12 October 2013

Making the Orioles a Champion in 2014 - Second Base (Part 2)

In my first article about the Orioles' second-base situation, I looked at the in-house 2014 options. In this article, I'll look at possible solutions that aren't yet in the organization.

The Pipedream

The biggest name and arguably the best player available through free agency in the 2013-2014 offseason is a second baseman, New York Yankee Robinson Cano. Since 2007, Cano has played in 159 games or more in each season, averaging just under 6 WAR per season (according to Baseball-Reference.com.) If the Orioles signed him, he would be an immediate upgrade at second base and give the Orioles a solid starter at each position (at least on paper.)

Of course, the odds are very long that Cano would even consider signing with the Orioles. Cano has hired entertainment personality Jay-Z has his agent, and Jay-Z has spoken about Cano deserving a 10-year, $300 million contract. Because Mr. Z is new to the agency business, he has every incentive to make a big splash by negotiating as big a deal as possible. It's likely that the Yankees would match any offer the Orioles could make.

I do think, however, that the odds against Cano signing with the Orioles aren't as long as you think. I'm sure that most fans think that there is a 0% chance that Cano will sign with the Orioles; I think it's probably more like a 5% chance. If Jay-Z and Cano overplay their hand, the Orioles may end up as the only remaining landing spot, probably on a one-year deal. Many free agents have signed with unexpected teams (did anyone expect Prince Fielder to sign with the Tigers or Carl Crawford with the Red Sox?) So, while the most likely result is that Cano will sign elsewhere, there is still a slight chance that Cano will be a 2014 Oriole.

Obviously, if the Orioles manage to end up with Robinson Cano, he could be the second baseman on a 2014 championship team.

Other Potential Free Agents

There aren't many other second basemen whose contracts expired after the 2013 season. The 2013 clubs of two potential free agents - 37-year-old Mark Ellis and 33-year-old Ben Zobrist - have options for 2014. The two best free agents with no 2014 options are Kelly Johnson and Omar Infante. Johnson played 2013 with Tampa Bay. Johnson is a low-average, moderate-walks, good-power hitter who generally posts near-league-average offensive numbers. But Johnson only played 22 games at second base in 2013, playing more games in left field. That calls his defense into question; in his career, he's consistently had below-average range. Omar Infante is a singles hitter who doesn't walk much and has fair power; he's better than his career totals which are dragged down by three abysmal seasons in his early twenties. 2013 was one of Infante's best seasons and he'll be hoping for an increase over his $4 million salary. But you can't count on Infante being able to repeat at that level; a more realistic expectation is for him to perform at about the level that Roberts and Flaherty did in 2013. Both Johnson and Infante would have to be considered gambles; the Orioles would probably be just as well off with Brian Roberts and Ryan Flaherty in 2014.

Trade Options

The Angels are making current second baseman Howie Kendrick available, and some writers have speculated that the Orioles are a good fit. Kendrick has two years remaining on his contract and is owed a total of $19.5 million; that's essentially the money the Orioles save with Brian Roberts' contract expiring. Of course, the Orioles will have to pay some of their other, newly-arbitration-eligible players, so the Orioles may decide that they can't afford his contract.

The Angels have been reported as asking for pitching and/or prospects. At first glance, that doesn't seem to be a good match; the Orioles don't have much surplus pitching or prospects. But that's not true. The Orioles have an extremely deep bullpen, with five relief pitchers - Jim Johnson, Tommy Hunter, Darren O'Day, Troy Patton, and Brian Matusz - capable of filling key roles. The problem is that there really aren't five key roles in a bullpen, and so the Orioles were using an asset inefficiently. Either T.J. McFarland or Mike Belfiore could very easily perform well enough as the second left-hander in the bullpen, meaning that Patton or Matusz could be used to get more value somewhere else.

As it happens, the Angels didn't have a terrific bullpen, and by the end of the season didn't have a left-hander playing a key role. They might be very interested in either Patton or Matusz. Of the two, I think Matusz has more trade value than Patton; Matusz may still be considered a viable starting pitcher and he hasn't been pigeonholed as a lefty reliever. I'd offer Matusz to the Angels for Kendrick and see what happens.

Would Matusz alone be enough to bring Kendrick on board? It's hard to say; the Nationals were able to get Denard Span from the Twins for Alex Meyer. Certainly there are a lot of differences between Span and Kendrick, and between Meyer and Matusz, and between the Angels and the Twins, but I don't think a Matusz-Kendrick deal is inconceivable.

Another possible trade target, cheaper in both 2014 salary and in acquisition cost, is the Cubs' Darwin Barney. Barney isn't much of a hitter and had an absolutely terrible 2013, .208/.266/.303. On the other hand, Barney was the deserved 2012 National League Gold Glove second baseman and is a top contender for 2013. We don't really have a good understanding of how individual defensive contributions combine to make a team defense, and it's possible that Barney's defense will have more of an impact than the WAR numbers would indicate.

The Cubs are still in full-blown rebuilding mode and don't consider Barney the long-term solution at second base. Their biggest need right now is in the bullpen, especially on the left side. The Orioles happen to have two strong left-handed relief pitchers in Troy Patton and Brian Matusz. While both have excelled, T.J. McFarland and Mike Belfiore are ready candidates to step into the second left-handed relief pitcher role. I think that the Cubs would readily trade Barney for Troy Patton; I think that Barney would help the Orioles more than Patton would, especially with McFarland and Belfiore on hand.

Because the Orioles already have Jonathan Schoop, the Orioles shouldn't be considering trading for a young second-base prospect. Similarly, because they have Ryan Flaherty, they don't need to shop the minor-league free-agent market hoping to find someone who's been overlooked. The Orioles don't have a giant hole at second base; they don't need to gamble on a desperation option.

What I Would Do

The Orioles' biggest strength over the last two seasons has been their bullpen. Nevertheless, I think that they have some bullpen resources that aren't being used to their fullest. Brian Matusz faced 208 batters in 2013; the difference between Matusz and a replacement-level pitcher over those 208 batters was at most eight runs. I would offer Matusz to the Angels for Howie Kendrick. If necessary, the Orioles could include a second-tier prospect - essentially anyone other than Kevin Gausman, Dylan Bundy, Jonathan Schoop, Eduardo Rodriguez, and Hunter Harvey. If a trade along that line can be worked out,  the Orioles should be two or three games better in 2014 than in 2013. That's about the best the Orioles can reasonably hope for. 


Jon Shepherd said...

One interesting wrinkle in all of this is that the Flaherty/Roberts/Casilla Cerberus of second basemen produced about a 2.5 fWAR last year while Howie Kendrick produced a 2.7 fWAR. If we assume about half a win was knocked off due to a wonky basepath value then you get about 3.2 fWAR.

In other words, if Matusz is replaced with replacement level performance, the team loses 8 runs while it gains maybe the same amount by acquiring Kendrick. The team will save about 2 MM with the 0-3 pen arm while spend maybe 4-5 MM more at second base compared to what Roberts and Flaherty would earn. Of course, backing in another LHRP would decrease that loss, but it might cost money.

It is amazing how many things are impacted by single moves.

Unknown said...

We can't sign Cano for the same reason the Yankees won't.

Its a huge financial risk for a guy who can start to decline or be injured at any time.

NY/LA/CHi may be able to take that kind of risk - Baltimore can't.

I would like to see Ryan Flaherty at 2nd base - his hitting has improved and he has always been a great defender - give him a shot.

Unknown said...

#Larry McLaughlin - suppose Cano, not being offered a ten-year contract at the level he wants, is willing to sign a 2-year, $50 million contract with the Orioles. Without knowing all the financial facts, and assuming that I really wanted to win, I'd offer it to him. And Flaherty has "not always been a great defender" - his defense in the minor leagues was questionable.

Anonymous said...

Flaherty is, what, career 220 hitter. Back up at best. Roberts finished OK but this is the AL East. Go for Kendricks or Can. Fire Duquette and for our owners - build a champion and Camden Yards will stay full. You CAN afford Cano

Anonymous said...

Fire Duquette? That is the most absurd thing I have heard in quite a long time in baseball.