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It’s never too late to change, Mr. Duquette

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With a roster all but set for 2017, minus a few plugs, the Orioles don’t appear to be in a position to aggress the market. Though the top-heavy free-agent pool is naturally tied to the temptation of qualifying offers, Dan Duquette would be wise to revalue his draft picks.

Wild Card Game - Baltimore Orioles v Toronto Blue Jays Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

Whether or not it sits kindly with you depends on your personal brand of optimism, but the Orioles pretty much already have what you’re going to see next spring.

Of course, that starts with the prospect of a rotation front-loaded with Chris Tillman and Kevin Gausman, and you know, that sounds pretty good. Tillman proved that 2015 was mostly a bump in the road through his years as the Orioles “ace”. At last, Gausman was returned to the rotation and wouldn’t you know it, the organization’s most talented arm earned the label.

The pair combined for an 86 ERA-, a number proudly above league average. With Gausman still honing his craft and Tillman once again looking like the ever-consistent presence he’s shown to be, the Orioles should be in good shape atop the rotation.

Dylan Bundy fought against all odds to notch 109.1 innings in his first full season with the O’s, and while his peripherals may not add up to much, 2016 was a mighty, surprising step forward.

His 4.54 ERA could be backwashed by his 5.24 FIP, but Bundy led all Orioles starters with a 23.5% strikeout rate and suspected fatigue saw his September walk and home run frequencies destabilize. A winter to recuperate with a role intact, Bundy’s apparent positives far outweigh his negatives.

Then there’s the other guys.

With Yovani Gallardo, Wade Miley and whichever Ubaldo Jimenez shows up next year, the organization has to figure out how to either use this unenviable logjam to their advantage, or yank a piece of wood from the dam. All three hold the baggage of plus-salaries and being bad more often than they’re good, so don’t count on much action. As yucky as it sounds, its an interesting development nonetheless.

On a more tasty note, the Orioles are down only two spots in the everyday lineup. While the infield is set in stone, questions concerning catcher, the outfield and the bench will probably encompass the bulk of Dan Duquette’s hot stove focus.

Of course, the low tide of impact players in the free-agent pool are all tied to qualifying offers, the neon light to Duquette’s fly. While it worked with Nelson Cruz (who I still miss dearly), Jimenez’s gaping inconsistencies as well as Yovani Gallardo’s predictable struggles present a realistic cause for concern.

The Orioles aren’t the Cubs, meaning we don’t know what the immediate future holds, good or bad. The O’s need to invest in high-level draft picks and given Duquette’s propensity to treat such commodities like a circling bug in need of a good swatting, there’s always chance the Orioles invest in the now while chiseling away at the unknown.

Even so, there’s a way we can make 2017 work without having to forfeit the assets. Usually, Duquette is in charge, but not this time.

I am.

Nick’s Orioles Offseason Plan: The next best thing

Tenders and non-tenders

Of the Orioles arbitration candidates, all but Vance Worley, T.J. McFarland and Ryan Flaherty stand out as those on the fringe. Worley at a projected $3.3M is but a speck in the wind, and given his ability to eat innings with above-average proficiency, I bring him back. He’s versatile, and you just never know how many arms you’re gonna need.

Flaherty’s bat continues to be a black hole (career .216/.284/.359/74 wRC+), but his infield his glove (6 DRS/12.1 UZR at third base in 2016) is a safety blanket. He’s a weird glue in the clubhouse too.

Unfortunately for McFarland, a lack of roster spots and his knack for not being very good make his departure an easy choice.

Mark Trumbo and the QO

You can knock Trumbo for all the strikeouts and beg him to be something that he isn’t, but the savviest move of last offseason doubled down on his expected value.

He tailed off in the second-half, but a .256/.316/.533 line with 47 home runs and 123 wRC+ is the ultimate exchange for a third-string catcher. He couldn’t play right field worth a damn, but hitting home runs is kind of the only thing that makes it OK. Trumbo is deservedly unexpected to accept the qualifying offer, and as the newfound general manager, I respectfully hope he does.

One of the things Duquette and myself have in common is the appreciation of the home run, but the inability to put the baseball into the field of play and force action proved far too detrimental. I want to improve on baseball’s fourth-lowest contact rate of 75.7%. By doing so, I naturally slash away at baseball’s second-highest whiff rate. More walks wouldn’t hurt either. Thank you Mr. Trumbo, but take your well-earned payday and ride into a sunset of cash.

Free agent targets

So by now, I take into account the $96M in contracts heading into next year, and along with the $40M or so in MLBTradeRumors.com arbitration projections, I’m already locked into close to $140M in payroll guarantees. I’m going to shy away from any and all players linked to QO’s out of general principle, and instead see if there are any reasonable expenditures to be had.

Immediately my eye falls to Josh Reddick, who would become the Orioles everyday right fielder. Having recorded a 106 wRC+ this past season, I like his bat-to-ball abilities as well as his judgement of the strike zone.

He did miss 47 games this past year with a broken thumb, and he doesn’t hit lefties, like, at all (.155/.212/.155 in ‘16), but he’s a season removed from a 118 wRC+ campaign, and his defense, though not perfect, is a massive upgrade. He also has a career 1.167 OPS at Camden Yards and will be 30 years-old by the start of March. If I had to choose to semi-splurge, Reddick is my guy.

The legendary EatMoreEsskay himself mentioned Jon Jay, whose asking price will definitely be in the Orioles range. After suffering a broken forearm and playing in only 90 games, Jay’s speed atop the lineup and in the outfield would add a different element at a workable cost. Michael Bourn and Steve Pearce are also on my radar.

Even with Wilson Ramos expected to miss a chunk of next season after tearing his ACL, his price range is probably still too steep.

If Reddick works out, I’m going to scale down on adding a catcher, but if not, I try to succeed Matt Wieters with Jason Castro. According to StatCorner, Castro was one of the best pitch framers in baseball a season ago and has been for the past three years.

Though his bat would be noticeably quieter than Wieters’, Castro’s handling of a staff may balance out his value, especially with a group of starters that have trouble patrolling the edge of the strike zone. Despite an 88 wRC+, Castro still retained a 1.1 fWAR last year, a testament to his work behind the plate.

If I want to swap a little more offense with a lack of defense, Kurt Suzuki and Chris Iannetta are options as well for.

As much as I would like to bring Pedro Alvarez back, incumbent Trey Mancini makes sense as the only one-track player to keep around. Someone needs to hit lefties.

Trade candidate

As much as I believe a Zach Britton trade would bring back a much-needed treasure trove for the Orioles, there’s no reason to think the O’s aren’t still in “win-now” mode. He isn’t going anywhere.

If Howie Kendrick is actually seeking a trade, this would be a move I’d explore. Granted, his hypothetical arrival would mean he’d strictly be subjected to the outfield creating all sorts of issues with Hyun Soo Kim, but his willingness to hit the baseball to all fields is an attractive concept. At 33 years-old and playing for $10M in the last year of his deal, the Orioles may be able to swing a deal.

Reports of the Pirates discussing a trade with the Nationals for Andrew McCutchen surfaced yesterday, and there is natural wonder as to if Pittsburgh is doubting their future. If so, you’d think a poke hitter like John Jaso would be made available. A solid DH candidate who can hit at both ends of the lineup, Jaso is due only $4M before hitting free-agency. His limited capabilities in the field would make this a tough swing, however.

Summary

The Orioles are more or less locked into the cards they’ve already been dealt, and with the proper patchwork, the O’s will have a chance to throw PECOTA another surprise party.

Still, said patchwork creates risk. Dexter Fowler is a far too perfect fit for the Orioles, but is the payroll going to continue to stretch to new heights in order to make such a deal even possible? If so, are we sinking further into the reality the Orioles are the organization who’ve patented the degradation of draft picks? And if the Orioles do take the route of chancing with fillers, can someone like Jon Jay outperform all measurable expectations?

Even though the O’s enter the winter with an uncharacteristic number of problems solved, the remaining questions still seem so big.

Regardless, the Orioles don’t need to cough up anymore picks in order to win now, and they don’t need the payroll to teeter on the elite. There’s a formula out there somewhere that will make this work, and it’s just a matter of finding it.