15 July 2015

Back to the Grind: A Last Hurrah?

With the festivities of the largely irrelevant All Star game concluded, the Orioles will get back out on the field on Friday and continue to fight for first place in the American League East. Currently, they sit third in the AL East with only one team between them and the Yankees. That said, the Rays, Orioles, and Blue Jays are within one game of each other, so it is a rather tight race. If we are merely concerned about the Wild Card, then the Orioles are 3.5 games back.  However, several more teams are in contention for that prize. All in all, this year is similar to 2012, 2013, and 2014 in that the Orioles are in a poor position with somewhat disappointing performances from many players, but that there is still a chance for a fortuitous October.

Tm   W   L   W-L%   GB     Playoffs
NYY 48 40 .545 --- 73%
TBR 46 45 .505 3.5 32%
BAL 44 44 .500 4.0 18%
TOR 45 46 .494 4.5 29%
BOS 42 47 .472 6.5 14%
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 7/14/2015.

All that said, I am not writing to review the first half of the season and provide some conjecture about what the second half has in store for the fan base. You can find those articles in abundance elsewhere (or read Matt's good/bad post from Monday). What I wish to consider is a view from a higher altitude and out to the horizon in order to consider the health of the club over the next several years.  To me, that seems more interesting than trying to figure out how the club can appreciably improve their talent while also having basically nothing of much value to trade out. This is not meant to diminish or make inconsequential the play on the field this year, but to simply provide an opinion on the general state of the franchise.

Duquette's Contribution
Dan Duquette is given a great deal of credit for what the Orioles have accomplished. He has helped lead this club to meaningful October play twice in his three years, but there is a question as to whether he has led someone else's team. During Dan Duquette's first trip to the playoffs with the Orioles, the club was built largely with pre-regime players earning 70% of the club's fWAR while making up 48% of the players donning the uniform. His major contributors that year were Nate McLouth, Wei-Yin Chen, and Jason Hammel. Joe Saunders and Miguel Gonzalez also provided meaningful performances. That said, most of Duquette's contribution consisted of rotating players in and out of the back end of the active roster to find useful performances. All in all, the club was largely Andy MacPhail's, but with a decent and varied garnish. Arguably, this was what helped the Orioles get over the hump and the greater narrative was that Duquette improved the worst players on the active roster, which made the rest of the team better.

In 2015, Duquette has been responsible for nearly 2/3rds of the roster. The fWAR contribution has increased from his 2012 30% mark to 2015's 35% mark.  In other words, the core of this team is still largely one of the work done prior to Duquette. This is not to call irrelevant what Duquette has done. His actions have been directed at improving the fringes of the roster with fringe MLB veteran play while leaning on the existing core group of players. In turn, we have seen a club buoyed by very good, but not excellent play of a couple stars (most consistently represented by Adam Jones). The question is not if Duquette can meaningfully fill out a roster. He has done that quite well and it is something that he appears to do much more proficiently than MacPhail did. It is whether he is able to seamlessly transition from one core group of players to the next.

Onward to 2016
After this season, several additions of various importance brought in by him will be departing: Wei-Yin Chen, Bud Norris, Darren O'Day, Steve Pearce, and Wesley Wright. The pre-Duquette players likely to leave include Matt Wieters, Chris Davis, and Tommy Hunter.

Although much has been made of this exodus, the club is actually in pretty good position. The only major losses appear to be a void in the rotation and hole at first base. At catcher, Matt Wieters appears likely to be replaced by the very capable (potential All Star) catcher Caleb Joseph while being backed up by the somewhat disgruntled Steve Clevenger. Chris Davis' position at first base seems a bit more in flux. This year, at various points, he has been bumped off in favor of placing Steve Pearce and Chris Parmelee there. It would not be surprising to see someone completely different there beyond 2015. Christian Walker, a personal favorite of mine, is probably too much of a roll of the dice for a team with playoff expectations, so first base is an area likely to be solved outside of the organization. In the corner outfield, the club will probably be a carousel. Steve Pearce has become a fringe performer again and the club has no solution from within, so this year's weakness is likely next year's weakness. The starting rotation is likely to see the departure of both Chen and Norris, which would result in Kevin Gausman finally achieving a full role as a starter as well as pinning hopes on Mike Wright or a one year coverage until Dylan Bundy hopefully takes a role in the rotation.

Below is a short synopsis of the major considerations for future payroll.

Name 2016 2017 2018
Adam Jones $16.33M $16.33M $17.33M
Ubaldo Jimenez $13M $13.5M FA
J.J. Hardy $12.5M $14M $2M [FA-*]
Dylan Bundy Pre-Arb Pre-Arb Arb
Chris Tillman Arb Arb FA
Miguel Gonzalez Arb Arb FA
Brian Matusz Arb FA FA
Zach Britton Arb Arb Arb
Travis Snider Arb FA FA
Ryan Flaherty Arb Arb FA
Manny Machado Arb Arb Arb
David Lough Arb Arb Arb
Brad Brach Arb Arb Arb
Kevin Gausman Pre-Arb Arb Arb
T.J. McFarland Pre-Arb Arb Arb
Jimmy Paredes Pre-Arb Arb Arb
Jonathan Schoop Pre-Arb Arb Arb
Caleb Joseph Pre-Arb Pre-Arb Arb
Steve Clevenger Arb Arb Arb
Signed 3 3 1
Dollars Committed $41.8M $43.8M $19.33M
Contract Options 1
Option Values $14M
Arb Eligible 0-0-10-0 0-0-14-0 0-0-17-0
Arb Costs $39.3M $55M $66.8M
Other Players 12 8 7
Other Costs $7.92M $5.28M $4.62M
Payroll (no options) $89.1M $104.1M $90.8M
Payroll (options) $89.1M $104.1M $104.1M

About half of next year's roster is currently not well accounted. The baseline to fill those spaces is 8 MM, but the club has the capability to use somewhere between 35 and 40 MM to fill 10-12 spaces. That money could be used to afford a major piece and some bit players or a couple fringe starters with some bit players. Arbitration figures may come into play for 2017 and make any multiyear contract for an elite player slightly more difficult. It is hard to tell what direction the club will go. Whether they will try to find a Bud Norris style player at the deadline to help out this year and next or go into the offseason to focus on players they think they can improve (e.g., Aaron Harang). Needless to say, much of the turnover will utilize fringe MLB players and minor league journeymen.

Why the fringe and journeymen? The Orioles have one of the worst minor league systems in baseball. The club currently has three blue chip prospects: Dylan Bundy, Hunter Harvey, and Jomar Reyes.  Bundy has had his development derailed with a litany of injury issues. Harvey has suffered injuries and is unlikely to contribute meaningful at an MLB level for several years. Jomar Reyes has loud tools, but is also several years away. AAA contains some interesting fringe active roster players like Christian Walker, Tyler Wilson, and Mike Wright, but none of those appear likely to provide great immediate or eventual value. Anyone who has visited Bowie will also likely tell you that nothing appears enticing there as well.

For several years, the public line has been about how the club has been graduating talent and that is why the minor league system has had the appearance of having poor quality. Sure, graduations of guys like Jonathan Schoop and Kevin Gausman certainly are difficult to replace. However, it cannot be denied that the club has traded away draft picks and international money to acquire players with fringe value or simply to cut money. In any given year, these deals can be absorbed by exploiting the international market or domestic draft in other years. Duquette's regime has placed a priority on the MLB roster, so his tenure has resulted in minimal investment in the minor leagues. Eventually, a club will feel the impact of underutilizing the acquisition and development of amateur talent. I think with the current crop of Major Leaguers going out, fans will begin to see how rotten the wood is under the veneer.

Of course, that is the difficulty when constrained by a budget. If your club is on the precipice of the World Series, then spending on players that might help five or six years down the line does not appear to be a great investment. This is particularly true for front office personnel who will rarely be around when those players might emerge and provide utility on the field. Instead, the decision the front office has made these past several years is to take several millions dollars every year to sign or retain guys like Alejandro De Aza or Delmon Young instead of signing top flight elite talent out of Venezuela or the Dominican Republic. Personally, I would rather have Christian Walker on the bench with a highly respect 16-year-old player in the Dominican facility than having Delmon Young on the roster, but I do see the argument against that.

I would also suggest that Duquette has made two transitional moves. One, signing Ubaldo Jimenez for four years. Two, extending J.J. Hardy and keeping Manny Machado at third base. At the present, neither of those decisions appear to have been great ones. Mind you, neither are awful. Jimenez has had a poor season and a very good one. He is the frustrating guy everyone thought he was even though it seems most local folks pretended otherwise when he signed. Keeping Machado at third was the conservative move, but may have resulted in a hearty albatross hung around the Oriole bird's neck. Both of those decisions have time to play out well, so we shall see.

So what is the point of this article?
Enjoy the now. These past several years have been absolutely grand with the club playing meaningful baseball. It was something a whole generation of Orioles fans had missed out on. That said, it appears that the window is closing, the club has few cheap internal pieces to replace the mid-level players who are leaving, and money appears to be tight over the next three years. The forecast is one that is a slow constriction as opposed to a complete drop-off. Machado and Jones will make this team respectable, but the club needs some elite talent to complement them -- talent that is not at the moment readily apparent within the system.

So make this year the year you finally buy that Orioles jersey you always talk yourself out of or maybe upgrade those seats to something closer to the field. This just might be the team's last big run for a little while.


Anonymous said...

Your article is sobering, but also honest. The truth stings sometimes. Are there any potential free agents that you feel would make sense for the Orioles to pursue? How do you feel about some of the rumored trade-deadline targets like Zobrist or Reddick?

Jon Shepherd said...

Lets go chronological...trade targets? Basically, the club has two pieces that I have heard interest in: Mike Wright and Jomar Reyes. Yes, Bundy and Harvey still have value, but that value is rather abstract. I have been a proponent of dealing Bundy for several years (he is simply not the guy with the mechanics the Orioles developmental system wants to have and they appear to be tinkering with him for no reason other than a vague sense of pseudoscience saying pitchers should be a certain thing...all that may or may not be the reason for his injuries), but with his injury issues I have a hard time seeing the team getting great value for him. So, I would be hesitant to deal out Wright or Reyes because the club has little else ( or maybe that is why you deal them out because, what do people say now, Winter is Coming).

If you wind up dealing, maybe combine Tillman with Wright and Reyes for an elite arm like Cueto. Perhaps Tillman with a minor prospect gets you someone like Kazmir whom the club likes. Looking into the offseason, lots of fringe guys who could be helpful though 1B is a wasteland. I'd probably try to tie my money to Jason Hayward or, if that fails, Justin Upton. They need another set of shoulders to add to Jones and Machado. I would also suggest that it is time to talk an extension with Manny.

I'm sure when the year comes to a close we will have a better idea on trade and free agent targets. But generally, 1B, COF, and SP will be the areas of need.

Anonymous said...

Justin Upton makes a lot of sense. Machado-Jones-Upton would be a nice trio to build around and keep the team competitive. You'd lose the pick but probably gain three comp picks for Chen-Davis-Wieters which would soften the blow. It'd be a huge financial investment, obviously, but there's a lot of money coming off the books. Unless they want to totally tear it down (if that's the case, they should trade Jones), they're going to have to make a big addition. I think Upton should be the primary target.

Matt Kremnitzer said...

I was reminded yesterday that Chen can't be extended a qualifying offer. If that's true, that hurts the Orioles a bit because it's unlikely he would accept it.

Jon Shepherd said...

His contract is a little confusing. I know he cannot be offered arbitration by the rules of his contract, but I thought he could still have a QO placed on him. I very much could be mistaken here.

Matt Kremnitzer said...

I just asked Roch on Twitter, and apparently Chen can be extended the QO. This is strange.

Jon Shepherd said...

Right, no arbitration lets Chen escape. A QO is different. I forget if QOs existed when he signed.

tony2302 said...

i'm curious about something. is it me or does it seem like for many many years there has been an ongoing injury problem with young Orioles pitchers??? if you ask me the organization needs to address this.
and on another note. wouldn't it make sense for the Orioles to try and get an extension with Wieters? or would they rather let him go FA and end up an all star for years with the Yankees? unless some other team signs him and he does the same for them.

Jon Shepherd said...

(1) Developmental staff was changed with Rick Peterson coming in. Things might have gone from one place of bad to another place of bad.

(2) Wieters will cost a lot and the team does not have limitless money. Caleb Joseph is also not too shabby. The team has holes without suitable backup talent in-house elsewhere in their lineup. Chris Davis is probably more of a special commodity than Wieters at this point. It is a long drop from his production to the next guy.