Over at BaseballNation (a site I’ve been linking to a lot lately), Grant Brisbee wrote an article today, entitled, “The Most Baffling Offseason in Baseball.” The piece, using Clay Davenport’s 2014 standings projections as inspiration, discussed (as you may have guessed) which team had the most disappointing offseason. Grant picked the Reds, and I don’t disagree that their offseason has been inexplicably quiet — after all, their biggest acquisitions have been Skip Schumaker and Brayan Pena. But I would argue that one contending team has fared even worse over the past four months; the Baltimore Orioles.
Back in the 1990s, under the same Peter Angelos-led ownership group as they have today, the Orioles were among the most active teams in baseball during the offseason. The team was not only competitive on the field, making the ALCS in back-to-back years and finishing over .500 5 times in the decade, but also competitive in the free-agent market; their payrolls from 1994 to 1998 consistently ranked in the top 10 in baseball. In 1996 and 1997, the Orioles ranked second in payroll, behind only the Yankees. In 1998, they surpassed the Yankees with a payroll that surpassed $70 million for the first time in major league history. Over the next several years, the Orioles’ spending failed to keep pace with the rest of the league, but they remained players for major free agents, signing superstar free agents like Albert Belle and Miguel Tejada to superstar contracts. The teams weren’t good (they finished under .500 every year from 1998 to 2011), but it wasn’t for lack of spending.
Fast-forward to 2013. Coming off their first postseason berth in 15 years, the Orioles stood pat in the 2012 offseason, and while the team’s Pythagorean record improved from 2012 to 2013, the 2013 Orioles could not repeat the one-run magic of the previous year. The team’s actual record dropped from 93-69 to 85-77, and they dropped in the AL East standings from second to a tie for third, 6.5 games behind the Wild Card-winning Rays.
And yet, the Orioles laid dormant this offseason as the other teams in baseball, and in their own division, have made improvements. Their biggest move this offseason was trading incumbent closer Jim Johnson, and his $10 million salary, to the A’s for Jemile Weeks, a 27-year old second baseman with a career 0.7 bWAR. Apart from that move (which arguably made them a worse team), they have made moves to acquire not-so-big-time names like David Lough, Ryan Webb, Xavier Paul, and (gasp!) Delmon Young, and while none of these moves is likely to hurt the team, they are equally as unlikely to make it vastly better. They signed closer Grant Balfour to replace Johnson, only to void his deal due to injury concerns (concerns which to this point, have been unsubstantiated), and watch as Balfour left for a division rival. The team’s payroll is currently estimated by Baseball-Reference to be at $82.8 million, around 20th in the league. By comparison, the Indians’ payroll is projected at $82.7 million, despite lagging behind the Orioles in revenue, market size, and attendance. Perhaps more shockingly, the Orioles’ payroll is only $12 million more than it was in 1998, even though players currently make triple what they made 15 years ago. And in Davenport’s projections, the Orioles are projected to finish 77-85; dead last in the AL East.
To be fair, the Orioles have a great deal of talent on the roster. To call Chris Davis’ 2013 a breakout season would be an understatement — the 27-year old first baseman, who previously had all of 77 major league home runs to his credit, socked 53 this year to lead the league and set a new franchise record. 20-year old Manny Machado, in his first full season in the big leagues, became inarguably the best defensive third baseman in the sport, and provided more than enough punch with his bat (including a league-high 51 doubles) to become one of the most valuable players in baseball. What JJ Hardy and Adam Jones lacked in on-base skills, they more than made up for by leading their respective positions in home runs. The core talent is present.
But what the Orioles lack is complimentary pieces to fill out the roster around the talent they currently have. Dave Cameron of FanGraphs described it as a “Stars and Scrubs” problem; their roster is filled with stars, but has too many “scrubs” who are likely to contribute little to nothing. Here is the Orioles’ depth chart, also courtesy of FanGraphs:
The team, as currently constructed, has black holes at second base, designated hitter, left field and right field. And while their rotation is deep, it lacks frontline talent, and could use another veteran starter to take the burden off Kevin Gausman, who flashed excellent stuff but struggled in limited big league duty in 2013. The Orioles were never serious players for the top free agents, the Shin-Soo Choos and Masahiro Tanakas of the world, nor should they have been. But a team of stars needs to be surrounded with competent players, and the Orioles have watched silently as players like Mark Ellis, Marlon Byrd, and Matt Garza, players that could’ve been very useful additions, signed reasonable contracts elsewhere.
All is not lost for Baltimore. Even this late in the offseason, talent is still available. The Orioles could still make a move for Nelson Cruz, Kendrys Morales, or Ervin Santana, especially if their price tags continue to drop (Santana, once asking for $112 million, now hopes to get $60 million, and seems unlikely to receive that). But if the Orioles fail to act, they could find themselves in a place they became quite accustomed to in the previous decade — the cellar.