There’s nothing quite like a bucket of cold reality to douse any hopes you may have had that the Orioles might have an opportunity to meaningfully improve the team through free agency over the course of this offseason.
It’s not even all about the money, although that’s certainly a part of it. The Orioles have, at least, by not extending the $17.2 million qualifying offer to Matt Wieters, guaranteed that they will not be saddled with him at that price for the 2017 season and they can turn those resources elsewhere. Yet even $17 million doesn’t buy as much as you might think on the free agent market.
What’s an even bigger deal than how much money the Orioles do or don’t have available to spend this offseason is the simple fact that there aren’t very many good free agents to fill positions of need for the team.
All through the 2016 season, the warnings have been there that this would be a weak free agent class and now that it comes time to consider it, all of those people were right. You don’t have to look too hard at the MLB Trade Rumors Top 50 Free Agents list to see that the bottom falls out in a hurry.
MLBTR’s list is also useful for its predicted contract values for each of the free agents. Their guesses are not perfect. You can look at last year’s predictions to see where they had some big misses, particularly with qualifying offer free agents.
Wieters was supposed to get four years and $64 million last offseason and he settled for the $15.7 million QO instead. Ian Desmond was predicted to get five years and $80 million and he had to settle for one year and $8 million from the Rangers late in the offseason. Many others were hits, including David Price, pegged exactly at seven years, $217 million.
The Orioles and their needs
The three big needs on the diamond for the Orioles, with Wieters and Mark Trumbo presumably about to depart for elsewhere as free agents, are at catcher, right field, and in the starting rotation.
At catcher, the state of the market is such that Wieters is the second-best guy available, and the first, Wilson Ramos, has only been a league average hitter over a full year twice in seven seasons, and his most recent season ended with a torn ACL. And even the possibly injured, possibly inconsistent Ramos is predicted to get four years and $50 million.
For the starting rotation, things are almost even worse. The three best names out there are Jeremy Hellickson (projected four years, $60 million, and a lost draft pick), Ivan Nova (four years, $52 million) and Rich Hill (three years, $50 million) - yes, THAT Rich Hill, who was horrible here for 14 games in 2009.
Even if, for some reason, you’re an advocate of the Orioles signing one of those guys, or someone like Jason Hammel at three years, $42 million, this would also require the Orioles eating some dead money to get rid of one of their seemingly-less useful starters like Yovani Gallardo.
It’s not impossible, but eating sunk costs hasn’t been something the O’s have seemed very willing to do with these pitchers. They’ll probably get a five man rotation out of the six guys they’ve got and not try to add any more of these mid-tier starters who keep burning them.
Maybe a better outfield?
Somewhat more promising, potentially, is the market in the outfield, at least presuming the Orioles are able to pick the free agent who’s not about to suck out of the pile - and assuming that the Orioles are willing to meet that player’s price when other teams are bidding.
It’s hard to understate how much almost-Oriole Dexter Fowler would have been the perfect addition to the 2016 team. He would have been the high-OBP leadoff hitter they desperately needed and the solid corner outfielder they needed, too. Fowler’s back on the free agent market with a QO attached.
Fowler is projected to get a four year, $64 million contract by MLBTR. He may have been the right signing last offseason, which doesn’t mean he is this offseason. Are you willing to commit four years to the guy who just turned in a career year at age 30? Though Father Time is undefeated, there are players who figure it out later and hold their skills longer.
Who else? Josh Reddick or Carlos Gomez at three years, $36 million? Reddick is tagged with “subpar defense in right field,” so no thanks. Gomez was so bad that he got DFA’d by the Astros mid-season, though he had a nice last month with the Rangers. Michael Saunders at three years, $33 million? “Subpar defense in the outfield corners” and also, he batted .186/.267/.338 from August onwards.
All three of those players do have their strengths and possible upside, though, and a $12 million average annual value, while it sounds like a lot, is really just asking a player to be worth about 1.5 WAR per year.
And all of this is operating under the assumption that the Orioles have $11-16 million annually to commit to one of these players when their payroll is already more than last season’s without signing a single player from elsewhere. That money might not even be out there.
Plus, the Orioles still need to get some kind of catcher signed - or else roll with Caleb Joseph and Francisco Pena until Chance Sisco’s ready - and some kind of platoon bat who can preferably play left field and hit against lefties. That’s a big ask to do those things after dropping that much money on an outfielder.
MLBTR’s team guesses are really just conversation starters rather than attempts to be 100% accurate, so their guessing that the O’s will re-sign Trumbo (four years, $60 million) and pick up Saunders is just that, a guess.
Would you be happy in that scenario? A $26 million expenditure per year that doesn’t fix anything with the team is not very exciting. But the possibility is there that the Orioles won’t have the opportunity to fix what was wrong with the 2016 team. They may just have to sign the players they can get at the prices they can get them and hope for the best.
They will still be a team with flaws
That can work. The 2016 Orioles are proof of that. It won them 89 games, though one can argue it also lost them the wild card game. They had some big flaws, but so did every team. Even the World Series champion Cubs, during the final series they ended up winning, had people writing about how “their lineup is exposed” against Cleveland’s pitchers.
Of course, they were good enough at enough other things, like starting pitching, to make up for that deficiency, if it really existed. The Orioles rotation... not so much. And if it gets better next year, it won’t be because of any of these free agents.
Dan Duquette might have some surprises up his sleeve. Peter Angelos might have some surprises in his treasury. After all, this time last year, I would have guessed both Darren O’Day and Chris Davis would be gone, and no one could have predicted Trumbo just falling into the Orioles’ laps, or Pedro Alvarez and his 22 home runs sitting there in early March.
If nothing changes, things may look bleak for the O’s, but there will be opportunities for them to improve all through the offseason. Many of these free agents may end up underwhelming on these contracts. Many will not. The Orioles just need to choose wisely, and for goodness sake, don’t waste another draft pick on another starter with red flags flapping in every direction.