The Baltimore Orioles have been quiet this winter. Some think too quiet.
However, unlike the silence that preceded Josh Hamilton’s signing in Orange County or the days-late reporting that tried to catch up to Alex Anthopoulos, Sandy Alderson, and the R.A. Dickey deal (a breakdown of the timeline on the blockbuster trade between the Mets and the Blue Jays reveals that they had already agreed in principle to a deal to send the ace to Toronto by the time he made his fateful holiday party comments), it’s highly unlikely there’s anything brewing in the warehouse on Eutaw Street about to spring out and surprise the baseball world. That’s not quite Dan Duquette’s style.
To date, his iteration of the Baltimore Orioles front office hasn’t really gone in for big signings or big trades or big … anything, really. The biggest impact signing Baltimore made last offseason was bringing Taiwanese starter Wei-Yin Chen over from Nippon Professional Baseball, and while there’s certainly value in what he provided -- guys who can throw slightly fewer than 200 innings of slightly better than average starting pitching end up making over $12 million a year when they hit free agency in the current market -- he’s not the kind of impact pitcher, say, Yu Darvish of the Texas Rangers could end up being. And that’s understandable, considering Texas’s total investment in Darvish cost about ten times as much as Baltimore’s in Chen.
This offseason, though, there hasn’t even been a Wei-Yin Chen signing for the Orioles. They’ve re-signed reclamation project outfielder Nate McLouth for a couple million dollars, made some minor league moves and that’s just about it. From time to time they’ve been linked to this or that free agent or trade candidate by the national writers, likely often as a stalking horse for one side or the other in ongoing negotiations as a legitimate, interested party, but nothing serious has materialized. Nor should it: the Orioles, the new CBA and the current market have intersected at such a unique angle that Baltimore’s current inactivity is the best of many bad options.
The first thing to recognize is that in any sane world the 2013 Orioles are not a playoff team, nor are they a few pieces away from being a playoff team. This comes with the weighty caveat that we live in a decidedly insane world: The same one that gave us the 2012 Orioles. Still, that particular bolt of lightning is unlikely to strike again. Baltimore’s run to the divisional series last year was miraculous, yes, but in baseball “miraculous” is just another word for “unsustainable.” On paper right now, they’re a team that should be fighting for fourth place, with the qualifier that the difference between the haves and the have-nots in the 2013 AL East should be the smallest in recent memory.
However, there is a certain amount of help on the way. Shortstop Manny Machado and pitcher Dylan Bundy, and to a slightly lesser extent last year’s first-round pick out of LSU Kevin Gausman, are all high-upside impact prospects who should make their presence fully felt in the majors beginning in 2014. The downside is that after those three guys, Baltimore doesn’t have much of a system to talk about -- they form a very elite tier, and the guy at the top of the tier below them, infielder Jonathan Schoop, will probably fall off of most Top 100 prospect lists when they’re released this spring. L.J. Hoes could be a decent contributor in leftfield, Xavier Avery could turn into a nifty fourth outfielder. After that, it’s a bunch of guys a while from the majors, and guys who probably don’t have a future there at all.
If Machado, Bundy, and Gausman are for real -- and there’s no reason to proceed as if at least the first two of them aren’t -- then the 2014 Orioles start to look pretty good just with the guys already projected to be on the team, assuming that Baltimore does the right thing and extends Matt Wieters. Wei-Yin Chen is a much more attractive piece when he’s not the staff ace, there still might be some life left in the Jake Arrieta-as-a-starter dream, and Chris Tillman had a very encouraging year and should still be under control through any window that’s opening up for Baltimore. There’s no clear idea of what to expect from Miguel Gonzalez and Jason Hammel moving forward; both guys came out of nowhere to pitch unexpectedly well in not that many innings, which is the Triple Crown of starter regression warning signs, but that’s one of those good problems to have. Adam Jones will still be on the team, as will Nick Markakis until at least 2015, and one expects that Baltimore will make the commitment necessary to keep him in town.
The big question then is, looking at the free agents available, is there anyone worth signing that makes the team unquestionably better not just in 2013, but in 2014 and beyond? In other words, no guys like Adam LaRoche (still available) or Lance Berkman (who signed for $10 million on a one year deal with Texas; if he’s good and available, next year is the time to give him a deal like that and see what happens). Josh Hamilton and Zack Greinke were right out too, considering the gathering storm of financial clout out west. Let those guys spend this offseason and hope against hope that they’ve tightened their belts a bit by the time next winter rolls around.
Shaun Marcum is a guy that falls into this category for Baltimore, though the lack of interest in him in general leads one to think his medical problems are worse than expected. He’s not young, but he’s not old either (he turned 31 last December), and he will probably end up having to settle for a three year deal or so. The draft is weak enough this year and Baltimore’s pick is late enough that it would be worth surrendering for the right player, but Kyle Lohse is not that player.
Nick Swisher might have been worth it, but he’s a Cleveland Indian now. The market for hitters is otherwise very thin. Any real upgrade at a position of need -- third base, first base, and left field -- would have to be made through a trade, which seems infeasible because of the state of the Orioles system: three guys who are too valuable to go in a deal for anyone short of Giancarlo Stanton, and otherwise a group of somewhat unattractive prospects.
So instead, treat 2013 as Nolan Reimold’s last audition for a big league job in Baltimore. Reimold’s 2012 ended with injury after 69 plate appearances where he destroyed everything in the strikezone and some stuff outside of it (he hit a moonshot in extras to send the White Sox that was both significantly up and away), and health is probably the reason he won’t have a career as a major league regular. Still, he deserves one more go at it.
And while 2013 goes by however it does -- I think the team tops out around 76 wins, more likely something between 70 and 72, but I’ve been wrong about them before -- Orioles fans should hope the team saves its money and remember that Baltimore needs a starting second baseman more than anything.
I hear there’s this pivot guy up in New York who might test the market next winter.