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With little money to spend, the O’s are going to have to buy low

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No superstar free agents will be coming to Baltimore this year. The O’s will have to sign some cheap, risky players and hope they work out.

MLB: Baltimore Orioles at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Last offseason, the Orioles had a ton of money to spend on free agents, and a lot of holes to fill on the roster. It made for an interesting few months, and while the team ended up spending most of that money on bringing their own players back, the potential was there for a big splash in free agency.

This year, things are different. No big salaries are coming off the books, so the Orioles’ payroll is going to be staying about the same or even going up even if the team does nothing but re-sign everybody.

Unfortunately, that means we’re probably looking at something closer to the 2014-15 offseason, when the Orioles’ top prize was Travis Snider. Hopefully it won’t be quite that bad, but there will be no Yoenis Cespedes under our Christmas trees this year.

Let’s give this a shot...

Chris’s offseason plan

First of all, the team has just about $98 million committed in guaranteed money to eight players for 2017. Those players are Chris Davis, Adam Jones, J.J. Hardy, Ubaldo Jimenez, Yovani Gallardo, Wade Miley, Darren O’Day, and Hyun Soo Kim.

While I’d love to find a taker for Gallardo’s $11 million salary, I don’t see that happening. All eight of these guys are probably here to stay for 2017.

Qualifying offers

There are three players who are candidates for a qualifying offer: Mark Trumbo, Matt Wieters, and Pedro Alvarez. I thought Alvarez had a nice year for the O’s in 2016, but a platoon DH isn’t worth $17 million. No Q.O. for him.

I’m also not going to give a qualifying offer to Matt Wieters, because I’m terrified that he’d take it again. After a good enough start to get him into the All-Star Game, Wieters struggled down the stretch. He’s also a below average pitch receiver, and the Orioles’ pitchers need all the help they can get.

Trumbo, on the other hand, gets a qualifying offer, and I think he’ll turn it down. Yes, he was only about a two-win player last year. Yes, 2016 was a career year and his HR/FB last season was almost impossibly high. Yes, he had one of the “worst” 47-homer seasons in history (that feels dumb just to type, but it’s true).

Teams will know all this, and the market for Trumbo might not quite be what people think it is. Still, he hit 47 home runs last season. Someone will want him enough to give him a multi-year deal. I can think of at least one deep-pocketed team in the Orioles’ division that could use a power-hitting DH.

Tenders and non-tenders

The O’s have ten players up for arbitration, and six are no-brainers. I’ll be tendering Chris Tillman ($10.6 million), Zach Britton ($11.4 million), Manny Machado ($11.2 million), Brad Brach ($2.9 million), Jonathan Schoop ($3.4 million), and Kevin Gausman ($3.9 million). All those numbers are based off of MLB Trade Rumors’ projections.

The remaining four players are Ryan Flaherty ($1.7 million), Vance Worley ($3.3 million), T.J. McFarland ($1.1 million), and Caleb Joseph ($700,000). McFarland is gone. That’s the easiest one. He’s been below replacement level for two years in a row now.

I’ll bring back Caleb Joseph, because he’s a good defensive catcher, he’s cheap, and he’s simply not as bad of a hitter as he was this season. Flaherty and Worley are tougher cases.

Worley’s peripherals from 2016 show that he’s likely to regress next year, and if he pitches more like his 4.82 FIP, Tyler Wilson can do that for less money. Similarly, Flaherty was exactly replacement level this season. Almost $2 million for 0.0 WAR is a lot. I’m going to let him walk, too.

Adding in about $2.5 million for Dylan Bundy and Mychal Givens, who combined to make $2.3 million last year, I’m at just under $145 million. Let’s go shopping.

Free agents

I’m not going to touch the pitching staff. The O’s have six starters on the 25-man roster, and Wade Miley is due to bounce back after an incredibly unlucky two months with Baltimore. The entire bullpen from the end of last year (except Worley) will be returning as well.

My wish list includes a catcher, a right fielder, and a DH. I’m penciling in Kim as the full-time left fielder for now. As Mark wrote, I think Jon Jay is a smart and realistic option for the right field position, but just for the sake of variety I’m going to assume he signs elsewhere.

Instead, I’m going to make a run at Jason Castro to replace Wieters. Beyond the Box Score’s free agent calculator from last season predicts a $7.1 million salary for Castro. The calculator is a year old, so for inflation I’ll make that $8 million and toss him a 2-year, $16 million deal.

Castro is a good pitch framer, and he’s about as good as Wieters offensively. He’s also left-handed and has a pretty strong platoon split. He has a career .536 OPS and 49 wRC+ against lefties, compared to a .753 OPS and 108 wRC+ against right-handers.

Castro can start nearly every game against right-handed pitching to maximize his value at the plate, and most of Joseph’s starts can come against southpaws. If Joseph can bounce back, that has the potential to be an above-average catching tandem.

Some folks think Castro may get a bigger contract than this, but I’m not so sure. There are a ton of mediocre free agent catchers, and the crown jewel of the available catchers is Wilson Ramos (even after his injury), not Castro. I don’t see a team throwing big bucks at a 1.5-WAR catcher when there are about seven 0.5-1 WAR catchers out there for fairly cheap.

Now we need to figure out right field and DH. For right field, I’m going for a cheap bounce-back candidate in Chris Coghlan. This year was an absolute disaster for Coghlan (.188/.290/.318), but he’s just a year removed from two straight seasons of well above-average hitting.

Coghlan had an incredibly unlucky .235 BABIP this year, better than just three players: Ben Revere, who hits like he’s using a Nerf bat, and two guys who might be slower than me in Prince Fielder and Ryan Howard. There’s no reason his BABIP should be that low, and next year it won’t be.

Coghlan had an OPS around .800 over almost a thousand plate appearances in 2014-15. If he returns to that form, he could be a steal. Coghlan made under $5 million last season and I don’t see why that would go up after a truly awful season. Let’s give him 1 year and $3.5 million, maybe with some incentives thrown in for performance.

Another reason I chose Coghlan is that he’s been far better against right-handed pitching (.766 vs. .620 OPS) in his career. Despite all his flaws, Joey Rickard hit left-handed pitching surprisingly well last year. We don’t know yet if that was a fluke, so he can have some of those starts until he proves it was.

Finally, we need a DH. I’m a shameless Steve Pearce fan, so let’s bring him back once again. Pearce was having a great year at the plate until an injury ended his season, and that injury is likely to suppress his value.

Pearce signed a $4.8 million contract with Tampa Bay last year. He’ll be 34 and is considered by many to be a platoon bat. He’s also gone on record saying that he loves it here. A similar offer may be enough to get it done. That would put the payroll at almost exactly $160 million.

Summary

None of these moves are flashy, but the Orioles don’t have the money to make flashy moves this offseason. That would require either trading a player nobody would take in Ubaldo Jimenez or Yovani Gallardo, or it would require trading Zach Britton, which the Orioles shouldn’t do because, as Mark said, they aren’t losers.

I also don’t see any other trades for MLB-level help happening. Frankly, the O’s have no prospects to trade. Instead, this team is probably going to be stuck making some buy-low signings and hoping that things go right.

In Castro and Coghlan, the O’s would be getting two players whose strengths at the plate could be maximized by a platoon situation with players the team already has. In Coghlan and Pearce, the team would be getting two players who can play at least five positions each.

This would give the team a ton of flexibility to rotate people through the DH spot when they’re banged up or need some rest. The team would have at least two backups at every infield position except shortstop. Unfortunately, we can’t fix that. If Hardy gets hurt, Manny Machado becomes the shortstop and the backup will be someone who probably doesn’t belong on a MLB team.

On paper this probably isn’t a playoff team. On paper, the 2015 Orioles weren’t either. With their current roster and payroll commitments, nothing is going to change that.

A lot of things will need to break the right way for the O’s to make another postseason run. Fortunately, that was the case last year as well. Unless something truly crazy happens, the 2017 Orioles are going to look a heck of a lot like the 2016 Orioles.