is Desmond Jennings. Jennings was DFA’d by the Rays after having yet another injury-filled and largely ineffective season. He’s considered to have a significant amount of talent but was considered frustrating. Tampa Bay Times writer Mark Topkin asked why it took so long to release him. It’s questionable whether he can still play CF or if he needs to play in a corner. Clearly, there are some issues here. On the other hand, a good corner outfielder could cost the club $16 million a year. If the Orioles want to fill their weaknesses in the free agent market, they’ll need to take some chances.
For this exercise, I developed a metric that determined which hitters faced the best pitchers. I found that Jennings faced stronger pitching than the average hitter last year and this makes his offensive numbers look worse than they actually were. Jennings historically also has strong numbers against left-handed pitching than right-handed pitching and could be used in a platoon with Hyun Soo Kim in a corner outfield position. A platoon role may keep Jennings fresh, healthy and productive. Jennings is a player that could possibly benefit from a change of scenery. His talent isn't in question, so a team that signs him may be rewarded.
BORAS thinks that Jennings will receive 2 yrs and $19.1 million in free agency. However, it’s clear that BORAS isn't aware of his off-field issues. If any team felt that Jennings was worth that much, they simply could have claimed him from the Rays and taken advantage of the fact that they’d still have one more year of control that would cost at most $4 million. The fact that no one picked him suggests that his value is easily below $5M in the free market. I think $3.5 million should be enough to sign Jennings and he’d be my key to the off-season.
The next player I’d sign is Michael Bourn. Bourn is ideally a fourth outfielder even if he had a good stretch with the Orioles in September. Unfortunately, the Orioles desperately need an outfielder and don’t have the cash to sign one of the top ones like Desmond, Bautista, Reddick or Cespedes. Bourn can contribute good defense in right field and also faced tougher pitching than the average hitter in 2016.
BORAS projects Bourn to receive a minor league contract with significant incentives. I think that a one year offer for $2.5 million should be enough to get him signed. The hope is that given 600 PAs, he can be a 1 win player or so.
The final main player that I’d sign is Steve Pearce for 2 yrs and $15 million to play DH. Pearce is a professional hitter with significant versatility and is a Buck favorite. BORAS felt that Pearce would receive 3 and $40 million but is unaware of the fact that Pearce suffered a season-ending injury last season. Rounding out the team is Rickard and Janish on the bench and Hart, Wright and a Rule V pick in the bullpen.
All told, this team should cost $153.5 million. For this analysis, I count Chris Davis as earning $17 million in 2017 and disregard his deferred cash. I also do the same for O’Day but not for Jimenez or Hardy. In addition, I presume that Bundy will get a pay cut this year (just like Guthrie) and will earn only $1.5 million. In theory, this gives me a few million dollars to spend on signing minor league players, but I also think that the Orioles are unlikely to spend $160 million this season. The starting rotation would take a hit due to the loss of Chris Tillman and the bullpen would struggle to replace Brach, but the offense would be about the same due to some of the new additions and the defense would be much improved. For 2018, the Orioles would be at roughly $114 million in payroll and would have the flexibility to rebuild their rotation after Jimenez, Miley and Gallardo become free agents.
But what if the Orioles really are willing to break $160 million and maybe even go close to $165M? In that case, I’d do the same thing with offering qualifying offers. I’d still try and trade Brach and Tillman while non-tendering McFarland, Flaherty and Worley. I’d still add Jason Castro at Catcher. To fill left field, I’d offer Jennings and Bourn $2.5 million. The first player to accept the offer gets the role and the second can go elsewhere. For DH, I’d use a platoon of Kim and Mancini. This gives Mancini a chance to get himself acclimated to life in the major leagues without requiring a huge role.
With the remaining cash, I’d offer 5 years and $115 million (salary increases by $1M each year) to sign Yoenis Cespedes. Cespedes has been an elite bat for the Mets the past year and a half and faced harder pitching than the average hitter. Cespedes is better against left handed pitchers than right handed pitchers and therefore could be paired up well with Chris Davis. BORAS thinks that Cespedes will only receive 4 yrs and $70 million in the free agent market. I disagree. I think that Cespedes will benefit from being the best player in a weak market. Jon Heyman has said that teams will offer him four years at close to hundred million.
This would be a bold move because it would mean that the Orioles would have promised significant money to two players that will be past their prime in three years. It would almost certainly make it harder for the Orioles to build around Machado in the future. But on the other hand, adding Cespedes would give the Orioles another elite bat. There would be no question that the Orioles offense wouldn’t be improved from last year, especially with a healthy Chris Davis. And if the Orioles could find another decent starter off the scrap heap, then they’d be tough to beat in the playoffs.
By my calculations, this club would cost $161 million and would have roughly $30 million next year to find a new third baseman, a DH, and three starting pitchers. This would certainly be a challenge and would likely force the Orioles to use Wilson and Mancini as regulars in 2018 regardless of their performance.
The Orioles have been a successful club over the past five years and may think that they only need a few minor changes to make it to the playoffs in 2017. But if they feel that they need to get bold and mix things up, then these plans would certainly do that for them. And the pieces they get in these deals might just be enough to take them to the Promised Land.