A Plan for the 2017 Orioles

head shots of dan duquette with orioles manager

Happy Holidays, Orioles fans!  It hasn’t exactly been an exciting offseason as the Winter Meetings have come and gone and we have entered the deep freeze before things pick back up in January. There’s slim pickings left in what was a poor free agent market to begin with, with few useful pieces still out there (not Mark Trumbo) and the Orioles don’t exactly have a large inventory to make any deals.

However, it’s not all bad news – the team still has a core of Manny Machado, Chris Davis and Adam Jones and filled one of its holes by signing Welington Castillo to replace free agent catcher Matt Wieters. The two Rule 5 picks that Duquette made also look to be intriguing with Aneury Tavarez being the most likely to stick with the team.

Holes remain however, and the team needs to fill them before Opening Day. The Orioles actually did a few things I had recommended last offseason including reuniting with Chris Davis, a move that many fans now regret, but I think it is still a solid deal.

So here’s what I would recommend the team do with the time left in this offseason:

 

Trade Britton or Brach for an OF

Either Zach Britton or Brad Brach are expendable this offseason to find the elusive corner outfielder that will finally fill the slot occupied previously by Nick Markakis for nine seasons. Under Duquette, the Orioles have been rather successful at finding cheap bullpen solutions and knowing when to jettison relievers, an example being when they traded Jim Johnson to Oakland.

Britton is projected to make over $11 million in 2017 according to MLBTradeRumors and will certainly earn more than that in 2018, his walk year. He won’t repeat his perfect season so he’s truly at peak value. Brach is also likely at peak value, and there’s a bit of worry he was overused last season as he faded somewhat down the stretch. Putting him in a closer role would likely lessen his innings and better preserve his arm rather than having him appear in 71 games like he did last season. It would also increase his trade value.

There are plenty of teams that could use Brach or Britton but the ones that stand out the most are the Rockies, Mets and Pirates.  All of those teams have outfield depth that they could trade and are looking for pitching help.

Rockies

The Rockies have Carlos Gonzalez, Charlie Blackmon, David Dahl and Gerardo Parra and also have Ian Desmond as a square peg in a round hole at first base. They clearly need to do something. Although they love (and won’t get) Kevin Gausman, Brach or Britton would be a perfect fit for the suddenly aggressive Rockies who are looking for pitching while one of their outfielders not named Parra would be a nice fit for the Orioles in right field. Gonzalez has been linked to the Orioles for a few years now, so this could be the offseason a trade happens, although the Rockies’ GM says he’s staying.

Mets

The Mets have the same outfield surplus and pitching need, and Curtis Granderson would be a nice fit for the Orioles in right field with his career +22 DRS including +7 DRS last season. The Mets really like Brach, but Granderson on a one-year deal would not be enough of a return, so the Mets would either have to pay a large portion of Granderson’s contract or more likely part with a prospect in addition to Granderson. I’m sure the Orioles would also love 23-year-old Michael Conforto as a return for Brach, but Granderson is likely more available. The Orioles should stay away from Jay Bruce who had a big decline defensively with a -11 DRS in right field for the Reds and Mets in 2016.

Pirates

The Pirates have been trying to trade their franchise cornerstone, Andrew McCutchen, after his disappointing season in 2016. McCutchen can no longer play centerfield adequately (-28 DRS in 2016) and needs to be moved to a corner outfield spot. The Orioles would be a good landing spot for him and he’s still got the skills to be a solid hitter in the lineup – especially in the number two spot. While he isn’t a left-handed hitter which the Orioles prefer, his career .366 wOBA and 134 wRC+ show he’s more than adequate against right handed pitching and he has a career .407 wOBA and 161 wRC+ against left-handed pitching, a major weakness for the Orioles in 2016.

Brach won’t be enough to land McCutchen, so the Orioles may have to sweeten the deal and add a prospect or two.  I’m not sure the Pirates would have as much interest in Britton as his salary will only continue to rise and they prefer cheaper arms.

With the Pirates, Mets and Rockies all needing to make a trad – despite what their front offices are saying – the Orioles should be able to match up with one of them to fill their corner outfield spot and check off a major item on their to-do list.

 

Sign D.Jennings

Desmond Jennings was supposed to be the heir to Carl Crawford for the Rays, but he hasn’t been able to stay healthy or perform well enough against right handed pitching to become a regular the last few seasons. However, his stock really crashed in 2016 when the Rays released him in late August.

He still hits left handed pitching pretty well with a career 120 wRC+ and .342 wOBA and he exhibits patience at the plate, with a career 23.8% O-Swing% according to Fangraphs.

Jennings has also been a solid defender in the outfield with a career +21 DRS in left field, which is where he would see most of his playing time in the field in a platoon with Hyun Soo Kim.

He can play centerfield and right field as well which makes him a great fit as a 4th outfielder when Kim is in the lineup. Joey Rickard (-8 DRS) was not a good defender in either corner, so Jennings is an upgrade defensively.

Considering he was released before the season ended, the Orioles could probably sign Jennings for around $1-2 million and keeping him as a 4th outfielder, he should be able to stay healthier than if he played every day. Jennings would also be a cheaper and better signing than a 36-year-old Rajai Davis, who the Orioles appear to be interested in.

 

Sign B.Logan

Normally I’m not a fan of signing expensive relievers, but I’m certainly not sold on Donnie Hart, and Boone Logan was much better against right-handed hitters (.211 BA, .759 OPS) than Hart (.292 BA, .780 OPS) in 2016.

Logan isn’t going to come cheap, but the Orioles rely heavily on their bullpen so they need to pay the price to obtain him.  I think they could get him for a 3 year/$18-21 million contract, certainly not ideal, but necessary for the Orioles to continue to use their bullpen to close down games starting in the 6th inning.

 

Re-sign Alvarez

This was a move I didn’t really anticipate at the beginning of the offseason, but the Orioles’ lineup and what is left on the market pretty much dictate that the Orioles should bring back Pedro Alvarez.

Unlike Trumbo, besides hitting for power, Alvarez did show some patience at the plate in 2016 with a 9.9% BB rate and he saw 4.13 pitches per plate appearance. Alvarez really should have had the majority of playing time at DH down the stretch as he had a .367 wOBA and a 130 wRC+ in the second half of the season, but Trumbo’s terrible defense forced Alvarez to be on the bench quite often as he only started about 15 games a month.

There would be no Trumbo this time, so Alvarez would see all of the time at DH against right handed pitching in 2017, maximizing his offensive contributions.

Trey Mancini would be a solid DH against left-handed pitching, but the Orioles might trade him in a deal for an outfielder and they need another lefty bat in their lineup to face right handed pitching so Alvarez is a good fit on another 1 year deal at $4-5 M.

 

Extend Tillman

Out of all the Orioles to extend before the season, Chris Tillman is the most important.

Why?

After looking at all the options that might be available in free agency for the Orioles to realistically sign after 2017, Tillman is right there at the top.

Besides the fact he’s a free agent after 2017, the Orioles don’t have a pitcher ready to step to replace him and they only have Gausman slotted in the rotation for 2018. Hunter Harvey and Dylan Bundy certainly can’t be relied upon to pitch 180-200 innings in 2018 or beyond and are likely future bullpen arms if they have any success in MLB long-term.

If the Orioles are to contend beyond 2017, they need Tillman in their rotation to do so. Even in a rebuild mode, Tillman would be needed as a mentor and to eat innings and could still have value when the Orioles returned to contention.

We know Peter Angelos does not like spending a lot of money on starting pitching. He let Mike Mussina walk back in 2000 for that very reason. However, in the past few years he’s been more likely to grant extensions to those players who are cornerstones of the team, and Tillman is just that for the Orioles.

On the open market, Tillman would likely get $18-20 million per season so let’s say he takes a bit of a discount to sign with the Orioles and takes that lower number in the range as an average value. The Orioles could lock up Tillman before his final arbitration and make sure they have him and Gausman at the top of the rotation for the next several years with a 6-year/$108 million deal.

 

Take advantage of the poor SP market

There is a whole list of starting pitchers that have been left out the in cold this winter, and they aren’t all going to find major league deals by Spring Training so the Orioles should be able to get some important starting pitching depth for a good value.

Minor league deals with opt-outs have been normal for years for this team so I’d suspect that they would take advantage once again for somebody like C.J. Wilson or Kris Medlen if they can’t find a major league deal.

 

2017 Lineup and Bench

With those moves above the Orioles’ regular lineup and bench would look like this:

LF Kim

RF (acquired by trade)

3B Machado

1B Davis

CF Jones

DH Alvarez

SS Hardy

C Castillo

2B Schoop

Bench:  UT Flaherty, C Joseph, OF Jennings, OF Tavarez,

With Alvarez needing to head to the bench against left-handed pitching and Tavarez, another lefty hitter taking up a spot on the bench as a Rule 5 pick, the Orioles will have to get creative with the DH situation against lefties. They could DH Castillo (career .362 wOBA, 126 wRC+ vs. LHP) with Joseph playing catcher or pick one of Kim or Jennings to DH with the other in the outfield.

 

2017 Rotation and Bullpen

Now let’s look at the rotation and bullpen:

Rotation:

SP Tillman

SP Gausman

SP Jimenez

SP Miley

SP Gallardo

Bullpen:

LR Wright/Wilson/McFarland

MR Verrett

MR Bundy

MR Givens

SU O’Day

SU Logan

CL Britton/Brach

Yes, the rotation is full of mediocre starters, but the bullpen is solid once again and strengthened with Bundy in there as he’s more suited to relief with his mechanics. Logan gives the Orioles a major weapon against the dangerous left-handed hitters in the American League and you won’t have to take him out necessarily if a right-handed hitter is at the plate.

Either Britton or Brach could shut the door for the Orioles in 2017.

 

Final Thoughts

The biggest and best move the Orioles can make now is to fill their right field hole with a trade while all of the other moves would be minor in comparison. That right fielder would be a major cornerstone in the lineup and on the field.

The parts and pieces are all there to make another playoff run in 2017 and these moves give the Orioles a better team overall than they had in 2016. If not, there’s still plenty of value to trade in July to rebuild/re-tool the team for another run in 2018 and beyond, with Manny Machado being the most likely to go and bring a wealth of talent in return.

It’s too early to think that way though, and considering that 2016 team was good enough to win a Wild Card slot and almost win the division, this one should be hopefully be able to go even further and win a World Series.

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