Friday, June 27, 2008

Shortstop Woes

Coming into the season, shortstop was the Orioles' most glaring weakness. It's the end of June, and nothing has changed. As Jeff Zrebiec reports in the Baltimore Sun, the Orioles are looking to trade for a shortstop.

The Orioles this season have employed five players at shortstop: Luis Hernandez, Freddie Bynum, Brandon Fahey, Eider Torres and Alex Cintron. Perusing the VORP (Value Over Replacement Player) list over at Baseball Prospectus, none has a VORP above zero. Cintron has posted a -0.3 number, Torres -0.7, Fahey -1.8, Hernandez -2.0, and Bynum -7.9 (note: VORP does not include defensive value). That's nearly 10% of the team's plate appearances given to players below replacement level. Clearly, shortstop is a need that must be addressed, at least in the long-term.

So what should the Orioles do? Well, there's not much out there worth trading for: Zrebiec mentions Jack Wilson, Clint Barmes, Brendan Harris and Felipe Lopez as names that the Orioles might be considering. Ick. Wilson has a career OPS of .689. Barmes had a solid rookie season in 2005 and got off to a solid start in 2008 before hitting the DL, but he's also walked just eight times in 145 at-bats and has a career .303 OBP. Harris finally got regular playing time last season in Tampa Bay and put up a 106 OPS+, but is down at an 84 OPS+ this season and is considered a brutally bad defender at shortstop. Lopez has a .653 OPS and makes $4.9 M this season. While these might be slightly better options than Brandon Fahey, they are certainly not long-term solutions for the position.

In spite of their offensive struggles at shortstop, the Orioles have accumulated a 40-37 record, two wins better than the 38-39 record their run differential (-8) would imply, and far above virtually all preseason predictions. How have they done it? In a word, defense. The Orioles rank first in defensive efficiency, converting 72% of balls in play into outs. Tampa Bay, Oakland and Chicago (AL) are next on the list, and all of these teams are also "surprise" winners this season. Oakland and Tampa, especially, have made a concerted effort to field excellent defensive teams. I do not think it is a coincidence that these teams are outperforming expectations and also play tremendous defense.

Cintron is probably the best offensive option for the Orioles, but his struggles defensively are amplified since the club wins by playing solid defense. If Dave Trembley believes he can't handle the position defensively, the only other internal option is Fahey, and he's proven he cannot hit at the Major League level. If the Orioles do decide to trade for a shortstop, they should target the best available defender that can produce offensively near replacement level. But unless they are able to trade Roberts, Sherrill, Huff, Scott or any of the other veterans for a legitimate prospect, nothing that fills the shortstop position for this season is going to be a part of the long-term plans to make this team a contender again.

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