As the Orioles and Matt Wieters avoided arbitration by agreeing to a salary of $7.7 million for 2014, the Orioles have 16 players under contract for the 2014 season for a combined salary of $79.9 million. Including the minimum salary of the remaining 10 roster spots (one of the players under major league contract is Dylan Bundy), the Orioles would have around $84.9 million on their payroll as currently constructed. Dan Duquette, the Orioles GM, has mentioned that he expected the payroll to reach around $100 million. As such, the Orioles have about 15 million left in their budget to go after the remaining free agents, notably A.J. Burnett, Ervin Santana and Ubaldo Jimenez. However, without knowing the contracts they are going to receive, it is difficult to assess whether the Orioles should sign them. Instead, I am looking at the free agents who have already signed their contracts this winter, ignoring the unsigned ones, and decide on the best way the Orioles could have spent their budget.
As has been repeated numerous times, the Orioles have holes at 2B, LF, RF and DH in the lineup. Nick Markakis and his $15 million salary are entrenched in right field. David Lough is traded from the Royals to fill left field. Second base is going to be a battle among Jonathan Schoop, Jemile Weeks and Ryan Flaherty. Similarly, DH features the collection of Steve Pearce, Nolan Reimold, Henry Urrutia, Tyler Colvin and even Delmon Young. The entire starting rotation is projected to be about league-average, and there is not much depth behind the top five, with Zach Britton serving as the current sixth starter. The bullpen does not have a dominant pitcher, but the front five of Tommy Hunter, Darren O'Day, Brian Matusz, Ryan Webb and Troy Patton (when he returns from suspension) should be trusted to handle most of the high-leverage situations. Moreover, the addition of another starter would also reinforce the bullpen, as either Miguel Gonzalez or Bud Norris would likely be relegated to the bullpen as a result. Therefore, I would focus on 2B, LF, DH and SP as the four positions most in need of reinforcement.
The LF options are either fourth-outfielder types such as Nate McLouth and Rajai Davis or those better suited to be DH, such as Michael Morse and Corey Hart. Lough is equal to the likes of McLouth, and Morse or Hart should not be considered to play the field. The only option considered is David Murphy. Murphy has had a great year at the plate in 2012 (wRC+ of 129) and a dismal one in 2013 (wRC+ of 73). As one would guess, the majority of the difference stems from BABIP, as it drops from .333 in 2012 to .227 in 2013. Both Steamer and ZiPS project him to be somewhere between those numbers in 2014. His defense in left field has been highly rated by both DRS and UZR over the last two seasons. Combining his excellent defense and above-average bat, Steamer projects him for 2.6 WAR/ 600 PA while ZiPS projects 2.2 WAR/ 600 PA. He would provide a significant upgrade of about 1WAR over Lough, who is projected for 1.3 WAR/ 600 PA by Steamer (and worse projection by ZiPS).
The DH options are even slimmer. Corey Hart and Michael Morse are the only consideration, as the alternatives such as Raul Ibanez are barely projected to be league-average hitters. Hart missed the entire 2013 season due to a knee surgery. If Hart hits like he did in 2012 (wRC+ of 124), he would be a league-average player at DH, but that's a huge if. Morse, too, had an injury-plagued season in 2013. He was also terrible at the plate, thanks to a career-low BABIP of .254 (career BABIP of .330). Both Steamer and ZiPS project Morse to be a worse hitter than Hart in 2014, and since they are both guaranteed $6 million in 2014, I would leave Morse out of the discussion. Hart, using the more optimistic projection by Steamer, would be worth at most 1.5 WAR/ 600 PA at DH. The current Orioles DH collection, by Fangraphs' Depth Chart, would produce 0.5 WAR in about 700 PA, minus Chris Davis. The Steamer projection, however, does not account for the fact that most of the PA by Steve Pearce and Henry Urrutia at DH would come with the platoon advantage. Their current projection assumes that they would face pitchers of both handednesses. This would bridge the difference between Hart and the current group at DH. Altogether, Hart would add less than 1 WAR to the Orioles.
The 2B market had two starting-caliber players in free agency (outside of Cuban Alexander Guerrero). One is clearly outside the price range of the Orioles. The other is Omar Infante. Infante had a career year at the plate (wRC+ of 117) in 2013. Coupled with above-average defense according to UZR, he compiled 3.1 WAR in merely 476 PA. Both Steamer and ZiPS project him to regress, with Steamer projecting 2.6 WAR/ 600 PA while ZiPS projects 1.8 WAR/ 600 PA. The two systems also differ on their projections for the current Orioles second basemen in 2014. What they agree on is that none of Weeks, Flaherty or Schoop would project for more than 1.5 WAR/ 600 PA. The three players average 1.2 WAR/ 600 PA between the two systems. Infante, with an average of 2.2 WAR/ 600 PA by Steamer and ZiPS, adds about one win to the Orioles.
The starting pitchers within the budget of the Orioles and projected to be above-average in the upcoming season include Matt Garza, Ricky Nolasco, Scott Kazmir and Josh Johnson. Each comes with a question mark. For Garza and Johnson, the question is injury. For Kazmir, it is a lack of recent track record. For Nolasco, it is pitching up to his peripherals, which was also a problem Kazmir and Johnson faced in the 2013 season. Of the current Orioles rotation, Miguel Gonzalez and Bud Norris are projected for the highest ERA, at 4.33 and 4.35 respectively (average of Steamer and ZiPS). Nolasco is projected for a 4.29 ERA (in Minnesota), which is only a very slight improvement over Gonzalez/Norris. As a result, Nolasco is out of the picture. Johnson is projected for 3.61 ERA (in San Diego), Garza for 3.74 ERA (in Milwaukie) and Kazmir for 3.97 ERA (in Cleveland). Kazmir also signed for the deal with the highest AAV among the three, he would not be considered. Both Garza and Johnson are about 2.2 WAR/ 160 IP and would be a 0.5 WAR upgrade over Gonzalez/ Norris in 160 innings. The addition of one of the duo also adds to the depth of the rotation in case of injury and bolsters the bullpen by pushing Norris or Gonzalez to the bullpen.
The contract details of the all five potential candidates are as follow:
David Murphy: Two years, $12 million guaranteed. $5.5 million in 2014, 6 million in 2015, team option of $7 million with $500,000 buyout in 2016.
Corey Hart: One year, $6 million guaranteed. $6 million base salary with incentives that can add up to $7 million.
Omar Infante: Four years, $30.25 million guaranteed. $5 million in 2014, $7.5 million in 2015, $7.75 million in 2016, $8 million in 2017, team option of $10 million with $2 million buyout in 2018.
Matt Garza: Four years, $50 million guaranteed. $12.5 million with $1 million incentives each season from 2014 to 2017. Vesting option of $13 million or $5/$1 million team option in if the option doesn't vest in 2018.
Josh Johnson: One year, $8 million guaranteed. $8 million with incentives of $1.25 million in 2014, team option of $4 million in 2015 if Johnson makes less than 7 starts in 2014.
Of the five, Hart would be my last choice, as he is coming off a lost year. He would also occupy the DH full time, and be on the wrong side of the platoon advantage the majority of the time. The platoon of Markakis and Pearce at DH, were the Orioles to sign Murphy and play both of Lough and Murphy in the corner outfield against right-handed pitchers, would likely come close to the production by Hart. Signing Garza would mean that the Orioles could not sign anyone else, which is better than what the Orioles had done, but limits the margin of improvement for the team.
I could make a case for signing any two of Murphy, Infante and Johnson. The most important factor behind the Orioles' pseudo-decision might be their evaluation of Manny Machado. If they view Machado as a shortstop after Hardy departs in free agency following this season, Schoop can move to 3B and would not be blocked at 2B by Infante. However, if they see Machado as a 3B long term, Infante's four-year deal would limit Schoop's ability to get on the field. Due to this factor, I would use the remaining of the Orioles' budget to go back in time and sign David Murphy and Josh Johnson to the respective deals they signed with the Indians and the Padres.
Norris would be moved to the bullpen. He could either serve as a long reliever or a set-up man. Murphy would start in LF on a full-time basis. Against RHP, Lough would start in RF and Markakis would DH. Against LHP, Markakis would start in RF and Pearce would DH. I estimate these two moves to add about 2 wins to the Orioles this season. This might not be enough to get the Orioles in the playoff, but it brings the Orioles closer to contention, without sacrificing long-term flexibility. Of course, this is all wishful thinking. If the Orioles can sign any free agent of import at this point of the offseason, I would be more than pleased with their entire offseason.