The Orioles are in a good position, contract-wise. They lost only three players to free agency this year (Nate McLouth, Brian Roberts, and Jason Hammel) in addition to declining their option on Alexi Casilla.
Assuming Manny Machado recovers well from his knee injury, the team's only strong positional need is at second base. DH is also a problem, and of course the starting rotation is also an issue.
With these thoughts in mind, we present the five pivotal players this offseason, trade-wise, for the Baltimore Orioles.
Chris Tillman can sleep easily knowing he has a major league job, likely an Opening Day start, in 2014. While not an ace in the sense that some teams use the word, he’s definitely the ace of the O’s, and the team can’t afford to lose any above-average starting pitching. The .269 BABIP and 80% strand rate he allowed this year may regress to the mean in 2014, but so should his 14.% HR/FB rate, meaning he’ll continue to perform well. He’s also increased his strikeout rate every year in the majors, despite throwing his first full season this year.
Oh, and did I mention he’ll be just 26 in April and is not yet arbitration eligible?
Chris Davis is probably not available for trade after his breakout year, but the O’s should still listen to premium offers for him. And when I say "premium", I mean those that involve quality pitchers. The O's aren't lacking in offense, and first basemen are easier to find than other positions. Of course, this means other teams are reluctant to trade valuable players for them. But Davis is young, under team control through 2015, and showed genuine improvement on his way to 53 home runs. Losing him would be hard to stomach in the short term but, given the right offer, could prove valuable in the long run.
J.J. Hardy has accumulated 10.3 fWAR in his three years with the Orioles, third-most among AL shortstops during that time period. He provides a lot of value, but he’s also in his walk year, and he’s blocking Manny Machado’s natural (and more valuable) position.
However, Machado must still endure some growing pains, both figuratively (he hit just 73 wRC+ in the second half last year) and literally (he has to recover from his knee injury). So the O’s will probably not be in a hurry to move Hardy, and that’s fine by me. But if they traded him, I wouldn’t be sad.
Jim Johnson. The myth of the closer continues to propagate despite the fact that teams still hold as many ninth-inning leads as they did in the 1950s, 60s, 70s, and 80s when the closer wasn't a role the way it is now. If the closer role was something different than the already-established "good reliever", we'd see teams hold more ninth-inning leads as they started to use closers exclusively in the 90s, 00s, and 10s.
But we don't. Legends like Mariano Rivera and Trevor Hoffman aside, the closer role is overrated, and there is money to be had from those who disagree. Johnson is 30 and due for a raise in his last year of arbitration despite the fact that he didn't improve over his 2012 season. He still has some luster from that year, and after recording back-to-back 50-save seasons, Duquette should try to get value out of him while he still can.
Must Get Rid Of
I don't think the O's have any true must-dump contracts, but Nick Markakis's contract comes the closest. He'll make $15 million in 2014 and another $2 million with an almost-certain buyout in 2015, yet during the last four seasons he's averaged just 1.3 fWAR a season. Despite his steep decline, he’s not only batting in the top third of the order, he’s being paid like Hanley Ramirez and (in 2013 at least) Robinson Cano.
The O’s would probably have to cover some of his salary in a trade. So they won’t exactly be saving $15 million, but they could save $8-9 million or so, counting the $2 million buyout they won’t have to pay him in 2015. Freeing up this money would give the team some payroll flexibility, something they are sorely lacking as the second-most-frugal team in the AL East. Admittedly it wouldn't be much flexibility, since Markakis is in his walk year, but it's something.
Markakis has been a face of the franchise for the last five years or so, but it’s time to say goodbye. The team should thank him privately and publicly for his many years of service and dedication, explain that they just can't afford him, then set about finding a suitor. It doesn't seem likely to happen, but then they said that about Vernon Wells. Twice.