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January 3, 2013

Skewed Left

Has Baltimore Been Busy Enough?

by Zachary Levine

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If the Baltimore Orioles don’t have the best backup infielders in the American League next season, it certainly won’t be for lack of effort.

Of the six moves made with players on the 40-man roster this offseason, one was a Rule 5 pick, one was the re-signing of Nate McLouth, and the four others all involve backup infield types, including getting rid of Robert Andino in favor of a returning Brian Roberts and/or maybe Ryan Flaherty at second base.

That’s it. Here’s the Orioles’ whole offseason as it relates to 40-man spots after their free agents were declared and the team cleared roster space.

Nov. 2: Claimed INF Alexi Casilla off waivers from Minnesota
Nov. 20: Acquired OF Trayvon Robinson from Seattle for INF Robert Andino
Nov. 28: Acquired 3B Danny Valencia from Boston for cash
Nov. 30: Acquired INF Yamaico Navarro from Pittsburgh for minor league-RHP Jhondaniel Medina
Dec. 6: Selected LHP T.J. McFarland in the Rule 5 draft
Dec. 13: Re-signed OF Nate McLouth to a one-year contract

It is arguably even less of an offseason than the Astros and Mets have had. Baseball’s most generally complacent team at the big-league level at least signed a designated hitter and a closer to come to Houston, and while the Mets haven’t signed a free agent to a major-league deal, they have more than carried their weight in trades.

These Orioles are no 100-game losers. This is a team that pushed the Yankees to the final week for the division, took a wild card, won the coin flip game and pushed the same Yankees to five games in the wild card round.

Yet they’ve done nothing to push past their busy division rivals and close a gap that is much more than the sliver that it appeared last year. It’s been well documented that the Orioles were not as good as their 93-69 record indicated, with their runs scored and allowed more in line with figures of an 82-80 team.

There was still no easy road map to improvements. Below are their ranks in some component-based statistics, which actually match up pretty well with their overall runs scored and allowed even though those runs don’t match up well with their record.

Category

Stat

AL rank

AL East rank

Offense TAv

.259

9th

NY, TB, BOS, BAL, TOR

Starters FRA

4.77

8th

TB, NY, BAL, BOS, TOR

Bullpen FRA

3.92

3rd

TB, NY, BAL, TOR, BOS

(By the way, even as we sit exactly three months out from the regular season finale, it seems incomprehensible that the Rays did not make the playoffs. That chart is absolutely not Simpson’s Paradox, but doesn’t it resemble it?)

Anyway, the Orioles have been stagnant, and it sounds from reports out of Baltimore that fans are frustrated at the pace of this offseason. The problem is that their roster and top prospect outlook combined to put them in a poor position to make offseason moves even with a team that looked so close in the final standings.

First of all, the bullpen wasn’t a problem—despite looking at times like it was built on some shaky ground with saves compiler Jim Johnson, the component-based stats were still very good.

The rotation was below the league median standard, but this wasn’t an easy situation to remedy since there is youth and quantity of starting pitching in house. Zack Greinke or Anibal Sanchez would have been upgrades, but somewhere in the jumble of Miguel Gonzalez, Steve Johnson, (holds breath) Brian Matusz and even Jake Arrieta (4.01 FIP in 2012 despite a 6.20 ERA) exists the back end of a major-league starting rotation to go with Jason Hammel, Wei-Yin Chen and Chris Tillman.

It’s not a very good rotation, though, unless the back-end players age toward the top end of their projection spectrum. With the market price of pitching, the difference between what the Orioles would be getting and their team-specific in-house replacement level might not justify a big contract, and Brett Myers and Francisco Liriano, for instance, might not have even been upgrades. And a multi-year deal for, say, the still available Kyle Lohse or Shaun Marcum at a couple of in-between levels really wouldn’t help if you think Kevin Gausman and Dylan Bundy will be in the rotation in the next year or two.

Absent a big commitment to a starting pitcher, there was one important place for the Orioles to go shopping, and they haven’t done it. If Baltimore came up short anywhere, it was at the lowest end of the defensive spectrum. They’re fine up the middle if you’re satisfied with the second base arrangement, they’re set in right field with Nick Markakis and at third base with Manny Machado biding his time until J.J. Hardy’s contract expires, but filling the bottom three defensive positions with Nolan Reimold/McLouth, Chris Davis, and Wilson Betemit would be unfortunate. It’s just not a very fun neighborhood to go shopping in the 2012-13 offseason.

If they’re not done, reasonable Orioles targets would include Adam LaRoche or his contingent Nationals first base replacement Michael Morse and…. umm… umm… Lance Berkman? Delmon Young? Maybe an Arizona corner outfielder in the trade market and then get creative?

In free agency the O’s largely missed out on what was an extremely shallow crop of players in the area of most need, big bats with little regard for defensive value—Josh Hamilton, Mike Napoli, David Ortiz in name only, Cody Ross, a left-field incarnation of Nick Swisher. Given that their draft pick falls in the unprotected portion of the first round, some of those names were dicey anyway.

If there’s one thing to fault the Orioles for this offseason, it’s not jumping into that pool where replacement level in Baltimore really is somewhat frightening and help is not as obviously on the way.

So for now, as largely the same team as last year in the midst of a nearly silent offseason, Baltimore is left in a familiar place. At least Vegas thinks so. Or more accurately, Vegas thinks you think so:

Odds to win 2013 World Series (Source: Bovada.lv)
Blue Jays: 15-2
Yankees: 15-1
Rays: 22-1
Red Sox: 25-1
Orioles: 40-1

Note: solutions to last week's acrostic puzzle are available here.

Zachary Levine is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Zachary's other articles. You can contact Zachary by clicking here

Related Content:  Baltimore Orioles,  Orioles,  Free Agents,  Offseason

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