05 February 2016

Guest Post: Joe Sheehan On Why The Orioles Should Sign Dexter Fowler

The following post is from Joe Sheehan, who runs a subscription-only email newsletter that covers all of baseball. Joe was a founding member of Baseball Prospectus and has contributed to Sports Illustrated, ESPN.com, and many other publications while being a guest on MLB Network's "Clubhouse Confidential" and numerous radio programs around the country.
On January 27th he dedicated an entire post to the Orioles, explaining that although the team has spent a lot of money this winter it still needs to do more to compete. The post is reprinted here with his permission.
The Tigers have committed hundreds of millions of dollars to Justin Upton, Jordan Zimmermann and others to improve upon a core that probably wasn't good enough to win.

The Orioles have committed hundreds of millions of dollars to Chris Davis and Darren O'Day merely to maintain a core that probably isn't good enough to win.

2B Schoop (R)
3B Machado (R)
CF Jones (R)
1B Davis (L)
C Wieters (S)
DH Trumbo (R)
LF Reimold (R)
RF Flaherty (L)
SS Hardy (R)
IF Paredes (S)
LF Kim (L)
C Joseph (R)
OF Navarro (L)

SP Tillman (R)
SP Gausman (R)
SP Jimenez (R)
SP Gonzalez (R)
SP Wright (R)

RP Britton (L)
RP O'Day (R)
RP Matusz (L)
RP Brach (R)
RP McFarland (L)
RP Roe (R)
RP Garcia (R)

The Orioles have done little to improve upon the team that was 81-81 last season. They spent to retain Davis and O'Day, and they watched Matt Wieters accept a qualifying offer. They return nine of their top ten players by PA and 12 of their top 14 by innings pitched -- losing Steven Pearce, Wei-Yin Chen and Bud Norris. Their most significant additions have been Mark Trumbo, the kind of low-OBP slugger they already had in spades, and Hyeon-Soo Kim, who I might call the Shin-Soo Choo of the Korean Baseball Organization. There's no imminent help from the farm; the Orioles' top two prospects, Hunter Harvey and Dylan Bundy, threw 22 pro innings last year. Christian Walker has been buried by Trumbo and the return of Davis.

By their actions, the Orioles seem to believe that they're the 96-66 team of 2014, rather than the .500 team of last year. From 2012-14, the Orioles won 93, 85 and 96 games, but only one of those teams, the 2014 version, was actually very good:

"Bird" Pun Here
                RS   RA  Diff
2015   81-81   713  693   +20
2014   96-66   705  593  +112
2013   85-77   745  709   +36
2012   93-69   712  705    +7

That 2014 team featured a lot of great performances by players who are no longer here. Nelson Cruz hit 40 homers. Steven Pearce had a 930 OPS. Nick Markakis was second among regulars with a .342 OBP. Chen is now gone as well. Adam Jones, Manny Machado, Chris Tillman and Zach Britton have demonstrated that they're collectively strong enough to be the core of a deep team but not a shallow one. Last year, Machado made the leap, Davis hit 47 homers, Jonathan Schoop had a strong half-season, and the Orioles were still an 81-win team. They needed to do more than rack the balls again. At least so far, they haven't.

The Orioles have had a consistent approach under Buck Showalter: position players that hit homers and play defense; deep bullpens that get ground balls; starting pitching that mostly stays out of the way. Recent Orioles teams have had low OBPs, high SLGs and short-sequence offenses. They're first in homers in MLB the last four years, with 52 more than second-place Toronto; they're third in SLG behind the Rockies (Coors Field) and Tigers. They're first in isolated power. They're eighth in runs…and just 22nd in OBP.

Now, the Orioles can say they've addressed that by signing Kim, and maybe that works. Kim isn't likely to hit near the top of the lineup, though, and that's what they really need to find. They still have playing time available in the outfield, where Nolan Reimold, Ryan Flaherty and Trumbo are all too prominent on the depth chart. It's hard to identify a leadoff hitter on this roster, which is how you end up with a guy with a .306 OBP slotted there. The Orioles seem very reluctant to give up their #1 pick, as they should be, but it may be time to go get Dexter Fowler.

Fowler would become the Orioles' best leadoff hitter since Brian Roberts. He would slot nicely in right field, as he's a 30-year-old outfielder whose numbers in center haven't been great. He's not going to be very expensive -- maybe 3/45 in a market that priced Alex Gordon at 4/72. Mostly, he'd be a reliable OBP guy for a team whose #2-#4 hitters might very well hit 100 homers and slug .520. Fowler could score 120 runs batting in front of Machado, Davis and Jones.

I don't want to minimize the importance of that #1 pick. As a player, Fowler is a lot closer to Daniel Murphy than he is to David Price, and I recently skewered the Nationals for their decision to give up a #1 for Murphy. Consider those two organizations for a moment, though. Or take the Mets, with their success in drafting and developing prospects. There's a lot of homegrown talent in Baltimore, but of late, their core player-development competence seems to be breaking highly-talented pitchers. There's an argument that a #1 pick has less value to them than it does to a team better able to shepherd young men from amateurs to Orioles.

There's also the importance of this year and next to the Orioles. Wieters is a free agent after this season. Tillman and Kim are free agents after 2017; Jones and Machado after 2018. Davis will be around for a while, but he's at his peak. The Orioles are at the back end of the cycle that began in 2012. This team, the Adam Jones Orioles, won't be around much longer, and the Orioles' farm system isn't going to be replenishing the major-league team for a few years. The tension between wins now and wins later is always present, but for the Orioles, there's a strong argument that the wins Fowler brings now -- pushing the Orioles towards 90 wins -- will have more value than the wins a #1 pick will bring in 2019-21 when the Orioles project to be bad.

As far as the Davis contract is concerned, it's surprisingly reasonable because of the deferred money. A listed 7/161 turns out to be more like 7/127.5 in value, an AAV of $18 million a year. Davis is an impossible player to project -- he's wrapped two huge years around one as a replacement-level player -- but he would need to return about 14 wins in seven years to be worth the money, just two per season. $18 million is Jayson Werth money, it's less than what Choo and Carl Crawford got. The seven years may not work out so well for the Orioles, but the overall investment is low enough to make even that manageable. If this were 5/127.5, it would look different but be a lesser deal.

Just bringing back the core of a .500 team isn't enough, though. The Orioles can't look at 2014's 96 wins and assume that with better health, better luck and some development, they'll be that good again. There were key performances on that 2014 team by players who are no longer here, and their absences were a big part of why 2015 went south. For the Orioles to press the Red Sox and Blue Jays, they need another piece, and Fowler is that piece: he fills a lineup and a roster hole, and the OBP skills he brings mesh beautifully with the Orioles' high-SLG, high-ISO team. It's hard to give up a #1, but it's even harder to spend $120 million on an 83-win team.
I encourage you to subscribe to Joe's newsletter, which is $29.95 for a full year or $16.95 for six months. I've been a subscriber since the beginning and can't recommend it enough. As you can see here, his pieces are thought-provoking and insightful and his analysis pulls no punches. He is on Twitter at @joe_sheehan.


Anonymous said...

I think I may be more optimistic about the Orioles offense than most. I like Wieters and Trumbo a lot as bounce back candidates (fangraphs or one of the graphs included them in a top 8 hr/fb sufferers from last year).

On a totally unrelated topic, Jon could you recommend any good forensic toxicology literature that could be applicable in a homicide classification/typology context?

Jon Shepherd said...

I have experience in a wide scope of environmental toxicology and a more narrow scope of occupational health toxicology. Human forensics is not my forte. The best I can do for you is to suggest Cassarettes and Doulls to go a good fundamental understanding of how chemicals enter the body, where they go, and what happens to them. It is very dry reading.

Dave Mc said...

If the O's give up the 14th pick for Fowler, does it make sense to give up the Comp pick for Gallardo? Might as well go all-in, right?

Anonymous said...

No problem, thanks I appreciate it.

Anonymous said...

IMO the Orioles front office has such a very narrow minded focus, that the organization is in trouble. The front office runs the team like a big market and we know that is not the case. When your organization cannot restock from free agency, you have to build from within 80% and acquire the missing pieces. With the condition of the farm system, it will be a long time before that 80% is realized. Holding onto potential free agents too long and then paying market value is just plain bad roster management. (Ala Davis and O'day.)

The front office traded away too many starting pitcher prospects for rentals and now can't make a trade.

Not enough money to reload. No prospects to trade = ANOTHER long losing streak

If I recall correctly, Duquette was fired from Boston for trashing their farm system, at least there, he won a world series. It didn't hurt he had an unlimited budget.

Anonymous said...

I hate to lose the draft pick--but you need to think about windows. the Orioles havent shown an ability to reload ever really....

I guess it has begun to make sense to roll with this team - not like there is much minor league depth. Give up the draft pick, grab Fowler. Go all in. The only issue is that the Orioles will be slightly above average in a league that is filled with slightly above average teams...

i dunno. i guess I'd like them to give it the ole college try with this core b/c Jones is/will be getting old. Manny will be expensive. Wieters will be gone next year. Davis is shrug and the pitching isnt good...

Jon Shepherd said...

Duquette was responsible for Kevin Youkilis, Hanley Ramirez, and Jorge De La Rosa in the system when he was fired. Not too shabby. Focus has been different with Baltimore.

P said...

Jon, kudos to you for your connections! This is a great article.
It is interesting to note that Davis in '14, despite hitting .196, still had a WRC of 96(I sure hope that's the correct stat) so his power almost made up for his average.
Meanwhile, although I agree with everything here, Sheehan didn't mention Austin Jackson, who would not cost a pick. What about him?
Finally, he pegged Kim as a possible Sin Soo Choo.
The comment sounded deprecating, but good heavens, wouldn't we love to have the 2011-12 version of Shin Soo Choo on our team?

Anonymous said...

P, 2011-12 Choo is HOF player compared to Reimold and all the other stiffs they used last year!!!

vilnius b. said...

We should opt for Austin Jackson instead. He doesn't possess the OBP skills that Fowler has, but he won't cost the Orioles a #1 pick.
People seem to forget the Oriole way of the '60's and '70s---keep the farm system stocked. That philosophy resulted in the Orioles having the highest winning percentage of any team in baseball between 1968-1983.
The Orioles farm system currently is ranked not far from the bottom. We have 6 of the first 90 picks in next year's draft. If the organization does its homework and gets a little lucky, we may look back in 4 years as 2016 when the template was cast for another durable winner.

As the unfortunate injuries to Bundy and Harvey demonstrate, you can't have enough depth.

Which leads me to another question: Rick Peterson's obsession with proper biomechanics hasn't worked and has been criticized by some of the pitchers. I won't get into Bundy and Harvey---young pitchers get hurt and in Bundy's case his insane upper body workouts may have contributed to his being injury prone. But Arrieta was ordered to stop throwing across his body. He goes to the Cubs and they say: we have no problem with you pitching with what makes you comfortable. Other pitchers have said they prefer what Wallace and Chiti have had to say about about both physical and mental ways to get batters out.
How long will Duquette stand by the man he hired, Peterson? It seems like an unhealthy tension within the organization.

I bring this up because as good as the Orioles bullpen is, it's still difficult to win without having a least two top notch starters at the top of your rotation. Fowler could have a career year and the Orioles would still finish no better than third if the starters don't improve substantially. I'm pretty sure both Weaver and Showalter would concur.

Jon Shepherd said...

That certainly describes the beginning of the Orioles dynasty. The minor leagues were stocked full of prospects from enormous spending on amateurs before the draft was put into place. The latter clubs though were built primarily on trades to acquire older controlled players who the club thought would serve as good roll players.