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April 25, 2012

Heartburn Hardball

Centerpiece in Center Field?

by Jonathan Bernhardt

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At some point, in defiance of their past and themselves, they have to get good. That is the central premise. If that premise does not hold, then there's no point to even talking about whether or not the Baltimore Orioles should extend Adam Jones—it's all just deck chairs and sinking ships. So this week at Heartburn Hardball, we're going to try on optimism for a change.

Adam Jones will enter his third and final year of arbitration at the end of the 2012 season, assuming he is still an Oriole—at this point, there's no good reason to assume otherwise, as teams such as the Atlanta Braves were repeatedly told he was unavailable during the offseason, and there were indications that this dictum came from owner Peter Angelos, not Executive VP of Baseball Operations Dan Duquette. Things could change, yes, but as a general rule, when Angelos hitches the organization's star to a player, the Orioles are in for the long haul. Nick Markakis received a six-year deal to keep him in Baltimore, a deal that's made him somewhat immovable due to it paying him more than $15 million over each of the next two years and his production never quite matching his paycheck since 2008.

Brian Roberts, too, became a face of the franchise in the earlier part of this century, and Angelos nixed deals on multiple occasions that would have sent him to the Braves, Cubs, or White Sox. It's a good thing he did, too, considering the best player in any of those packages turned out to be Brian Giles. If Angelos thinks Jones and Matt Wieters are the future, he won't allow the team to trade them. Considering how at least early on, Jones has seized leadership of the Baltimore clubhouse with both hands as well as involved himself actively in a couple Baltimore inner city baseball charity programs and organizations, Angelos certainly has an incentive to think Jones can stick around and be the centerpiece of the next great Orioles team.

For our purposes, we're not going to get into the math of projecting how Jones's season will end up—it wouldn’t mean much in April, anyway. Instead, we'll say that a wildly successful season from Adam Jones is something along the lines of .310/.340/.540 with 30 HR or so. That's an .880 OPS, which is an order of magnitude better than his best previous line for a full season, .280/.319/.466 with 25 HR, and would make him one of the game’s elite offensive center fielders. The power surge in this hypothetical best-case season comes not from the five extra home runs, but from him hitting more doubles—he had only 26 in 619 PA last year, which is roughly one every 24 PA. As of April 24th, he has four in 69 PA, which is a double every 17.25 PA. That would take him up to 36 doubles in the same amount of PA, and with the increased number of singles helping to raise his batting average, that makes up pretty much all of that slugging.

Perhaps a more reasonable outcome would be .290/.320/.500 with 25 HR—in other words, the same home run power as last year but with more singles and doubles. Either outcome leads to a center fielder entering his power prime with an OPS over .800, which is extremely valuable. We can treat these two values as the baseline low and high extremes of what would define a very clear step forward in Jones' development at the plate.

There's also the chance he regresses, gets hurt, or pretty much repeats his previous line, and in that case the Orioles' options become murkier still, but we'll put that to the side for now, because that's not the point of this thought exercise. If Adam Jones ends 2012 with a line between the floor and ceiling above—between an .820 and .880 SLG-heavy OPS—his value going into his age-27 year will be higher than it has been at any point since Baltimore acquired him in the Erik Bedard trade. The question: Should the Orioles seriously pursue an extension in the five-to-six-year range for an appropriate amount of money to keep Jones in Baltimore, or should they trade him?

This brings us back to the original point, which is that at some point, the Orioles have to commit fully not to a rebuild, but to moving past it. Many of the pieces are in place: Dylan Bundy is one of the top-ranked pitching prospects in the nation and looks to be only a year away; some analysts think he could even see time in Baltimore in September, depending on his performance in the minors this season. That seems optimistic, but it is possible. Manny Machado and Jonathan Schoop, the middle infielders at Double-A Bowie, could be ready for the end of the 2013 season into spring training in 2014. The Orioles have Matt Wieters, one of the best hitting and defensive catchers in the game, they have Adam Jones, who is one of the better-hitting center fielders in the game, and the early returns on Jake Arrieta are very positive from both scouting and results-based perspectives.

Now, this sort of optimism is always very dangerous when talking about the Orioles, whom I argued recently could be the worst team in Major League Baseball if only a couple things went wrong (and this could very well still happen)—but assuming that all of the above remains true and that in 2014 Dylan Bundy is an ace, Jake Arrieta is a front-of-the-rotation starter, Matt Wieters and Adam Jones are elite or near-elite hitters, Manny Machado and Jonathan Schoop are solid hitters, and Nick Markakis is a league-average hitter, the Orioles will need another front-of-the-rotation starter, a couple league-average or slightly worse starters, a first baseman, a third baseman, and a bullpen.

It would be nice to have a designated hitter and a left fielder too, of course, but acceptable (though unremarkable) options for both of those positions should be available in free agency or in the Orioles’ farm system. The first baseman represents an elite or near-elite bat in his prime who will refuse to DH (or is actually good enough defensively that he doesn't have to), and the third baseman represents a solid-to-good bat who can play the position well.

There's no real organizational solution for the other two starting pitchers. One of them might be Zach Britton, and there's an outside chance that one of them is Wei-Yin Chen, but unless someone like Parker Bridwell explodes onto the scene, the most optimistic Orioles fans should be willing to get is that Britton isn't completely done and that neither Bundy nor Arrieta explode. The bullpen isn't even worth worrying about; that more than anything else should be contemplated only the winter before.

With all of the above, the Orioles could probably make a run at one of the Wild Cards with a payroll topping out around $120 million (they're at $84 million this season). That basic formula—elite bat, two near-elite bats, and a bunch of solid bats with a regular or two that hits below average to average all year, combined with a rotation with one elite starter, two good starters, two average starters, and a bullpen of whatever—should lead to a contending team in any division, barring the ever-present specter of injury.

The biggest problem is the elite bat. When those sorts of players hit free agency, "throwing lots of money and years at their agent" isn't how teams sign them; it's how they show they're interested. Jones could be that elite bat; more likely, his best-case scenario is more a near-elite kind of guy, if we're taking "elite" to mean "going to the Hall of Fame if he does this for seven or eight years." If he's somewhere in that second tier of hitters this year, the Orioles need to gamble that he'll stay in that tier for the next five or six and extend him.

To which some would argue, what use is an elite or very good player on a 95-loss team—which the Orioles very well might be this and maybe next year? The answer is that he stops it from being a 100-to- 103-loss team. It is impossible to win games without good players, and endlessly flipping players for prospects landed the Orioles in the sort of limbo they find themselves in now. Unlike Tampa Bay, which also invests in its really good players (see Longoria, Evan and Moore, Matt) but convinces them to sign ludicrously team-friendly contracts, the Orioles actually have the money to give Jones $14-15 million a year for the next five years without substantially impacting their baseball operations. This is an ownership group that sustained a $97 million payroll before it got a television station.

Again, all bets are off if Jones falls short of last year's line when all is said and done—if he can't take a step forward to be what the Orioles need him to be, he might not be worth the money. WARP is more valuable concentrated than it is diluted: one 5-WARP player is more valuable than five 1-WARP players because of the opportunity cost of filling half the lineup with mediocre talent, and WARP valuation doesn't—or shouldn't, at least—increase on a strictly linear scale due to the scarcity of a 5-WARP player when compared to a 1-WARP player. It would be unreasonable to expect Jones to take a hometown discount, and should an extension be completed, fans shouldn't view a slight overpay in dollars as a bad thing so long as it's not heavily backloaded. If the Orioles are going to compete, and especially if they're going to compete for more than one flash-in-the-pan season, they're going to need a solid core. Buying out Jones' last year of arbitration and all the years up until he's 31 could prove to be a very sound investment even if he's only an .800 OPS hitter in center.

One name not mentioned so far: Nolan Reimold. He's had a scorching hot April, but Reimold has been very prone to injury (he's already day-to-day with neck spasms) and very streaky; he wasn't very good at all last year for entire stretches of the season down at Triple-A Norfolk. He's also 28 years old, two years older than Jones, and plays left field instead of center. Reimold is the guy the Orioles should be trading, and not even because he's fool’s gold. He has very legitimate power and speed along with excellent discipline, but the Orioles need trade chips more than ever this year, and Mark Reynolds certainly doesn't look up to the task.

If Reimold, Robert Andino, and Jason Hammel are even 70 percent as impressive at the All-Star Break as they are right now (which is functionally impossible for Reimold, very unlikely for Andino, and who knows about Hammel, whose peripherals have returned to pre-2010 numbers for the time being), they'll be very intriguing pieces—and the same is true of practically every member of the bullpen not named Pedro Strop. None of those guys are core players.

A surefire top-10, likely top-five offensive center fielder entering his prime is a core player. If Adam Jones shows the league that he's arrived this season, the Orioles need to show the league that they're committed to keeping him.

Related Content:  Baltimore Orioles,  Orioles,  Adam Jones,  Extensions

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