24 February 2014

Ubaldo Jimenez, Nelson Cruz, and the Twists and Turns of a Strange Orioles Offseason

On Friday, Jayson Stark shared some interesting quotes from Dan Duquette on the Orioles' apparent offseason strategy. Earlier in the week, the O's had signed Ubaldo Jimenez to a four-year, $50 million deal, surprising fans even though the O's had been linked to Jimenez and Ervin Santana for weeks/months. (And they are, at least temporarily, still linked to Santana.) Here's a portion of what Duquette had to say:
“If we went out and we signed these players in October or November,” Duquette said, “people would be saying: ‘The Orioles are addressing their needs. They’re being aggressive. They’re adding good starting pitching. They’re ramping up their team for a run at the title.’ OK?

“Well, we didn’t sign them in October. But by waiting, we got contracts with these players that are good for the market, that are good for the team. And people understand that we are building our team and ramping it up to be a contending team this year.”
Dan Duquette says he had a plan all
along, OK? (Photo: Keith Allison)
At the time, the "these players" Duquette was referring to were likely Jimenez and Suk-min Yoon, who agreed to a three-year, $5.575 million deal earlier this month. And this was also before the Orioles reached an agreement with Nelson Cruz on a one-year, $8 million deal (plus a potential $750,000 in incentives). So Duquette ended up being truthful in stating that the Orioles payroll in 2014 would be "closer to $100 million," which he said in late January.

In his comments, Duquette is clearly defending the team's curious offseason (maybe slightly less curious now) and sounds like he's tired of the criticism. But he's not telling the whole story. The most noteworthy O's signing before Yoon came in December, when they signed Ryan Webb for two years and $4.5 million. So they were OK with identifying a cheap player they liked and pouncing on him, even though he's a reliever and not a star. But the Orioles sat out the sweepstakes for Robinson Cano ($240 million), Jacoby Ellsbury ($153 million), Shin-Soo Choo ($130 million), and Masahiro Tanaka ($155 million) -- the top four free agents on the market -- and were more intrigued by less notable free agents. In some way or another, the Orioles were rumored to have interest in Carlos Beltran, A.J. Burnett, Mike Napoli, Tim Hudson, Bronson Arroyo, Bartolo Colon, Ricky Nolasco, Jason Vargas, Kendrys Morales, Grant Balfour, Scott Feldman, Fernando Rodney, Mark Ellis, and Gavin Floyd. There are probably a few names I missed, but that's still a sizable chunk of the free agent market that the O's were looking into. Among those names, the Orioles seemed to be most interested in Burnett (once they found out he wasn't going to retire), Arroyo, Balfour (obviously), and Floyd.

Gavin Floyd

The Orioles tried to reach an incentive-laden deal with Floyd, but they were turned down. Per Dan Connolly:
According to the industry source, the Orioles were highly interested in Floyd and offered a two-year deal that could have been worth as much as $20 million with incentives, but were turned down. The Orioles did not want Floyd on a one-year deal because he is not expected to be ready to pitch until May, and the club coveted his services for more than one season.
Floyd would have been an interesting signing. But he probably would not have taken them out of the running for Burnett, Arroyo, or Jimenez.

Grant Balfour

I'm not going to rehash the embarrassing Balfour signing and failed physical. But his deal with the Orioles would have been for two years and $15 million. That's more money than the O's ended up using to sign Yoon for three years and Cruz for one. The O's could not have foreseen Balfour failing his physical, obviously, so it's worth wondering whether Yoon and Cruz (or Jimenez, for that matter), would have still been O's targets if the Balfour deal never fell apart.

A.J. Burnett

The O's being interested in Burnett made a ton of sense. But apparently he did not want to pitch in the American League, and he agreed to a deal with the Phillies for one year and $16 million. The O's wanted Burnett, but they were not willing to pay that much.

Bronson Arroyo

The Orioles really wanted to sign Arroyo (Peter Schmuck really wanted it to happen, too), and they were a finalist for his services along with the Diamondbacks. He agreed with Arizona on a two-year, $23.5 million deal, but the O's offer was at least "exceptionally competitive with Arizona's." Other factors that led to Arroyo signing with Arizona apparently included his desire to stay in the National League, and at least some concern with the O's recent failed physicals of Balfour and Tyler Colvin.


If any of those pursuits of those four players went differently, the O's may not have ended up with Jimenez and/or Cruz. If Arroyo chose the Orioles instead of the Diamondbacks, they probably don't get Jimenez as well. And the Jimenez deal was generally better received than the Arroyo one, though losing that first-round draft pick is painful. Bringing Arroyo on board would have saved the O's more money than by inking Jimenez, but it probably would not have been as helpful for the on-field product. So would signing Arroyo have been considered "going for it" as much as bringing in Jimenez? And did the O's panic a bit after losing Arroyo?

It's clear that Duquette has been forced to look for bargains this offseason, especially since the O's were not going to be major players for any of the top free agents on the market. But that doesn't make the team better than if they would have, say, done something seemingly outrageous and signed Cano. Cano would have been a much, much more expensive purchase and he would not have been able to fill the Orioles' holes in left field, designated hitter, and the rotation, but he also likely would have made the team better with just his presence in the everyday lineup.

I don't think it's a coincidence that Duquette first noted that the deals are "good for the market" and then that they're "good for the team." That seems to be the correct order. By sitting back and seeking out bargain deals instead of actually going after the most talented players on the market, the O's still ended up with some good players that should help them in 2014. Jimenez makes the rotation a little better and a little deeper. Cruz improves the O's DH situation. And Yoon could very well turn into a smart signing, even if he only ever pitches out of the bullpen. But they may have backed themselves into a corner and figured they had no choice other than to go after players in which they'd have to forfeit draft picks to sign.

But the O's finally spent some money and took some gambles, which is really what fans wanted all along. There's at least something to be said for that, I guess.


Jon Shepherd said...

There certainly seems to be a lot of lightning attached to these moves based on what we have seen in the press/internet the last few days. Although most of my concern has been with the process of how these moves have come about, more attention has been placed on the second point that these moves do not exactly push the needle much.

In keeping with my thoughts before last off season, I think the plan is largely to put forward interesting 85 win talent and hope for the breaks to fall. That is not a horrible strategy for a cost conscious team that operates within the scope of a small mid-market team. I would not necessarily take the same approach or risks because the method appears to be somewhat dependent on being able to secure talent no one else really wants at a fair price.

I think it is important to note that other teams did not want these players for a variety of reasons: no payroll, no open position, questions about performance, investment in future talent. In other words, the Orioles did not, say, sign Jimenez with 29 other teams disinterested. They probably signed him with only a handful of teams disinterested. Maybe the Indians, Red Sox, Blue Jays, perhaps a couple others with money and not a care in compensation.

It certainly has been an interesting 2014 so far.

Unknown said...

So, I'm looking at the numbers for Arroyo and Jimenez and I'm struck by a few things.

Arroyo has a lower career BABip at .284 to Jimenez's .295. More significantly, Arroyo's last 3 have been .281, .289 and .268. Jimenez has been at .315, .310, and .304. This despite relatively similar LD% or even higher for Arroyo in 2013. Arroyo's last 3 are 20%, 21%, and 27% while Jimenez had 20%, 22%, and 24%. If Arroyo is getting a better BABip while giving up the same or more line drives, it stands to reason that he's getting more groundouts playing in front of a better defense (Jimenez has a much better HR/FB rate over the last three years, which if I'm interpreting correctly, would also affect his BABip).

My conclusion is that Arroyo is far more likely to perform what-you-see-is-what-you-get in 2014, whereas Jimenez is more likely to exceed his previous years' performance playing in front of an infield defense that should help to improve upon his BABip, not even accounting for Arroyo being 7 years older.

I know the perception is that Jimenez is likely to be a boom or bust pitcher, but he was awfully boom in Colorado and the bust in Cleveland could have been a mechanics and / or a defense issue. If there's one thing I feel confident about with the Orioles, it's that the infield defense shouldn't be an issue with Machado, Hardy, and Flaherty logging the majority of innings.

As far as perceptions of the Orioles off-season are concerned, the media needs to print stories and I think gets annoyed with Duquette, who simply couldn't care less what anyone other than Angels, Showalter, or he thinks about roster construction. Ifs and buts might be candy and nuts, but Duquette signed who he did and when he did. That's the way the offseason played out. Jimenez starting instead of Arrieta (5) / Garcia (10) / Hammel (23) is unquestionably better for the team under any metric that doesn't involve hindsight (like next fall's analysis). Cruz getting 450+ PA at DH / LF is unquestionably better for the team than giving PA to Dickerson (109), Reimold (140), Morse (30), etc.

Regardless of when things happened or what the media thinks (Blue Jays won the 2013-14 offseason!), Duquette upgraded the two weakest positions on the team, SP and DH, without risking future payrolls (if the O's can eat Markakis' performance at $16 million, then even a worst-case Jimenez scenario in future years is tolerable). I say well done to Duquette, Showalter, and the rest of the front office.

Jon Shepherd said...

Home runs are not included in BABIP calculations.

Unknown said...

But, if a FB doesn't go out of the park, it is. That Jimenez gets more outs on FB (because of fewer HR), then isn't his BABip likely to be higher than it should be because a FB may or may not be a hit and increase BABip, but a HR can't increase? Arroyo may have a better BABip because a higher percentage of contact results in HR?

Jon Shepherd said...

No. Arroyo may have a better BABIP because he gives up a few more fly balls which are more easily turned into outs than ground balls.

Jimenez' fly balls do not travel a shorter distance yielding more outs. He simply induces fewer fly balls.

CBreezyThreezy said...

I wonder honestly what the writers of what I consider to be one of the better sports blogs on the internet truly feel about the way this off season played out? We upgraded our two places of need, there is no denying that. Could we have signed better players? Probably, but after all the grief from fans and media (myself included), the O's did step up and spend money to give this team a better shot this year.

I'm also interested in what the Jimenez signing does for our future with regard to two domains.

First, the draft, first round pick gone, which likely would have been middle of the pack to high (if we repeated last year). My feeling is that whichever SP we inevitably sign there, we have enough young arms to make missing out on THE POSSIBILITY of him being a mid first round performance pick, to overcome the loss of that hypothetical pick.

Second, the development of Bundy, Gausman, Rodriguez, and Wright. The national media seems to consider that AAA is where Gausman should be this year and the Jimenez signing guarantees that to take place. Do you think that Gasuman starting in AAA for (at least) the first few months of the season is really what is best for him? I feel like he figured some things out when he came out of the pen at the end of last season. His biggest problem is 3rd time through the order. Could we have some sort of unorthodox Guasman-Norris sixth starter combo? Is that a ridiculous idea?

Thanks for your great coverage, and the great statistical analyses. Points are made much better with the proper data.

Chito Martinez said...

Here's your High Payroll scenario from the 'Making Orioles A Champion in 2014' series:
Released - Nolan Reimold (saves 1.2 MM - 88.8 MM payroll)
Traded - Jim Johnson for 2 B level prospects (saves 10 MM - 78.8 MM payroll)
Signed - Nate McLouth (2/12 MM), Franklin Gutierrez (1/3 MM), Eric Chavez (1/4 MM), Masahiro Tanaka (5/60 MM and 60 MM posting fee) and Joe Smith (2/8 MM) (114.8 MM payroll)
Surplus - With money allotted for part of the posting fee, minimal additional capital for moves in season.

Instead they kept Reimold; traded JJ for Weeks; traded Valencia for Lough; and signed Ryan Webb, Ubaldo, Cruz, and Delmon Young et al.

Lough vs. McClouth is close to a wash. Chavez/Gutierrez is about a wash for Cruz. Same for Webb vs. Smith. The critical difference between reality and that scenario is really Ubaldo instead of an unrealistically priced Tanaka.

How big do you imagine the gap is between Tanaka and Jimenez? Is that the difference between the real offseason and a hypothetical championship?

Liam said...

@ chito good point- The Orioles did basically what the author suggested albeit with slightly different names and for less money. Say what you will about the Orioles being statistically lucky the past couple years but DD has put a solid product on the field that nobody saw coming.

I don't get Jon's obsession with the process of acquiring this talent- We ended up getting 3 guys (Yoon, Jimenez and Cruz) that we were rumored to be in on all along. Its the job of any GM to look at a wide range of options and strike when they think they have a good deal. I'm thrilled we didn't get Cano, Choo, Ellsbury or Tanaka because they would both represent a horrible allocation of resources for the Orioles. The guys we did get we got after the market had largely cleared and by most reports at significant discounts from what they were asking for earlier in the process.

I get the concern about not pushing the needle far enough, but adding 15 wins to your roster on the FA market is not a great strategy and doesn't guarantee anything (see: Miami, Toronto, LA Angels etc). Simultaneously, the Orioles have too much talent and momentum to go back into rebuilding mode and hope for an even greater nucleus of young talent in 5 years. The 85 win team and hope strategy was pretty much DD's only real play.

Jon Shepherd said...

@Chito - This really is a good idea for a post because it does illustrate my concern with the process as opposed to what was acquired. However, quickly, lets roll through the comparisons.

Reimold and JJ--In a way, you can clearly argue that this all essentially happened as I suggested except that Reimold is one of those B type prospects. It seems either by choice or necessity, B quality guys wound up being older ones rather than the low minor guys I would have preferred.

McLouth for Lough -- I think as overrated as McLouth is, he is still a fringe MLB starter. Lough is a fringe MLB 4th outfielder. Perhaps I am wrong, but Lough's bat might force him to the bench or even to Norfolk. Success would certainly be unique for a player with his background.

Chavez for Cruz -- Cost is the difference I have here. Both are average DHs. Cruz has a better chance of making all of his at bats.

Webb vs Smith -- I think Smith is a better pitcher, but we are talking about middle relievers...the difference is not exceptional.

Jimenez vs. Tanaka -- Competition-wise...I think Tanaka is about 2 games better than Jimenez. Tanaka is a 2 slot guy while Jimenez is more of a 3/4 slot guy. That said, the cost was...exorbitant. No one expected that until the process began.

Difference...actual team has about 83 win talent and suggested team has about 86 win talent.

Jon Shepherd said...

@Liam -- I would not use the word obsession. It discounts my perspective as something that is more emotional than logical and that is not the case. I have repeatedly explained that logic. Maybe not well, but I have explained it and I would think your familiarity with my work would lead you to think that obsession would be a bit strong.

That said, why does the process concern me? Because the plan lacks cohesion and execution. Is the plan poor because they could not acquire Hudson, Arroyo, or Burnett? Or is the process poor because they were forced to wait until the rejected items fell into their price range? I know it can be difficult to separate process from the actual acquisition, but the process seems jumbled at best and the pieces acquired were rejected by other teams for good reasons.

Special talent is not hindered by qualifying offers.

Matt Kremnitzer said...

I think the Orioles addressed their concerns, for the most part. That doesn't mean they are dramatically better, either. I think Duquette did fine. I wouldn't call what he did genius or anything, and the final product (barring another signing) could certainly have looked different than this one depending on things like the Balfour contract, etc., which I mentioned above.