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Is There a Quick Fix for the Lineup?

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On Wednesday, I suggested that the it was far within the Orioles' best interests to explore trading one of their best players (and one of my favorite Orioles), Jeremy Guthrie. I suggested this because I believed that the Orioles offense and defense is so far away from a finished product, and their minor league system so threadbare, that they needed to do something to improve the product lest they end up with a team that could pitch but not hit (or field).

I based that belief on two things. Firstly, and most important, is that the Orioles offense is currently ranked 20th in the majors and 11th in the American League in hitting (via my preferred metric, weighted on base average or wOBA, which is not as complicated as it seems - it simply takes all offensive events and gives them a value, from walks to home runs). Or, more simply, the Orioles are 20th in baseball and 10th in the AL in runs scored. They are a bad offensive team, and it's hard to make an argument otherwise.

My second belief is more nebulous, and it is that the difference one player makes is usually overestimated. That's one of the central tenets of sabrmetrics. Analysts who used to say ace starting pitchers won their teams 20 games were wildly off, for example. The thinking that bringing in a player like Vlad Guerrero could net a team 5+ victories all by himself was similarly misguided. It's so easy to overestimate the impact of one player, so I - if anything - try to overcompensate and underestimate.

My sentiments on Wednesday were met with a counterpoint that I expected but had dismissed, and that was that the Orioles should hold onto their players and make a big free agent splash over the winter, and hope that Nick Markakis bounces back. The thought being that the Orioles are basically one or two players away from having a pretty great offense.

I pshawed, and was halfway through thinking up a response similar to what I wrote two paragraphs above when I stopped and thought about it. And then I decided to look at the numbers. And I was surprised by what I found.  

As I said, the Orioles are 20th in baseball in both runs scored and in wOBA as a team. But obviously they have at least one or two good offensive players (everyone does) so I decided to break it down some and see how the Orioles' offensive production compares to the rest of the majors by position:
Position Rank by wOBA
C 10th
1B 27th
2B 19th
3B 8th
SS 11th
LF 14th
RF 29th
CF 8th
DH 9th (out of 14)


So that gives the Orioles five positions where they are getting above-median production. And yet the four positions where the offense is straight-up bad - the culprits of which are, in no order, Nick Markakis, Vlad Guerrero, Brian Roberts & Robert Andino, and Derrek Lee, who you all might recognize as the entire top of the order for the first third of the season - are dragging the entire offense down to the bottom of baseball.

Which brings us to the assumption made on Wednesday: what if we replaced our right field and first base productions with, say, free agent to be Prince Fielder and the 2010 version of Nick Markakis? How would that change the overall team's production?

Overall, the offense is hitting a .310 wOBA, which as I've said is 20th in baseball. If we remove first base and right field entirely from the offense, that number jumps up to .318, which would be 13th in baseball (although if we simply removed every team's worst two positions, I suspect the Orioles would still be down near the bottom of the pack). Now, if we re-insert those plate appearances but using Prince Fielder's 2011 wOBA (.423) and Nick Markakis' 2010 (.353) the Orioles jump all the way up to a .332 wOBA. This would be 6th in baseball (and frustratingly ahead of only the Rays in the AL East).

That's an imprecise rough estimate that I calculated by hand, so don't take it for gospel. The number of plate appearances would obviously change, and who knows how the rest of the lineup's production would change around those kinds of legit bats. Maybe Buck Showalter would continue to say that the ninth spot of the lineup is pretty important and bat Fielder down there. And that hypothetical Orioles team would make me, well, let's say less than confident in their defensive abilities (A great example: Orioles third basemen are ranked 8th in baseball offensively but 24th by fWAR because Mark Reynolds' glove gives back everything his bat earns).

So: are the Orioles one or two players away from having a promising offense to go with their promising rotation? Are the Orioles one or two players away from (dare we utter it) competing?

Truthfully, the Orioles would benefit as much as any team would from replacing their two worst starters with two of the best starters at that position. Take the AL-worst offense, which is the property of the Seattle Mariners. Let's replace Chone Figgins with Kevin Youkilis and Ichiro with Matt Joyce. Suddenly the Mariners' wOBA goes from 29th in baseball all the way to 11th. That looks pretty similar to what we're talking about with the Orioles.

The moral here I suppose is that when we're talking about just the offense, two major upgrades represent a huge amount of improvement. If you, like me, consider the offense to be the primary weakness of the team, then yes, it can potentially be rebuilt quickly by targetting elite talent in free agency. The emphasis however, is on the word elite - which is not something the Andy MacPhail Orioles have shown any interest in via free agency. I'll quote MacPhail:

 I'll be honest with you, the likelihood of us stepping out to the degree that [Albert Pujols] is looking at, for any one player, is remote at best. I read that he's looking for $30 million a year, and I just can't see how that's going to happen. Now, I'm management. I'm not ownership. I make recommendations. I don't own the team. But I just think with what you have to do, I can't see it.

Does that mean the Orioles won't be setting any records contract-wise, or does that mean the Orioles won't be in the race for the elite hitters in free agency who are likely to command north of $20 million per year? For me, I simply can't picture the Orioles signing an elite player, let alone two, that could transform the lineup in a way we're talking about. And if the Orioles are closing the door on those transformative talents on the market, then the only route they have left is trading their veteran players away for young, cheap elite talent.