Alternate Title: How can the 2011 Orioles become the 2008 Rays?
There has been a lot of discussion on the Open Threads lately about whether or not we should spend the money for a short term stop-gap to play first base next year. A lot of the discussion has been centered around the fact that we are predetermined to fail next year. And fail miserably. This is not true. I will defend to the death our need to sign the best player available at every position in the hopes of winning next year. For one, because I want to see the best possible Orioles team each year, and I'm tired of losing and being the butt of the jokes of my Red Sox, Yankees, and even Rays fan friends (and yes I have them all!). Secondly, recent history has shown that a team very similar to the 2010 Baltimore Orioles can win the AL East in the following season. I am talking about the 2007 Tampa Bay Devil Rays. While it's true that we can't exercise any demons by expelling any satanic references from our moniker, we can make the small changes necessary to turn a putrid record into an American League Championship Team!!
Here is a list of the 9 position players on the 2007 Tampa Bay Devil Rays that had the most plate appearances and their seasonal WAR for 2007... some of the names should sound familiar:
Dioner Navarro 0.3
Carlos Pena 5.3
Ty Wigginton 0.5
Brendan Harris -0.4
Akinori Iwamura 2.2
BJ Upton 4.7
Carl Crawford 2.9
Delmon Young -1.1
Jonny Gomes 0.2
That is a total WAR of 14.6 for the mainstay lineup on a 2007 TBDR team that went 66-96 (hmmm... also sounds familiar). So let's take a look... who sucks? 5 players on this team were at or near replacement level. The Rays replaced 4 of those players before their pennant winning season in 2008. They replaced Wigglypuff at 2nd with Iwamura (so in effect they replaced him with Longoria). They replaced new Oriole Brendan Harris at short with not new Oriole Jason Bartlett. They replaced Delmon Young and Jonny Gomes with a combination of Eric Hinske and Willy Aybar. Here are the new WARs
Dioner Navarro 2.2
Carlos Pena 2.9
Akinori Iwamura 1.5
Jason Bartlett 0.3
Evan Longoria 3.8
BJ Upton 4.0
Eric Hinske 0.8
Carl Crawford 2.3
Willy Aybar 1.1
That is a new WAR of 18.9. A modest 4.3 increase in WAR from 2007, but clearly a much better line-up.
So let me get this straight? The Rays upgraded at 3rd base and SS, and took their two other worst positions and added 1-win stop-gaps... and then they went on the win the American League?!? How did they do it?
YOUNG PITCHING!!! And guess who has a bunch of that?
Rays 2007 Rotation/Age/War
No mentor on that staff, by the way. Just a bunch of young arms with talent. 2 of them already valuable, 3 of them a little above replacement level. The only change between this staff and the 2008 staff is Matt Garza, another young arm coming off a 0.9 WAR season in Minnesota. So, between the 6 young arms that they had going into the 2008 season, they ended up getting the following seasons from their top 5 starters.
So they added another 1.2 wins on their staff, which I don't think tells the whole story. They went from 2 great starters and 3 below average ones to 5 above average starters in the course of 1 season. They went from a median of 0.8 to 3.2, while shrinking the range from best to worst from 5.5 to 2.3, both of which are AMAZING! All of this due to young pitchers realizing their potential. Of course, some of this was luck. There was no guarantee that Sonnanstine and Jackson, two middling pitchers since then would both be so good in 2008, and there is no guarantee that the young arms on the 2011 Orioles will improve at the same rate that the 2008 Rays staff improved. But their is actual proof that it can happen, and the pitching staff of the Orioles, as currently constituted CAN improve enough in the next season to make this team competitive.
We are making all of the similar moves that the 2008 Rays made. We are replacing our worst WAR players: Wigginton 1.2; Atkins -1.0; Izturis -0.4; Tejada -0.4; Bell -1.4 with AT LEAST stop-gap level players. I think Reynolds can come close to Longoria's 3.8 WAR, and Hardy can easily beat Bartlett's 0.3 season. And our young pitching is getting 1 year older. Will they blow up and be all they can be next year? I don't know, but it's possible. Our bullpen isn't great, but it isn't a terrible liability at the moment. So why can't the 2011 Orioles compete? I say they can, and the 2008 Rays agree with me.
So we have a choice, we can play some young guys at 1st base, throw them all against the wall and see who sticks. Or we can sign a 2 win player like LaRoche or Lee, and hope that we can catch lightning in a bottle. I say that it has to be the latter. What if those 2008 Rays said what some people are suggesting? 'We suck, and we are going to suck next year, so let's not go after stop-gaps like Hinske and Aybar. Let's not trade for Bartlett. We'll stick our young players out there, and wait for our young pitching to mature... because they will be the core of our next winning team."
It is so hard to be competitive in this division, playing against the Red Sox and the Yankees. What if the Rays had just raised the white flag on 2008... and then the young pitching had the season that they had, but they are still putting a line-up out there with Delmon Young and Brendan Harris and Johnny Gomes? They would have wasted 1 of their 2 divisions crowns and their only AL pennant, that's for sure. And that's probably all they are going to get for a long time. Do you want the Orioles to throw away a potential for a pennant because we are not trying to field the best possible team? I know I don't.