In yesterday's media-fest introducing new de facto General Manager Dan Duquette, I kept noticing a particular talking point coming up between Duquette and manager Buck Showalter:
You've got a core group of players here to build around along with the strength of your management team, and I believe we'll be able to find some players in terms of gaining depth for the pitching staff and the overall lineup. I believe the foundation is there.
We've already signed some six-year free agents, we've already done some things on waiver claims before Dan got here. He had a player yesterday we signed right away, a six-year free agent that we wanted to get in front of.
As far as the depth of the organization, I know we need to upgrade and improve our pitching depth. You could say that about any team, but you'll hear me say that a lot about this ballclub. It's about the pitching and pitching and that is where we will focus a lot of our time and energy.
And so on. Anyone who watched the press conference got a message that "improving depth, particularly for the pitching staff" is high on the 2011 winter priority list. Which confuses me. When I think "pitching depth" I'm thinking about pitchers like Kei Igawa, Chris Jakubauskas, or Ross Wolf. I'm not thinking about back-end starters like Tommy Hunter or Brad Bergesen. To me, "pitching depth" is Plans B through Z for when the guys you really want out there get hurt or unexpectedly struggle. You know, like Brian Matusz.
You don't really expect great things out these depth guys. These are, after all, the guys who define "replacement player" in "wins above replacement player" (that is, "WAR"). That's why they're minor league free agents* who end up signing for the professional sports equivalent of minimum wage. Needless to say, these aren't the types of players the Orioles really need. The Orioles really need strong starting pitchers who can be plugged into a solid Plan A. But depth was a weakness in 2011 and it's good to see the O's being aggressive in plugging a hole, even an unexciting one.
To grab a quick snapshot of the 2011 Orioles' problems that could have been remedied with stronger depth, I took both versions of WAR averaged (which I'll just call "average WAR" from here on out) for each player on the roster. There were 17 players who performed below replacement level out of the 50 total players who got on the field in black and orange, who totaled about -8 average WAR. Of those 17 players, 9 were pitchers, 4 infielders, 2 outfielders, 1 a catcher, and 1 was Jake Fox.
However, not all of those 17 players were "depth" players. Some of them were on the roster on Opening Day, or otherwise in the Orioles' Plan A: Josh Rupe, Felix Pie, Jeremy Accardo, Jason Berken, Jake Fox, Chris Davis, and Brian Matusz. So we are left with 10 below replacement level depth players on the 2011 Orioles, who totaled about -3.4 average WAR.
Just who exactly are we talking about here? On the pitching side: Mark Worrell, Mitch Atkins, Rick Vanden Hurk, Pedro Viola, and Jo-Jo Reyes. These five guys represent the entirety of the lack of quality pitching depth on the 2011 Orioles. You'd be hard pressed to find a better Platonic Ideal of depth issues. They pitched to an 8.20 ERA, but accounted for a grand total of just 56 innings pitched, which is about 4% of the season Tommy Hunter arrived late in the season and still pitched more innings than this group did.
On the position side, the depth issues manifested in Blake Davis, Kyle Hudson, Josh Bell, Craig Tatum, and Ryan Adams. These players totaled 351 plate appearances (with a .270 on base percentage), which was about 6% of the season. They were in the field for 812.1 innings total, which was again about 6% of the Orioles' total season. For context, Matt Wieters led the team in average WAR and accounted for 9% of the team's total fielding innings and plate appearances.
The Orioles did have four depth type players who came in and performed above replacement level: Willie Eyre, Chris Jakubauskas, Zach Phillips, and Matt Angle came together to boldly put together about 0.5 average WAR. If we add in Alfredo Simon, Pedro Strop, and Troy Patton - none of whom quite fit "depth" to me but might to you - that number jumps up to about 3 average WAR, which makes all of the depth come out as a wash at 0 average WAR total. That's what the goal of improved depth is, to tread water. Again though, none of those players fit in the "depth" category to me, so I'm ignoring their contributions.
So, we can say that the Orioles' lack of depth cost them roughly three wins above replacement (which works out to somewhere between two and four actual wins) because the fortunes of the baseball season exposed the Orioles' lack of depth. For what it's worth, the pitching side of that depth accounted for less than half of the lost wins, or 1.25 average WAR to be precise. Perhaps the Orioles' focus should be more on improving their middle infield depth than the pitching.
I won't say this isn't an area the Orioles should address. The Orioles are likely to need to dig deep into their minor league rosters for help. It makes sense to bolster the depth as much as possible. But a lack of depth wasn't a serious culprit in the death of our hopes for 2011. I mean, three wins is three wins closer to being competitive. But it's weird to me to put such emphasis on it when the rest of the roster remains in such shambles. It's like spending twenty minutes in the morning dealing with a zit on your forehead but ignoring the sword that is sticking out of your right lung.
*Look at the list of minor league free agents that the Orioles are working on. It's nothing to really write home about. However, and this is important, the Orioles absolutely must put Clay Rapada and Clay Zavada in the same bullpen. This is non-negotiable.