The Orioles played a fine season in 2016, winning 89 games and making it into the crapshoot that is the postseason, but still they enter this offseason at a big crossroads.
On one hand, they are a team with big strengths, like a powerful lineup, an elite bullpen, and strong infield defense. On the other hand, they are a team with major flaws, like a horrendous starting rotation, disastrous outfield defense, and unsatisfactory on-base skills.
To make matters worse, more of their weaknesses look to be carrying over than the strengths. A lot of power will be leaving the lineup with an assumed departure for Mark Trumbo. Contributions from Pedro Alvarez and Matt Wieters will be tough to replace as well, if those players also depart.
Unless there’s another surprising expansion of their payroll waiting in the wings, the Orioles simply won’t have the money to address the things that they need to fix in order to field a more competitive team next season. Even if they had money, the free agent crop is thin. They will be left hoping their remaining group of players - the core of three playoff teams in five seasons, to be fair - can carry them to greater heights.
A couple of weeks ago, I wrote on this website that the Orioles should not trade Zach Britton because they aren’t losers. I still believe that to be true, but I can appreciate why a person might look at their current situation and conclude that 2016 was their best shot and they need to reload and try again down the road.
It’s still a loser move, though, and the season that just concluded proves that the Orioles aren’t losers. They have one of the better players in MLB in Manny Machado, an enviable back end of the bullpen, numerous remaining power threats, and possibly even 3/5 of a decent starting rotation.
Two years remain with most of this core, as things stand right now. The Orioles, in my mind, have no choice but to stay the course and hope for the best.
A contract extension for Machado should be the number one offseason priority. If the O’s can secure that, their near-term future looks much different and their outlook can change. I don’t mention it below because they’re going to have the same constraints for the 2017 team regardless of what kind of money is or isn’t tied up in Machado long into the future.
With that in mind, in the spirit of the challenge I issued to the community earlier today to present your own vision for the O’s offseason, I give you:
Mark’s Orioles Offseason Plan: Steady as she goes
First, a bit of routine maintenance.
Tenders and non-tenders
The only player I’m non-tendering is T.J. McFarland. This is more about freeing up the roster spot than trying to save $700,000. I don’t see any use for him.
Although guys like Ryan Flaherty and Vance Worley don’t have a TON of value, the fact is that even if you get rid of them, you still have to replace them at the MLB minimum, so you wouldn’t save THAT much money. Worley, in particular, is a better insurance policy than Mike Wright or Tyler Wilson, as 2016 performance demonstrated.
To QO or not to QO
Making a $17.2 million qualifying offer to Trumbo is an easy choice. It’s highly unlikely the guy who just hit 47 homers will take the QO over a multi-year contract, and if he for some reason does, hey, you’re getting back the guy who just led MLB in home runs - and hopefully won’t play as much/any outfield next season.
After weeks of deliberation and agonizing over the decision, however, I am not making the QO to Wieters. Although we’ve heard a lot about how there’s a weak catching market, that’s what we heard last offseason too, and Wieters took that qualifying offer. He hit worse in 2016 and his defense was questionable.
I doubt that the O’s have much money to spend this offseason, but if they do have money, I want it going elsewhere. I don’t care to risk it going to Wieters again. So long and thanks for all the fish, Matt.
Free agent target
What I’d most like to see is for the Orioles to make a run at Dexter Fowler again now that he’s an actual, desirable target - one who chose to return to the future World Series champions in a surprise reversal, much to my chagrin - and not a guy who’s waiting in the bargain bin late in the offseason. But I expect that the fact that people will actually want Fowler now will put him far beyond the Orioles price range.
A more realistic option could end up being Padres outfielder Jon Jay, who will be 32 next season. Jay has a career OBP of .352, but had a disastrous 2015 and even his “rebound” season in 2016 saw him as a slightly below-average hitter - and that while missing two months due to a broken forearm.
That’ll make Jay cheap enough, probably, to fall into the O’s price range, with his past career performance providing some small hope of upside. I’ll pencil in Jay as my Opening Day right fielder, with some relatively low-priced catcher like Hank Conger or Alex Avila. I would like to see the Orioles NOT sign a primary designated hitter and use that spot to give a bit of rest to their position players.
The Orioles farm system is in bad shape, pretty much everyone who doesn’t work for the Orioles agrees. That really limits their options to improve parts of the team by trade. They don’t have many real, desirable prospects, and to the extent that they have any, they can’t afford to trade them because the big league club will need them very soon.
I’ve said before that I don’t want to see the O’s trade Britton, but I think they may and should explore trading Brad Brach. I’d be sad if they traded him - I do like our guys - but Brach may make the most sense. They could turn out to be selling high on Brach, if his first half of this season was a peak he’ll never reach again.
Brach may have value to a team who’s looking to improve its bullpen without paying the elite reliever premium in trade or on the free agent market. With two years of control remaining and a $2.9 million estimated 2017 salary, he is easy on the budget, which makes him worth something.
As far as trying to add to the team on the trade market, there’s probably not another Trumbo-type out there for them to pick off from a cheap team this year, unless maybe the Brewers decide to dump strikeout king and 41 tater-masher Chris Carter.
Carter struck out 206 times in 644 plate appearances! Yikes. He’s practically destined to be an Oriole with qualifications like that. But Carter also walked 76 times so he has a .321 OBP to go along with the dingers. His projected 2017 arbitration salary is about $8 million.
In my wild, completely unrealistic trade fantasy, the Oakland Athletics, who previously generously gifted Josh Donaldson to the Blue Jays, will decide to trade Khris Davis, who just hit 42 home runs but only posted a .307 OBP, and the Orioles find a way to pull this trade off without giving up any of what passes for their best prospects, giving the Orioles both Khris and Chris Davis. May they combine to hit 100 home runs.
The pessimist in me is screaming as I submit this plan, because it relies on what will probably be an erroneous assumption that most of the strengths of the 2016 team will remain strengths no matter what moves are made.
The Orioles are one major injury away from being completely screwed, or a sudden reversal of Britton’s good fortune away from being up the creek without a paddle. There’s almost nothing they can do about either one of those things in the next five months.
However, at the same time, for all of their flaws, the Orioles did just win 89 games and make the postseason. It’s not completely crazy to think that the O’s might get better and healthier seasons from Adam Jones and Chris Davis than they got this year. Davis just hit 38 home runs when he didn’t even seem to be at his best.
If you’re really feeling optimistic, you might even believe that Wade Miley and Ubaldo Jimenez are capable of performing better than their 2016 season stats would indicate. Which, you know what? They probably are. Whether whatever new pitching and bullpen coach combination unlocks the best of Miley and Jimenez and Yovani Gallardo while keeping the bullpen firing on all cylinders is something we will have to wait to find out.
Even if some parts of the team improve, they’ll still have the feast-or-famine offense, probably with fewer home runs, they’ll still be vulnerable to left-handed pitching, and unless they get really lucky, they’re again going to have a bad outfield defense, which will be a major drag on any hope of improving the starting rotation.
Between the weak free agent market and the O’s apparent lack of payroll space, there’s little to no flexibility to try to address these problems.
This all doesn’t sound like the recipe, on paper, for a successful team. But then, no one thought that in 2012, 2014, and 2016 either, and three times in five years the Orioles proved the haters wrong.
If the Orioles are able to find the right bargains to fill in their catcher and right field positions, they could well do the same in 2017 without having to make a single major change. They have to hope that these things prove to be true because they have no choice but to believe that they will be true.