The Orioles have been dabbling with first place for several days (this post "went to press," as it were, before the conclusion of last night's game, so I can't confirm whether they still are as you read this). That's a wonderful thing, of course, but something that has increasingly struck me as of late is how much they are succeeding despite, rather than because of, their offseason decisions.
Of course, to an extent, this was always the plan. The team primarily hoped to replace the loss of Nelson Cruz through the returns of Manny Machado, Matt Wieters and Chris Davis, and the hoped resuscitation of Ubaldo Jimenez, all of which is coming true to various degrees. But as they worked around the edges of that plan, the Orioles either signed or tendered a final arbitration year to seven players who have cost the team $25 million and produced, cumulatively, negative value.
This isn't cherry picking. It doesn't include every negative-WAR player, like Chris Tillman, who is under team control for a long time yet and shouldn't reasonably have been dropped. These are all players who the team actively signed, or actively chose to retain for a final year when they could have simply non-tendered them and gone for a cheap Dan Duquette-style replacement. Let's take a deeper look.
The Outside Signings
Everth Cabrera -- $2.4M, -0.8 WAR
The Orioles took a flyer on Cabrera, despite off-field warning signs, on the promise of his defense, contact skills, and (possibly steroid-derived) flashes of power in previous years. None of this worked out at all. Cabrera struggled in just about every aspect of his game, even when given a chance to seize a role with both J.J. Hardy and Jonathan Schoop hurt. The team finally cut ties with him on June 13th.
Ryan Lavarnway -- $500K, -0.3 WAR
This one isn't worth getting too upset about, because Lavarnway was a backup catcher, and backup catchers are probably the least important people on an MLB roster. But the Orioles went out of their way to sign Lavarnway when they already had Steve Clevenger in their system, and Clevenger couldn't have done any worse in keeping the bench warm behind Caleb Joseph until Matt Wieters returned. The team designated Lavarnway for assignment at the end of May, then granted him free agency.
Wesley Wright -- $1.7M, 0 WAR
When the Orioles initially signed the left-handed reliever Wright, a lot of folks assumed that it presaged a trade of Brian Matusz. But no trade materialized, and the team entered the season with both LOOGYs on its roster. It hasn't turned out too badly, as Wright was briefly ineffective, then almost immediately revealed to be hurt, but the logic of obtaining him seems hard to divine. Wright is still in the system, but his rehab hasn't had positive reports to date, and the Orioles seem in no hurry to get him back.
Delmon Young -- $2.25M, 0.2 WAR
Not a true outside signing, of course, but the Orioles chose to re-sign Delmon Young after his pinch-hitting and postseason heroics in 2014. After picking Young up off the scrap heap, they chose to reward him with a more substantive major league contract (after no other team would give him a second guaranteed year). Young has rewarded the team's loyalty by hitting for empty average, a bunch of singles without a lot of walks or power.
The Arbitration Failures
Alejandro de Aza -- $5M, -0.1 WAR
When the Orioles failed to re-sign Nick Markakis, Dan Duquette spoke glowingly of De Aza's ability to replicate Markakis's numbers in right field. That was all well and good in theory, but De Aza had struggled for quite a while before the Orioles acquired him in late 2014, and he struggled tremendously to open 2015, before the team surprised everyone by designating him for assignment on May 27th. They managed to get a low-grade prospect back for him, but they presumably ate almost all of his salary to do so.
Tommy Hunter -- $4.65M, 0.3 WAR
It's been a bit of a strange road for Tommy Hunter as an Oriole. After coming over in the Koji Uehara trade, Hunter struggled as a starter, found a groove as a flamethrower in the bullpen, bombed out as a closer, and seemingly regained his stride in middle relief once Zach Britton started to close out games. But 2015, as Hunter's final arbitration year, sees him making a good bit of dough, and his results continue to be inconsistent at best. Hunter can't be counted on in close ballgames or against lefties for the most part. The Orioles probably won't cut him, but they're not getting $4.65M worth of value from him.
Bud Norris -- $8.8M, -1.4WAR
Alright, I'll admit it up front -- Norris skews the narrative I'm pushing in my favor, and no one really advocated non-tendering him this offseason, after 2014 was his strongest season yet. But hindsight is 20/20, and the reality is that Norris is the worst underperformer on the 2015 Orioles, on a $/WAR basis. Paying such a premium for a starter in his final year of arbitration, to see him struggle to the tune of a 6.79 ERA, is frustrating, particularly as the team continues to jerk around Kevin Gausman, and has assets like Mike Wright kicking around, who probably couldn't do much worse.
So there you have it. The mid-market Orioles are spending $25.3 million on seven guys (three of whom are gone and one of whom is in the minors) who have cumulatively produced -2.1 WAR. That's a lot of cabbage for a team with a ~$120M payroll to essentially flush away. Doubly so with Dan Duquette at the helm, who's shown an ability to sign cheap lottery tickets in the past until he finds one that sticks.
There's no great moral to this story -- again, no one really called for Norris to be non-tendered this offseason, although plenty questioned De Aza and Wright -- but it makes the continued success of the Orioles all the more impressive. They're playing against much richer teams, and succeeding with about 20% of their payroll as virtual dead weight. That's something.