If you were so inclined, you could say that the first defining moment of Dan Duquette's leadership has yet to arrive. It is likely, given the game of catchup the Orioles front office undoubtedly is in as well as the general slow pace of early free agency throughout baseball, that that first defining moment will not come until early December. That is the non-tender deadline, and the Orioles have an interesting candidate in Luke Scott.
Players without enough service time to qualify for free agency need to be tendered contracts by the non-tender deadline (12/12). Any player non-tendered by that date are released and become unrestricted free agents. In this way, teams can opt out from the arbitration process with under-performing players, shaving money off their projected budgets relatively early in free agency.
The question "Should Luke Scott be non-tendered?" doesn't have an obvious answer. It is, however, made up of a few more manageable pieces. To help you come to an opinion on what Dan Duquette and the Orioles should do, let's investigate those pieces.
There is a temptation to ask, separately, "How much would he cost?" and "What kind of production will he give?" but I think the first half is trivial and the second half is unanswerable. Luke Scott made $6.4 million in 2011, and cases where players settle for any kind of paycut through the arbitration process are very rare. Still, MLBTradeRumors predicts a $6 million 2012 salary, while I tend to think closer to $7 million is realistic. But a million bucks is a triviality to the Orioles, and it's unlikely to be the difference between a good deal and a bad one.
Production-wise, the reality is that a contract doesn't buy you a set number of wins when it is signed in the winter. It is a mistake to think of any contract in terms of WAR (or any stat) per dollar. Instead, a contract buys you two competing factors: uncertainty ("risk") and potential upside ("reward"). For example, Justin Duchscherer's deal with the Orioles last season was often cited as "low risk, high reward" because it was very cheap in years and dollars, and Duchscherer had the potential ability to be very good. Of course, it was so cheap because the most likely outcome of the deal was no pitches thrown, but that's why it's "low risk" and not "no risk".
The Risk of Luke Scott
Scott's 2011 season looks, statistically, like a fluke. Using the all-encompassing offensive metric wOBA, his seasons with the Orioles look like so: .343, .355, .387, and then .307. With that in mind, expect to see most if not all projection systems predict a big time bounce back to the .350ish level for Scott in 2012. The problem, of course, is that Scott tore the labrum in his shoulder in 2011. That was the primary reason for his struggles, as his power was drained to the point where he struggled simply to make good contact on any pitch.
There's no way to really know how well he will return from his surgery to repair the tear in his shoulder until he starts playing on an everyday basis. He could realistically return to his career levels of production, or he could be out of baseball by June. Consider, too, that as primarily a designated hitter, the offensive bar of excellence is higher for Scott than it is for most players. He needs to hit at a .330 wOBA or so to be just average. Anything less and the Orioles will have spent $6 million on another below average DH in what is likely to be another losing year.
Another question: if Luke Scott returns and hits at his career level, and the Orioles still fail to be competitive, is his contract wasted money? The one thing above all else that a rebuilding team like the O's needs to be doing is not wasting money on major league players. That's money that could be better spent on the draft, international free agency, or improving the infrastructure of the franchise.
One mitigating factor to the risks of re-signing Scott comes back to an oft-heard line from ex-GM Andy MacPhail: there are no bad one year deals. The most the Orioles can lose is a roster spot in 2012 and his salary. Next offseason, the decision to retain or non-tender Luke Scott will have no lingering negative effects on the major league roster or franchise budget.
The Reward of Luke Scott
His career wOBA is .360, which would have easily led the 2011 Orioles (Mark Reynolds had a .348), and even from the DH spot that translates into extra wins.Meanwhile, if Scott is non-tendered, the next guy on the depth chart to plug into the lineup (barring a free agent signing, and the pickings are slim this year) is Brandon Snyder, Josh Bell, or Joe Mahoney. I would rather have Scott, uncertainty and all, than any of those guys. Among free agents, there aren't many guys available that I think make sense to invest in, either.
Additionally, while Scott will have an extremely difficult time achieving Type B or Type A free agent status (if those types even still exist, as the Collective Bargaining Agreement is set to change next week), if he is productive he will be a mid-season trade chip.
What would a two month rental player who's main position is DH, without free agent compensation in the mix, be worth on the trade market? In recent history, perhaps the best comparison is the deal that sent Lance Berkman from the Houston Astros to the New York Yankees. The Astros received reliever Mark Melancon, who is now an effective closer, and Jimmy Parades, who is a fringe bench infielder.
Obviously, the specific circumstances of the trade deadline will dictate Scott's worth, but right now the expected return should be bullpen or other complementary players. Those kinds of players aren't sexy, but they are also worthwhile. Wouldn't you much rather have Pedro Strop and Troy Patton than Kevin Gregg or Danys Baez? I know I would.
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Luke Scott is a "medium risk, medium reward" player, which makes the decision to tender him a contract somewhat trivial. The potential contract is not a bank breaker for the Orioles, but the upside Scott gives to the franchise is also limited. Is that the kind of player a rebuilding team like Baltimore should be signing? Or, maybe it makes more sense to frame it like this: If they tender him a contract, and Luke Scott fails to bounce back, he will look very much like the Vlad Guerrero signing. On the other hand, if everything works out, he will likely look very much like the Koji Uehara signing.
Remarkably, the thing that keeps jumping out at me about this is that Luke Scott just doesn't seem like a big deal. I could easily justify either decision, cut or sign. Either way, I don't expect him to be on the Orioles in 2013. Either way, I don't expect this decision to truly be a "defining moment" for Dan Duquette. Either way, I don't expect the Orioles to be particularly good in 2012, though that is a story for another day. I suppose I lean towards non-tendering, but it's very close.