Ten Bold Predictions for the Orioles in 2014

Opening Day is only a day away now, and that means it’s time to look at the upcoming season for the Orioles and offer some bold predictions – in bold:

1.  Manny Machado won’t return to the Orioles until May. 

This was pretty much my thoughts all along after his injury.    The Orioles aren’t going to mess around with a franchise player so expect him to get some ABs in extending spring training and then work his way through a rehab tour of the minors.   I also figured the Orioles needed somebody to play 3B on a regular basis for the month Machado is out.  They got Alex Gonzalez, but flipped him to Detroit for utility player Steve Lombardozzi.  Also Jonathan Schoop made the roster and figures to get some time in at 3B and 2B.   Which leads me to my next prediction…

2. We will see the 3B and SS combo of Jonathan Schoop and Manny Machado for the first of many seasons beginning in 2014.

J.J. Hardy has been healthy for 2 straight seasons and is entering his age 31 season.  Something is going to give here, and I suspect that Hardy will find his way on the DL as some point which will force Machado over to SS.  Also if Schoop’s future was at 2B,  Showalter would never play him at 3B IMO.    Schoop at 3B and Machado at SS is very likely the plan moving forward.

3.  Tommy Hunter will lose the closer role by May. 

This one could get ugly, as in Chris Ray ugly.  Hunter serves up a lot of HRs and that hasn’t changed this spring.   I doubt Showalter has as much loyalty to Hunter as he does with Johnson, and I think O’Day, Webb or even Britton could get the next chance.  Britton as a closer would certainly be an interesting storyline…

4.  Johan Santana will be in the Orioles’ rotation by June.

Santana’s recovery is coming along sooner than expected, and he’s planning on starting, not relieving.  I suspect the Orioles will move one of Norris or Gonzalez to the bullpen when the time comes, but a healthy Santana could be the X-factor in the AL East race.

5.  David Lough will play his way onto the bench by July.

Look we know that Showalter loves defense, but Lough’s offensive  numbers simply aren’t there.  He’s exciting when he hits the ball, but he doesn’t get on base enough, nor has the power to carry a low OBP.  I suspect that Lough will wind up with a sub .700 OPS playing everyday vs. RHP and the change will be made one way or another as the Orioles could acquire an OFer at the deadline or just move Cruz out there full time.  Lough will be valuable as a defensive replacement and pinch runner down the stretch, but not as a full time guy vs. RHP.

6.  Ubaldo Jimenez will emerge as the ace of the Orioles over Chris Tillman by the All-Star Break. 

I know Tillman is the Opening Day starter, but I suspect that is because he’s the known pitcher on the team.  His numbers put him in more of a #2 status and I suspect Jimenez will emerge as the dominant ace, especially working with Dave Wallace.   He showed what he could do to carry a team in the second half of 2013, leading Cleveland to the playoffs.  I think he has the chance of having the best season for a Orioles starter since Erik Bedard’s 2007 season.

7.  Delmon Young will be DFA’d by September

When Lough moves to the bench, the Orioles won’t carry three OFers in Pearce, Young and Lough, and Young doesn’t get on base enough, isn’t versatile and has had a poor track record the past few seasons.  I expect the trend to continue and the Orioles won’t carry him all season in spite of what he has done in the playoffs.  Maybe the Rays will pick him up again?

8.  One of Kevin Gausman, Dylan Bundy and Eduardo Rodriguez will not be an Oriole by the end of August. 

The Orioles don’t have room for all these guys in the rotation, and I suspect Bundy is the one that will be dealt as he’s got the highest ceiling if healthy.  Gausman could also be dealt if teams aren’t sold on Bundy.  After a poor spring and a second season in AA, Eduardo Rodriguez is sure to be on the trade block while he still has some value as a starter instead of being moved to the bullpen which is likely his future.

9.  The Orioles will make a major trade or two by August. 

I think we know by now that Dan Duquette isn’t afraid of trading younger prospects, and there could be some big names available at the July deadline and in August with some big contracts that teams would love to unload.    Giancarlo Stanton, Andre Ethier, Cliff Lee and Justin Masterson are just a few of the names that could be moved with one of those pitchers previously mentioned being traded in a return package.

10.  Steve Clevenger will play his way into a platoon with Matt Wieters.

Yeah that seems pretty bold, but I think by the end of this season Wieters and Clevenger could find themselves in a platoon, as Wieters’ bat has disappeared and Clevenger is coming on strong with a better plate approach than Wieters and improving defense behind the dish.  Buck loves Wieters, but I think Clevenger will force the issue.   Don’t be surprised to see the Orioles actively shopping Wieters after the season with the thought of making Clevenger the full-time catcher or at least part of a platoon in 2015.

Bonus prediction – The Orioles will play Game 163 against the Rays for a Wild Card berth and the winner will win the World Series.

Finally, I predict the Orioles and Rays will wind up with identical records – 91-71.   The two teams will play a Game 163 with major storylines, and you can bet that the Grant Balfour storyline will come up.   These two teams seem pretty intertwined and there’s some bad blood between them.  I think either has a great shot at advancing to, and winning the World Series.

Game 163 will be epic, and if the Orioles can win it, they will end their World Series drought of 31 years.  You heard it here first.

How’s that for bold?

Projecting the Opening Day roster for the Orioles

Dan Connolly from The Sun recently broke down what he thought would be the 25 man roster with only a few battles left to be decided and I pretty much agree with his observations.

I’ve made my selections of who I think will win those battles, so here’s what I think the Orioles look like on Opening Day:

Starting Pitching:

RHP Chris Tillman
RHP Ubaldo Jimenez
LHP Wei-Yin Chen
RHP Miguel Gonzalez
RHP Bud Norris

No surprises here.  This was pretty much the rotation at the start of camp despite any thought of “competition” that was thrown out there.  Zach Britton and Brian Matusz were always bullpen bound and Kevin Gausman needs more seasoning in the minors.

Bullpen:

LHP Zach Britton
RHP Josh Stinson
RHP Evan Meek
RHP Ryan Webb
LHP Brian Matusz
RHP Darren O’Day
RHP Tommy Hunter

There’s no real long reliever among the bunch except for Britton so that could be problematic if the Orioles can’t get their starters into the 6th or 7th inning on a regular basis, but that’s how I see the bullpen shaking out. Guys that have options such as Brad Brach and Steve Johnson will be sent down but will likely see some time this year. Alfredo Aceves likely will pitch in Norfolk and be the first pitcher up if he doesn’t opt out of his deal. Also Johan Santana could be added to the bullpen sometime in late May or early June if all goes well with his rehab.

Lineup vs. RHP:

RF Nick Markakis
LF David Lough
CF Adam Jones
1B Chris Davis
DH Nelson Cruz
C Matt Wieters
SS JJ. Hardy
3B Ryan Flaherty
2B Jonathan Schoop

Bench:
C Steve Clevenger
OF/1B Steve Pearce
OF Nolan Reimold
INF Alex Gonzalez

Lineup vs. LHP:

RF Nick Markakis
2B Jonathan Schoop
CF Adam Jones
1B Chris Davis
LF Nelson Cruz
C Matt Wieters
SS J.J. Hardy
DH Steve Pearce
3B Alex Gonzalez

Bench:
C Steve Clevenger
OF David Lough
OF Nolan Reimold
INF Ryan Flaherty

For the starting lineup, due to the injury with Machado, both Schoop and Gonzalez make the team, with Schoop as the full-time 2B man and Gonzalez playing 3B vs. LHP. Gonzalez likely gets DFA’d when Machado comes back with Flaherty moving to a super-sub role. Lough will start out batting #2 vs. RHP but will shift down to the #8 hole when Machado comes back as his poor OBP and lack of walks makes him a better candidate for hitting lower in the order. Schoop will hit #2 vs. LHP while Machado is out and will return to the #9 spot as well.

On the bench, Steve Pearce beats out Delmon Young for the RH OF/DH spot because Buck has had a lot of praise for him this spring and he can play first base. Young’s bat might be needed in the playoffs, but during the regular season, Pearce has shown recently he’s the best contributor.

In the end the Orioles also keep Nolan Reimold on the team because of his contract and the fact he’s one of only a few on the team willing to take a walk. Michael Almanzar either goes back to the Sox or the Orioles stash him on the DL to give them some more time.

Machado, OF Francisco Peguero and RHP Egdmer Escalona all start the season on the DL.

Other moves:

I’m about 90% sure this will be the roster that the Orioles will have Opening Day, however there’s always the 10% potential for a trade. There have been a bunch of scouts at Ed Smith Stadium for every game and the Orioles still have their eyes on players such as the Mets’ Ike Davis. If acquired, Davis could serve as the DH vs. RHP in a platoon with Steve Pearce, shifting Lough to the bench in a role likely more suited for him as a 4th OFer/defensive replacement, and Cruz into the OF full time.

The Orioles could still add another backup catcher as Buck Showalter is obsessed with defense at the position and doesn’t seem to think highly of Clevenger’s. An additional bullpen arm also isn’t out of the question.

Any way you look at it, this is one of the most talented teams on Opening Day that the Orioles will have put out there in some time. I’m not saying this is a World Series contending roster, but with a few internal and external reinforcements during the season, they have a pretty good shot at ending up that way.

That will be a nice feeling to have on Opening Day.

Extending J.J. Hardy is the wrong move for the Orioles

Recently J.J Hardy revealed there had been no progress in extension talks with the Orioles , saying “the ball was in their court.”

If that’s the case, the Orioles should take that ball and go home.

It seems blasphemous to say, but it is in the best interest of the Orioles to let Hardy walk at the end of 2014 or trade him instead of offering an extension.

It’s true Hardy is one of the top shortstops in the game both defensively and offensively, winning a Gold Glove and Silver Slugger award last season, but he also isn’t going to extend his stay in Baltimore without getting paid what he thinks he deserves.  Based on the inflated prices we’ve seen in free agency lately, that amount could be a lot more than fans would expect and want him to get.

Jhonny Peralta, who was only 0.2 fWAR in value higher than Hardy in 2013, just signed a 4 year, $52 million deal this past offseason.   Hardy is regarded as the superior defender of the two and doesn’t have the PED tag attached.  In addition, if he does hit free agency after 2014, besides Hanley Ramirez he’s the only other top shortstop out there so he’ll get a substantial payday, likely larger than Peralta. That’s probably going to bump his extension figure up there quite a bit – somewhere in the $50-60 million range – and likely more than the Orioles should pay because of the question marks and risks that come with that dollar figure.

Looking at the health risk, Hardy has stayed healthy for two straight seasons, a small miracle in itself. Before the 2012-2013 seasons where he played in 317 games, he’d only played in 345 games over 3 seasons. So it’s pretty fair to say that he’s been an injury risk in the past, and you’d be signing up for his age 32-35 years most likely – or the downside of his prime and when he’s also going to be even more prone to injury.

Hardy has also been one of the culprits of the low team OBP for the past few years with the following numbers:

2011: .310
2012: .282
2013: .306

Even though shortstop isn’t known as an offensive position, Hardy only ranked 23rd in OBP for shortstops with at least 300 PAs in 2013.  That’s not exactly going to help the Orioles improve their 19th ranked major league OBP.

An extension to Hardy would also tie up a good chunk of payroll and that needs to be considered when you are possibly trying to extend or give raises in arbitration to other players. The Orioles can’t extend everybody, and players like Chris Davis and Manny Machado are far more important to the Orioles’ future than Hardy.

The best move for the Orioles if they are in contention is to ride the season out with Hardy and then offer him a qualifying offer at the end of the year and likely get the draft pick compensation if he turns it down.  The worst case scenario is that he accepts, but then you’ve got him at shortstop for another year with no long-term commitment and there’s nothing wrong with that.

If the Orioles are somehow not in contention at the deadline, they should try to sell Hardy to the highest bidder as long as they are offering more value than a first round pick.  Given the teams that would love to have him on their roster, one would think there would be a significant return.

So then the question is this:  how do you replace him?

Luckily, for the Orioles, they already have a shortstop in their system ready to replace Hardy, and that’s Manny Machado.   Right now Machado’s numbers offensively play much better at shortstop than they do for third base, as almost all his value is in his glove.  Now hopefully that’s soon to change as he’s still developing offensively, but the Orioles drafted Machado to play SS and to take over that position and 2015 is the perfect time for him to do that.

There are other shortstops to trade for as well if the Orioles want to leave Machado at third base.   Nick Franklin from the Mariners has been a name that has been discussed this spring and could play second base and transition to shortstop for the Orioles after Hardy is gone.  Franklin would be under team control until after 2019 and obviously be much cheaper than Hardy.

The Orioles could also possibly play Ryan Flaherty there as well.  Flaherty had a 26.3 UZR/150 rating in the 33 innings he had at the position in 2013.  It’s a small sample size, but he should be more than adequate at the position based on what he’s shown so far.

J.J. Hardy has been a core player for the Orioles and has been a big part of the resurgence of the team in the past two years.  However, at some point a player’s value just isn’t worth the expense, especially when you have other options that may be just as good if not better.  The Orioles have other parts of their core roster as well that must be a priority for future payroll allocation.  Hardy’s age, injury risk and low OBP also aren’t in his favor.

The key with any extension also is to realize that you aren’t paying the player for present performance, but you are paying them for their future performance.  If you want to see the risk of paying a 32-35 year old a lot of money, all you have to do is just look at Brian Roberts.  Many thought the Roberts extension was a good move at the time, but it turned out to be a disaster.

Hardy might seem like a good investment now, but he could very well turn into the second coming of Brian Roberts, and that’s a scenario the Orioles simply can’t afford to repeat.

More on the Santanas

The Orioles landed one Santana this week, and are poised to potentially add another by this time next week.

Think of this rotation heading into the playoffs:

Tillman
Jimenez
E. Santana
Chen
J. Santana

It could happen, and the Orioles have one piece of the Santana duo as they inked Johan Santana to a 1 year minor league deal  earlier this week.

I mentioned that the Orioles could go after Santana earlier this offseason as a reclamation project for a 1 year deal and it has come to fruition.  When healthy, Johan gives you 200 IP, 20+ QS and has a nasty changeup that racks up a lot of K’s.  Health is a big question for Santana however and he’s not likely to have the necessary arm strength until later on this season, most likely in June or July to have an impact on the Orioles rotation or bullpen if at all.  Still it’s great to have him in the locker room as he’s known as a strong veteran presence and a leader on the pitching staff, something that was missing when the Orioles traded Jim Johnson earlier this offseason.

As for the second Santana – Ervin, the Orioles may be one of the two frontrunners to sign him after recent developments:

So I’ve already talked about Santana herehere and here previously, but one other thing to mention about his gopher ball-itis:

19 of Santana’s 26 HRs last year were solo HRs.   His lower BB rate allowed him to limit that damage, so as I’ve said I don’t see it being a problem in Baltimore at OPACY.  Chris Tillman gave up 33 HRs last season and was able to limit the damage and Santana has better control than him.

Ervin Santana on a 1 year deal is no-brainer that the Orioles should be all over as there is very little risk or cost in terms of $ or the third round draft pick, and you can once again offer him the qualifying offer if he does pitch as well as he did in 2013.

Adding the last Santana on the market as a final piece would certainly be the icing on the offseason cake that took so long to bake, but could taste so sweet in October.

 

The underappreciated Steve Pearce

The signings of Nelson Cruz and Delmon Young grabbed the headlines for the offseason, and both are expected to make the team if you read what the beat writers are saying, but there’s one guy on the bubble for an OF/DH spot that has been underappreciated on the roster for the past two years now:  Steve Pearce.

When you look at his career stats, Pearce’s numbers  don’t really stand out.  His career line is .238/.318./377/.694.

The guy has also bounced around from the Pirates to the Orioles, Yankees, Astros and then the Orioles again.  However, Pearce has carved a nice little niche for himself in his second go around with the  Orioles as he has been extremely valuable and potent vs. LHP.

If you look at his stats vs. LHP over the past two seasons he has a line of the following:  .275/.365/.486/.851

The only two players that had a line better than that were Matt Wieters and Danny Valencia who was traded to Kansas City.   Pearce was also first in BB% and second in P/PA vs. LHP,  two categories the Orioles need to improve, not weaken.

Defensively, Pearce can play both corner OF spots and 1B, as he did last season.  He doesn’t have a great reputation defensively in the OF, but he does own a career 5.2 UZR/150 rating at 1B.  Last season he also had a 17.2 UZR/150 rating in limited time in the OF.

The 1B ability is important, because Pearce is the only true backup 1B man the Orioles have on their roster right now.  Flaherty can play there but he’s going for a full-time 2B role and Almanzar, their Rule 5 pick is supposed to play there, but Pearce is a much better option.

As far as costs go, Pearce is relatively cheap at $850K and has one more year of arbitration left before he hits free agency after the 2015 season.  Value wise he’s a bargain as he was worth 0.8 fWAR for only $700K last season.  That’s a pretty good investment for a bench player.

With the news that Nelson Cruz will be playing LF vs. LHP, a RH DH spot is up for grabs, and Steve Pearce is the perfect candidate for it in his bench role.   Hopefully he’s the guy they bring  back to Baltimore  because his versatility and plate approach will be key assets facing the strong LHP of the Orioles’ division rivals.

Instead of making him fight for a roster spot against players who don’t offer the same skillset,  it’s time the Orioles truly appreciate what they have in Pearce.  If they don’t, he’s going to be a casualty of Spring Training roster cuts that could haunt the team for the rest of the season.

The Orioles must get better at power conservation in 2014

I’ve written quite a bit about OBP this offseason as I feel it is the one weak link of the Orioles that could hurt their offensive production in 2014 and keep them from a playoff berth.

To illustrate again why this is important, let’s compare all the teams in the American League in terms of total HRs, solo HRs, leadoff HRs and multi-run HRs:

Team Total HR Solo HR Leadoff HR Multi-run HR Power   conservation
Red Sox 178 95 49 83 64.3%
Indians 171 93 44 78 61.4%
Tigers 176 89 32 87 60.4%
A’s 186 104 47 82 59.0%
Orioles 212 125 64 87 58.8%
Blue Jays 185 110 57 75 58.6%
Astros 148 84 38 64 58.2%
Twins 151 93 44 58 54.2%
Royals 112 70 34 42 53.8%
Yankees 144 91 45 53 53.5%
Mariners 188 119 57 69 52.7%
Angels 164 105 49 59 51.3%
White Sox 148 97 42 51 48.1%
Rays 165 108 46 57 47.9%
Rangers 176 113 43 63 47.4%

To get the “Power conservation” percentage, you take the total number of multi-run HRs and divide that by the number of total HRs subtracting the number of leadoff HRs.  Runners will never be on base in a leadoff situation, so those HRs need to be removed from the analysis.

So the Orioles may have led the American League in HRs, but they were only 5th in terms of taking advantage of that power.  I’ll also point out that the top two teams in the AL for OBP are in the top three teams in power conservation.  The top four teams in power conservation  all made the playoffs  as well.

Let’s look at the hitters that comprised the middle of the Orioles’ lineup from 2013 in terms of power conservation:

Player Total HR Solo HR Leadoff HR Multi-run HR Power conservation
Matt Wieters 22 11 5 11 64.7%
Chris Davis 53 30 17 23 63.9%
Adam Jones 33 20 8 13 52.0%
Nick Markakis 10 9 7 1 33.3%

I don’t think it could be any clearer than this. When the bottom and top of your order can’t get on base, your #3 and #4 hitters, which Jones and Markakis were for most of the season, have the most wasted power. Jones and Markakis on the other hand did get on base more often, so Davis and Wieters in the #5 and #6 slots had a better chance of having a multi-run HR, with Wieters having the best chance.

The Orioles need to set the table much better in 2014, as they left a lot of potential runs off the scoreboard, and that could have made the difference in getting to the playoffs or not.

There’s plenty of HR power once again with this lineup with Jones, Davis and Cruz in the middle, but the Orioles must conserve that power in order to achieve their full offensive potential.