Orioles Think Tank

Orioles Coverage for the Information Age

A Surprisingly Optimistic Off-Season Recap

Posted by Mike on February 27, 2006

The Hardball Times recently published an article by Ben Jacobs that began a series recapping and ranking the off-season (mis)adventures of every major league team. He started with the bottom third of his rankings and, surprise, the Orioles check in at #23. Below is his take on what the black and orange brass accomplished this off-season:

The first problem for the Orioles is that they lost their best reliever when B.J. Ryan signed with the Blue Jays. Baltimore had a below average 4.10 ERA from its bullpen last year, and losing Ryan’s 2.43 ERA in 70-plus innings won’t help that.The next problem is that the free agent signings were not good. Giving Jeff Conine $1.7 million wasn’t a stroke of genius, but it wasn’t terrible either because although he’s 39 years old, he’s been at least an average hitter for the last seven seasons. He can certainly be useful.The same probably can’t be said for Kevin Millar. He’s 34 years old and he’s coming off the worst offensive season of his career. I know he’s got a good reputation in the clubhouse, but he doesn’t hit well enough for first base and he’s not a great defender to make up for that. If he’s just a pinch-hitter/backup/fourth outfielder, that’s OK, but he figures to get a lot of time at first this year.The big free agent signing for Baltimore was $27.5 million over four years for Ramon Hernandez. That’s a fine deal for a catcher of his ability, as he’s been a solid hitter the last three years at a position that’s low on solid hitters. The problem is that they already paid the catcher premium for Javy Lopez. Now they’re going to be paying a lot of money every day for either a backup catcher or a subpar DH, since neither of them is likely to put up an OPS+ above 110 or so (if even that high).The trades for LaTroy Hawkins and Corey Patterson are both low risk, since the Orioles didn’t give up much (Steve Kline for Hawkins and Nate Spears and Carlos Perez for Patterson), but they’re also low reward, since neither Hawkins nor Patterson are actually any good. At least Hawkins has had a three-year stretch in which he was a good pitcher, but he wasn’t even close to that level last year. The other piece to the offseason (trading Jorge Julio and John Maine for Kris Benson) is a solid deal because Benson can give the Orioles a lot of decent innings, while Julio is maddeningly inconsistent and Maine hasn’t been able to live up to the potential he showed a couple years ago.But really, the only thing I could get excited about were I an Orioles fan would be the signing of Leo Mazzone as pitching coach, but I don’t think even the great Leo can make the Orioles (who were 10th with a 4.56 ERA last year) a top five pitching team with the talent they have. The best they can probably hope for is middle of the pack pitching-wise.

Despite spending the increasingly disturbing amount of time necessary to maintain an Orioles website, I’m not often accused of being an Orioles apologist. But I do take exception to this particular interpretation of the Orioles’ off-season moves. I’m a long-time reader of THT and am familiar with a lot of the quality writing that Jacobs has done in the past, so I don’t mean this as an indictment of either, but let’s review each of his points. You’re free to decide the merits of both arguments.

First, it’s no secret that losing B.J. Ryan to free agency is going to hurt our bullpen, but to count losing him as a strike against the Orioles’ off-season seems harsh. In fact, I’d take the opposite approach. Had the Orioles been able to hang onto Ryan for anywhere near his final signing price in Toronto, they’d be committing roughly 1/6th of their total team payroll to a pitcher that would be counted on for 70 or so innings a year. The point is not that Ryan isn’t worth that kind of money- although, as an aside, he isn’t- it’s that the Orioles are not within the stone’s throw of contention that is the only logical catalyst for paying exorbitant amounts for an elite 70 inning pitcher. Not signing him actually leaves open the payroll flexibility to pick up the bigger pieces needed to take steps forward in 2007 and beyond. This is without even mentioning the inherent danger of citing ERA as an indicator of bullpen effectiveness.

In addition, the Orioles have hedged their bets with a series of smaller moves that should provide the bullpen with decent depth- again, without decreasing future payroll flexibility. I’m not implying that the 2006 pen is going to look anything like some recent Twins or Angels bullpens, but the likes of Chris Ray, LaTroy Hawkins, Todd Williams, as well as the depth provided by NRI’s like Sendy Rleal, Jim Brower, Franklyn Gracesqui, Orber Moreno, Ricky Bottalico, Scott Rice and others should be enough to keep it from standing out as the weak link on a decidedly average ballclub.

Jacobs’ next two points are more related than you might think. He is basically arguing that the two over-the-hill one-year-rentals are, at best, useful. No argument there. I would nitpick at his seemingly reversed optimism about Conine and pessimism about Millar, though. As is evidenced by the projection chart in my last post, so would Marcel, DiPS, and PECOTA. Either way, these one year contracts are a great way to bridge to the seasons beyond 2006 without compromising the development of some of the Orioles more exciting prospects. I’d sure rather watch Jeff Conine slug .380 in the major leagues than a not-yet-ready Nick Markakis, and that could very well be the situation that the Orioles are protecting against. Again, what these moves come down to are trying to put together a .500 team en route to competing in 2007 and beyond. One more point, and Jacobs could not have known this in time for his article, but the minor league contract recently given to Richard Hidalgo only makes these signings more redundant. Of course, I’ve already made my opinions known about this.

Next up is the Ramon Hernandez signing. Again, I see the argument popping up that it’s a redundant signing. Fair enough, but Javy Lopez is a poor defensive catcher who is 35 and getting increasingly fragile behind the plate. I have my own reservations about the signing, but minimizing Javy’s value to the Orioles in 2006 is not chief among them. I understand that a startlingly lucrative buyer’s market has made this nearly impossible, but I can’t help shaking the feeling that the O’s could get something useful from the new Dodger regime in exchange for Lopez. That would at least void some of the criticism of this deal. After that, all we’d have to worry about is the decreasingly effective 1400 or so plate appearances we can expect out of Hernandez over the next four years.

Jacobs’ final points are not really knocking the Orioles that much. I agree that Corey Patterson is far from a good player at this point. But, however unrealized it may be, Patterson still has enough of an upside as a 26 year old to make trading two A-ball prospects for him a worthwhile gamble for a non-contender. And it’s not like forcing Luis Matos to his natural position as a 4th OF’er is going to have massive repercussions for future Oriole teams. Concerning the Benson trade, Jacobs acknowledges that there’s little not to like. It won’t have the impact in the win column that signing A.J. Burnett would have, but it’s not going to hamper the Orioles’ chance to contend in the future nearly as much if he implodes, either.

Finally, this snippet ends on an obviously positive note- Leo Mazzone. Last year, the Orioles were 5.3% below average in the AL in run prevention and 5.6% below average in run production. While this couldn’t have been said of the aging core of the 2005 offense, the pitching staff will likely improve merely by being another year older. Adding Mazzone to further help out the development of pitchers like Daniel Cabrera, Erik Bedard, and Chris Ray should be enough on its own to make the Orioles worth watching in 2006.

In conclusion, let’s just say the O’s went wild and signed both Burnett and Konerko this off-season. That probably adds about 6-7 wins to the current roster and, albeit by a much closer margin, results in another fourth place finish in the very tough AL East. The Orioles need fundamental changes in their team construction and, at this point, a high-priced free agent or two is not going to push them over the top. Despite the Hernandez signing and the Konerko offer, Flanagan has seemingly started the process of building fom within towards contention. By not overpaying for a decidedly mediocre free agent pool and blocking several of the more promising young players in the organization, the Orioles should be in a better spot to see who shakes out in 2006 and build around a promising core next off-season. From there, of course, the Orioles will again have to decide just how close they are to contending and spend accordingly. If nothing else I’m saying leaves you impressed with the 2005-06 off-season, you better believe that it has left the Orioles with enough roster and payroll flexibility to build a contender in the near future. Making the right signings might be the tricky part, but not making the wrong signings is an important, if often overlooked, first step.

If I’m placing a bet, I expect the O’s to rank a lot better than 23rd on lists like these after next off-season.

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8 Responses to “A Surprisingly Optimistic Off-Season Recap”

  1. Eddie said

    Nice rebuttal. I don’t take it as a apologist commentary at all. What is strange to me is that oftentimes when media “experts” offers their analysis of a team, they often strike me as extremely short-sighted, both into the past and future. Yes, the ultimate goal is winning a World Series, but they usually fail to account how a team’s moves today are inflected by mistakes in the past, and, a desire to not repeat those mistakes.

    For instance, I love hearing expert opinions of the Brewers in recent years. If you were to look at only their MLB acquisitions, they wouldn’t impress that many folks. From time to time, they have done the stopgap signing like us too. Though look at them today, having not rushed their prospects, they look to be on the brink of graduating a ton of exciting young prospects, some of the best in baseball, to add to their already good young core. In recent seasons, if you were to judge them solely on the basis of their ML signings, you would have only gotten half the picture. It makes no sense to me that these experts routinely ignore those circumstances with the Os.

    The Os still have a ways to go to attain a similar level of farm but they are headed in the right direction. Consider that only a few years ago the Os were fighting for dead last among baseball farms. Today they are placed solidly in the second tier of systems (according to BA #13). Many of the teams they were fighting for the dead last distinction are still there. The Os deserve some credit there, don’t they? Or, would the experts really have us believe that we, Os fans, believe that Conine, Millar, Patterson are pieces toward a World Series championship as they are assessing it to be?

  2. Mike said

    Good points Eddie.

    Ben Jacobs is a good writer and I’d encourage you to keep reading his stuff, but I sort of just used his article as a generalization of criticisms I keep hearing about the O’s. In my mind, this was a successful off-season. Maybe my standards are too low. But I do see a marquee free agent class on the horizon and some young players trying to establish themselves, so this would not be a great time to load up on bad contracts.

  3. Mike said

    This post has been removed by the author.

  4. Mike said

    I deleted my last comment beacuse it was pretty unclear what I was trying to say.

    Corey Patterson has a chance to be an above-average major league player. Not a great chance, but a chance nonetheless. Anytime a team is in a situation where they don’t have to rely on above-average production right away from a player like that, it’s worth it to give up two fringe prospects for him. That is what separates him from Millar and Conine, the chance that he could be a part of the next Orioles contender.

  5. Steve-o-matic said

    Nice article. I have trouble believing there were 22 teams with a “less bad” offseason than us.

  6. Anonymous said

    I wholly agree with this statement: The Orioles need fundamental changes in their team construction and, at this point, a high-priced free agent or two is not going to push them over the top. Despite the Hernandez signing and the Konerko offer, Flanagan has seemingly started the process of building fom within towards contention.

    You are certainly correct in pointing out the flaw is the direction of the organization, but I don’t really think the direction has changed all that much. We still massive long term holes at first and third. The plus about signing Hernandez is that he is a long term solution that should at least be tenable. Given the improved farm, our OF should be OK. Our pitching staff could be dominant or it could all flame out. In all fairness, the improvement of the farm system is a wonderful long overdue sign of hope. But how much credit can be laid at Flanny’s feet? (Jordan? DeMacio? Beattie? the player development directors? dumb luck?)

    So, despite having issues with pitching depth and power issues, Flanny opts to acquire Kris Benson, Kevin Millar and Jeff Conine? I know Benson was acquired for a bag of balls and the Conine and Millar deals were one year in length, but I’m more concerned over the opportunity costs of this off-season. The Orioles could have improved themselves by acquiring players like Choi and LeCroy, guys who have value and could be a part of competitive Oriole team, rather than stopgaps. Given the Orioles history, stopgaps seem to last a long time (cough, BJ Surhoff). Even more disturbingly, he offered tons of cash to Konerko which tells us that he didn’t even look up or consider Konerko’s age and ridiculous home/away splits. Do you trust him to make the right signings next year? I don’t…

    – Sorry for the rant!

  7. Eddie said

    I agree that we should consider how much of the farm’s improvement is due to Flanny. Personally, I think there should be some significant amount due their way. Before Beattie-Flanagan took over, the FO was known around the league for making impulsive and desperate decisions. Once they took over, we have seen so much restraint that the Os are now regarded as an overly gunshy club. Whatever you believe there, it is a shift. Is this due to Flanagan or Beattie? Not sure. Do you call this a strategy? Well, I don’t think it’s by accident, so I guess “strategy” is as good a term as any other.

    As far as Benson-Millar-Conine type of signings, I guess I just believe that the previous administrations did untold damage that the need to sign these types of players today is an unfortunate indirect result. Signing stopgaps is just a way to maintain flexibility without giving up anything financially or prospect-wise. I like the improvement we’ve seen on the farm. I like the interesting mix of talent at the upper charts of our rankings. Unfortunately, we are still at least a year away from really building up the depth to consider prospects expendable. We did trade away Maine which is a decent value trade, but, trading for a player of any more significance than Benson will require us to give up a lot more than that, and, that would have us pushing back the farm system revival at least one more year depending who it is.

    Everyone wants to complain about how Benson, Millar, and Conine doesn’t get them excited. At the same time, they don’t want to give up their best prospects. Well, we can’t have it both ways. If we want a top tier player like Hudson’s, Dontrelle’s, or Miguel Cabrera’s, then we should expect a significant amount of talent leaving the club. Another point might be that we may have chosen the worst times to need such deep retooling since the last two offseasons have had the most amount of mediocre players going for the highest contracts in recent memory. This upcoming FA crop though looks like to be a gold mine so this time next season the Os may look wise for showing restraint with overhyped mediocre players, only to cash in on certified studs like Mulder.

  8. Mike said

    Good points guys.

    We still massive long term holes at first and third. The plus about signing Hernandez is that he is a long term solution that should at least be tenable.

    I agree that we still have long-term holes at 1st and 3rd and it is a problem that they have not been addressed properly. My point was more an observational of a general organizational shift (that may or may not be happening). Your point is definitely valid, though.

    As for the Ramon Hernandez signing, I don’t like it explicitly because I don’t see it as a long-term solution. There is little chance that he will be a full-time catcher by the time his contract is up, so that makes him either a weak hitting DH or 1B. Even if he manages to pull that feat off, he won’t be worth the money and will be a drag on the payroll exactly when the O’s might be in a position to make a serious push for contention.

    But how much credit can be laid at Flanny’s feet? (Jordan? DeMacio? Beattie? the player development directors? dumb luck?

    Weird, I was just listening to a WBAL interview with Dayn Perry that addressed this very issue. His stance is that you’re never going to know exactly how much credit to give to each individual, but if it happens under a GM’s watch then he must have at least let it happen. That sounds about right to me. So, succeed or fail, I have little problem giving credit to Mike Flanagan.

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