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An Unintuitive Lesson: Why Mike Gonzalez Should be the Closer

The most frustrating thing about being an Orioles fan right now is this: even after an agreeably good offseason, the Orioles still feel like they are lagging well behind their competition. Obviously, looking at Boston's shopping extravaganza is a depressing exercise. Less obvious on first glance is the frustration of comparing Baltimore's winter to Tampa Bay's.

Yes, the Rays have lost their second best position player, their second best starting pitcher, their All-Star first baseman, and more relievers than I care to count. But for all of that they (on paper) remain a playoff contender and have been rewarded with a staggering eleven of the first eighty-nine draft picks. And this in what is reported as one of the best draft classes in recent memory. And I'm happy that the Orioles still have their only second round  draft pick (unlike last year).

How did Tampa Bay, the best team in the American League in 2010, accrue so much draft goodness? They've lost Carl Crawford, Joaquin Benoit, Randy Choate, Rafael Soriano, Grant Balfour, Chad Qualls, and Brad Hawpe to free agency this winter and received compensation in the draft. That's one elite player and a lot of overvalued relievers (and also Brad Hawpe). The Orioles should take note, because there's an easy lesson to learn here.

The Orioles have the potential to pick up their own cheap draft picks in 2012. There are four players on the roster who are set to hit free agency after the upcoming season who have the potential to be worthy of draft pick compensation*: J.J. Hardy, Derrek Lee, Koji Uehara, and Mike Gonzalez.

*That is, if draft pick compensation still exists in 2012. The Collective Bargaining Agreement between the players and the owners expires on December 11, 2011, and there's been a lot of scuttlebutt that the draft is going to be an area heavily modified possibly in terms of dropping the "Type A, Type B" status entirely (or altering the mechanism which establishes the types).

I don't have much to say about Hardy, Lee, or Uehara. Hardy and Lee will be given ample opportunity and simply need to have big years to warrant compensation. If Koji has a good year then the 2012 vesting option in his contract will probably be triggered. However, Michael Gonzalez is a different story all together. And that is because of the way the rankings are determined.

The Elias sports bureau determines free agent rankings (with "Type A" being cream of the crop and netting two draft picks, and "Type B" being slightly lesser players, netting one draft pick), grouping players by position and then applying a complicated formula to rank all players at that position (see here for more information). Relief pitchers are ranked by: ERA, appearances, games started, innings pitched, wins, saves, hits per inning, and their strikeouts to walks ratio. The accumulated stats from the past two seasons are used.

Michael Gonzalez, who infamously cost the Orioles their second round draft pick because he was a Type A free agent, was not good last year in all of those categories except hits per inning - and yet right now he is still classified as a Type A (with a score of 77.65, whatever that means). That's on the immense strength of his 2009 season with the Braves.

The bottom line in all of this: if the Orioles are to get draft pick compensation for Mike Gonzalez at the end of 2011 (which would be helpful), they need him to have a serious bounce-back season. The O's can do themselves a big favor if they give Gonzalez the chance to rack up as many saves as possible, since saves are one of the categories used in the Elias formula.

In case the idea of giving Mike Gonzalez the closer's role after his disastrous  attempt at it last year gives you heartburn - especially with two perhaps more intriguing options in Uehara and Kevin Gregg available - take note: when Gonzalez was healthy in the second half of the season, he held opposing batters to a .512 OPS. That is kind of like saying that Gonzalez turned everyone into a lesser hitter than Cesar [redacted]ing Izturis. If Mike Gonzalez is healthy, he is dominant, and he should be the Orioles' first choice for closer heading into Spring Training.