Vlad seems like an incredibly friendly, nice dude, and I bet he works his butt off. That ends the nice things I have to say about him. (Photo by Abelimages/Getty Images)
If I wanted to be diplomatic on the subject of Vladimir Guerrero, I'd say something like "This isn't working and the Orioles should drop Vlad down in the order and hope that he responds to that move". Frankly though, that kind of gentleman's language would be dishonest of me and unfair to you. Being polite to the Orioles and their current mess is just beyond me at this point. I'm not frustrated with the club; frustration is an emotion I save for someone who I know knows better. No, I'm angry with them and more than anyone else, Vlad Guerrero is the embodiment of my anger towards the Orioles.
He needs to go away forever. Right now.
I was among the more vocal critics of the idea of signing Vlad at the end of the winter, and even I would never have guessed that this is the shell of a former slugger we'd be getting. In the big Vlad debate, comparisons were made (many times) to Sammy Sosa's basically horrifying 2005 in Baltimore. Well, Sosa hit for a .671 OPS with the Orioles, while Vlad has a .689. Outstanding. Now, if only he could match 2010 Corey Patterson's .721.
If you count yourselves among those that are willing to say "Well, he's been a disappointment, sure, but he's not really that horrible", I want to say two things. Firstly, you are just flat-out wrong. At the plate this season, he's closer to being Robert Andino than he is to being even Matt Wieters. Since June 1st, it's been worse: Vlad has just been outhit by, among others, the pitching staff. His .613 OPS in that timespan reminds me especially of Jay Gibbons, whose release was supposedly a "new sherriff in town" sort of event for Andy MacPhail.
Secondly, what exactly is Vlad going to accomplish now? All of the arguments for signing him in the first place are gone. He's provided no line-up protection, taken none of the offensive burden off the young players, he hasn't hit even enough to be considered an upgrade over the players he replaced, and the Orioles are yet again one of the worst teams in baseball. Meanwhile the main crux of the argument against signing the big man is even more true today than it was in February: he is taking playing time away from one of the few players the Orioles really need to be giving it to, Nolan Reimold. Holding onto Vlad any longer is only going to do three things in Baltimore: elongate the embarrassing end to a great career spent in other uniforms, keep Reimold from getting experience, and (oh, yeah) cost the Orioles wins.
I don't expect the Orioles to heed this call. Not for one second. Why? Because Vlad is basically a nutshell of everything that is wrong with the franchise, and releasing him would be bafflingly, uncharacteristically smart of them.
1) Guerrero's walk rate is only spared the indignity of being the lowest in baseball by the great Yuniesky Betancourt. The Orioles are not a team that walks a lot. They're under the major league average as a team, and that should surprise nobody. The last year the Orioles drew enough free bases to be at least average was 1999. That's twelve straight years of ignoring the high value of the base on balls. That's not just a trend, that's enough of a pattern to suggest walks are simply not a part of the Orioles' roster building philosophy.
Meanwhile, almost every single year, two of the top three walking teams are the offensive juggernaut Yankees and Red Sox. It's no coincidence that their high-scoring rivals walk a lot. And it's not really a coincidence that the Orioles, since 2000, are in the lower third of baseball in walks and on-base percentage, and also runs scored.
2) Somehow Vlad and his .689 OPS is not the worst All-Time Orioles Cleanup Hitter. The 1954 Orioles used primarily three guys you've never heard of to post a .656. Vlad will have to settle for second place there. Again: Outstanding.
Granted, the lineup construction itself doesn't really matter as much as I wish it did. Regardless of where he hits, Vlad would still be getting/wasting a lot of plate time. But it isn't just the bizarre lack of accountability for the top of the lineup. We've all seen and complained loudly about the foolish decision that made Nolan Reimold a platoon player, even to the point of apparently preferring Felix Pie over him against righties. That's exactly the sort of mis-strategy that the Orioles need to constantly be avoiding if they're going to get 100% out of their roster - regardless of who is on that roster.
3) After the Orioles signed Guerrero at the beginning of February, as if on cue, the Seattle Mariners signed Gabriel Guerrero (Vlad's nephew) as a 17-year old international free agent for $400,000 (or, just 5% of Vlad's contract). The perfect timing would have been hilarious if it weren't groan-inducing. Look, a ton has been written and will be written about the Orioles unwillingness to jump into international free agency, and it's a big, easy target. But how many millions of dollars need to be wasted on guys who don't produce at all, while the team proudly - proudly! - fails to make a genuine international effort, presumably because it would be too much of an investment?
4) All of these things all point to one larger, more important point. I think it's perhaps the real weakness of the franchise. The Baltimore Orioles would rather lose with veterans than really go full tilt with a serious youth movement. They'd rather throw 5 million bucks at a former MVP candidate on a death spiral than see if a guy like Rhyne Hughes has anything at all in the tank. They'd rather keep their pennies in South America and burn their million dollar bills on the bullpen. They'd rather hold onto the veteran presence of a particular former backup second baseman than keep a younger, more spry version like Justin Turner.
And yes, they'd rather go out of their way to block Nolan Reimold (and to a lesser extent Felix Pie) in exchange for the proven sluggerness of Vlad Guerrero. And they will give those veterans many more opportunities to fail, even when the potential gain involved is non-existent. And when you gamble on older players, against time, like the Orioles seem to do every single year, you're going to get burned more often than not.
* * *
Vlad Guerrero isn't a symbol, not really. One of the best lines from one of my favorite movies is the Fantastic Mr. Fox (seriously) talking about a villainous rat that, on his deathbed, managed to redeem himself a little. Mr. Fox offhandedly quips "Redemption? Sure. But in the end, he's just another dead rat in a garbage pail behind a Chinese restaurant". Vlad's just another bad baseball player at the end of his (once great) career, coasting to a stop in Baltimore. Releasing him won't really prove anything, and it won't really fix the Orioles.
But if the Orioles are just going to keep running a designated non-hitter like that out there every night, I'm not going to be able to take them seriously as a baseball team. They obviously won't be taking themselves seriously, either.