Note: I will be using fWAR instead of rWAR throughout this post because of what I like to call, the Kendrys Morales phenomenon. While I like Baseball Reference as a resource, I think any world where Morales was worth 2.7 WAR in 2013 is a bleak hellscape in which I don’t think any of us want to live.
As we anxiously await the conclusion of this titillating Orioles offseason, many of us are left lamenting the fact that the team has been reluctant to open the coffers and "spend to win." I’m sure many of us are still stinging about losing out on the Bronson Arroyo sweepstakes, but I’d like to take a trip down memory lane and go back 10 short years to when the O’s actually did spend big. What follows is an analysis of all the big moves of the 2003-2004 offseason and how those deals worked out for us.
November 7, 2003: Orioles Hire Manager Lee Mazzilli
"For me, I thought of Lee Mazzilli as the Italian Stallion from New York City," – O’s Co-GM Jim Beattie
Well, Beattie’s quote above pretty much says it all about our old friend Mazz. The contract was for two years with options for 2006 and 2007. The O’s opted to not let him finish those two years.
December 18, 2003: Orioles Sign Shortstop Miguel Tejada for 6 years/$72 million
''We're tickled pink. It continues the tradition of great Orioles shortstops. That's always been a cornerstone of the great Oriole tradition.'' – O’s Co-GM Mike Flanagan
After Deivi Cruz’s one-year reign of terror at short, the O’s were looking to upgrade and had money to burn. Enter Miguel Tejada, the 2002 AL MVP and cornerstone of Billy Beane’s "Moneyball" masterpiece in Oakland. Miggy responded in a big way with a team record 150 RBI and a 6.3 WAR in his first season. Even though he wasn’t with the O’s for the entire contract, he was traded after the 2007 season, in his four years with the team he was worth 18.7 WAR, valued at $64.7 million. Even though the wins didn’t really come—more on that later—it’s hard to look at Miggy’s deal as anything but a success for Baltimore.
January 6, 2004: Orioles Sign Catcher/Swimsuit Model Javy Lopez for 3 years/$22.5 million
"Javy was the targeted guy that we were looking at in the process and he's thrilled to be aboard." – Flanagan
With the two-headed monster of Brook Fordyce and Geronimo Gil having terrorized Charm City in 2003, it was time for an upgrade at catcher. While everyone assumed we wanted Pudge Rodriguez, after he signed with Detroit, we were left with Braves slugger Javy Lopez. Having hit a rather suspicious 43 homers in 2003, Lopez looked like a rather obvious bet to regress. Sure enough, that’s what happened. While he did have a solid 4.4 WAR season in 2004, that dropped to 1.8 WAR in the next year. By the time he was shipped away to Boston for nothing in the final year of his deal, he was below replacement level. In all, he produced a very frontloaded 5.2 WAR, worth about $15.7 million. If it had been a two-year deal, this would’ve been fine, but the third year really bit the O’s bad.
January 13, 2004: Orioles Sign Firstbaseman/Finger Wagger Rafael Palmeiro for 1 year/$4.5 million
"What Raffy brings is the consistency we were looking for, both offensively and defensively. We want Raffy to be our everyday first baseman not only for this year, but for years to come." – Flanagan
Raffy was 39 when he returned to the O’s, and it was on a relatively cheap deal. He was reasonably productive on offense, but disastrous defense led him to a 0.3 WAR in 2004. The O’s picked up his option in 2005, he hit his 3,000th hit, got suspended for steroids, wore earplugs upon his return, and then was told to go home. So yeah, not the best.
January 15, 2004: Orioles Sign Pitcher/Judge Puncher Sir Sidney Ponson for 3 years/$22.5 million
''Sidney has grown tremendously as a pitcher, and he began to put it all together last year." – Flanagan
Coming off a career year 3.75 ERA and 4.2 WAR for the O’s and Giants, the rotund Aruba cashed in with his original team. They brought him back to anchor a young rotation that included Kurt Ainsworth, Eric Dubose, Matt Riley, and a rookie Erik Bedard. … Wait, what??? They spent all that money and this is the rotation they decided to go with? Explain yourself, Beattie!
"We may just go with the young pitchers and see what they're capable of. Defensively, they'll get the support; we'll be an improved defensive club. And we should be able to score more runs."
Well, this strategy didn’t work, though the team jumped from 71 to 78 wins. Bedard was the only one of the young pitchers to start more than 15 games and the others had ERAs well north of 5.50. Were it not for a terrific season from Rodrigo Lopez (who had been relegated to the bullpen at the start of the season) and the emergence of O’s icon Daniel Cabrera, the O’s staff would have been an utter disaster. And what about Sidney? Oh, he was also mediocre, then punched a judge on Christmas and became more terrible (6.21 ERA in 2005) and then was unceremoniously jettisoned the following year.
So there you have it. Isn’t it good to remember when the O’s used to spend money? Free agency is a risky business, as we found out a decade ago when we went 1 for 4 in our big signings. While there isn’t that much of a parallel with this year’s team because the 2003 team only won 71 games and was arguably the least talented roster in our decade and a half of darkness. But to all those O’s fans desperate for the team to sign someone for the sake of signing someone, just be careful what you wish for or you could be left with black eyed judges and ear-plugged fallen stars.