Friday, July 25, 2008

Trade Deadline Approaches

Now that I'm back from vacation, I'm caught up at work and my Google Reader has been restored to a manageable situation, I can finally get back into posting my thoughts on the Orioles. Since today is July 25, the trade deadline is less than a week away. The Orioles are 48-53, have less than a 1% chance of making the playoffs, and since entering June 29 three games above .500, are just 7-15 over their past 22 games. This should force a reality check on the fan base and allow the front office to continue with the plan to rebuild this team into a legitimate contender.

In recent weeks, several different forums have requested fan input on what the Orioles should do for the remainder of the year. Many answers were predictably trade our crappy players for prospects, sign Nick Markakis to a long-term deal, sign (or trade) Brian Roberts, etc. Now that we're less than a week away, I'm ready to explore the question in depth. What should the Orioles (realistically) do from now until their final game on September 28?

The first step is to realistically assess whether or not the 2009 team can compete in a division that includes the Red Sox, Yankees and Rays. Unlike, say, the Giants, who have the luxury of rebuilding in a division where 81 wins could very well mean the playoffs, the Orioles are faced with the reality of needing 93 or more victories for a playoff berth. Since 1996, the first full season after the strike, only the 1996 Yankees (with 92) and 2000 Yankees (with 87) have won the division with fewer than 95 wins. In that same time span, the 1996 Orioles won the wild card with 88 wins, and in subsequent years it took 96, 92, 94, 91, 102, 99, 95, 98, 95, 95 and 94 wins to win the AL wild card. The 2008 Orioles currently have the run differential of a 49-52 team, and predicts the team to finish at 76-86; Baseball Prospectus, using their PECOTA adjusted standings, pegs the Orioles for 74.4 wins. The Orioles will need to win 17 to 19 games more in 2009 than in 2008 to have a shot at the playoffs, assuming that they actually finish the season like the predictions and not like previous seasons. Regardless, this is a team that will need to make significant advances to be competitive.

Without getting too bogged down in a position-by-position analysis, where could the Orioles expect to improve next season? The most obvious answer is catcher: Matt Wieters (who is currently batting .345/.427/.560 with four home runs in 86 at-bats at Bowie) will be the starting catcher next season, and all indications are that he is capable of producing at the Major League level in a big way. He'll be a significant upgrade from Ramon Hernandez and his .244/.291./409 line. Otherwise, the Orioles have five offensive players worth keeping around, on a purely production based basis: Brian Roberts, Nick Markakis, Adam Jones, Aubrey Huff and Luke Scott. The production that Kevin Millar, Melvin Mora and whoever is playing shortstop offer are very replaceable. Millar will be a free agent at the end of the season, and I sincerely doubt the club brings him back, at least in a role that will offer significant playing time. Unfortunately, Melvin Mora is set to make $9 million next season ($8 million base salary plus $1 million buyout on 2010 option), so any upgrade at third base involves benching a highly paid player, something teams are traditionally loathe to do despite the sunk cost of the investment.

One popular option to upgrade the offense next season is to sign Mark Teixeira this offseason. As a native Marylander and a career .285/.386/.501 hitter, he has long been the object of Oriole fan desires. Unfortunately, his pricetag may be upwards of $150 million for a six-year contract that would take him through his age 35 season, plus the draft pick forfeited by his signing. While Teixeira would certainly be attractive in an Orioles jersey and I'm not de facto opposed to his signing, the club is also likely to receive better value for that $150 million by spreading it over several other needs.

The Orioles most pressing need is a shortstop; they have not had a Major League quality player on the roster all season, and there are no prospects in the system currently. Somehow, the team will need to acquire someone for the position for next season. Rafael Furcal is an intriguing free agent name, but his age (30) and recent injury history suggests extreme caution, and I doubt he's a risk the front office would be willing to take. Orlando Cabrera is probably the next best available, but he's 33 and hitting .265/.325/.354 for the White Sox. My guess is that the Orioles bring in a veteran who can play defense but offers almost no offensive contribution to serve as stopgap for 2009, and that MacPhail's top priority is identifying a prospect in another organization that can be added via trade, much like Adam Jones became this past offseason's target. The lack of organizational depth up the middle is really an Achilles heel because it complicates efforts to trade Brian Roberts, who is the O's most marketable trade chip. If Roberts is traded for a shortstop, the club would then face the same dilemma at second base.

One possible solution would be to target a leftfielder and allow said new leftfielder, Luke Scott and Aubrey Huff to split time between first base, designated hitter and left field. Pat Burrell, Manny Ramirez and Adam Dunn are all names that will be mentioned this offseason, but each comes with a hefty price tag and is not without warts of their own. Plus, Nolan Reimold is batting .288/.360/.497 with 17 home runs in 382 at-bats at Bowie, and he likely deserves every chance to win a roster spot, either through a September call-up or in spring training.

In examining the offense, replacing Kevin Millar with Nolan Reimold and Ramon Hernandez with Matt Wieters would provide upgrades and save money. That could free up the Orioles to trade Luke Scott or Aubrey Huff, if a suitor could be found, and perhaps still make a run at a free agent acquisition like Mark Teixeira. If the O's could somehow acquire a Major League shortstop, they could potentially field an offense that is much better than even this year's surprising group.

So while scoring runs may not be a major source of concern going into next season, preventing them likely will be. Jeremy Guthrie is the staff ace, but that's simply by default; he's a valuable starter, but is certainly not the frontline starter the team would like to have anchor the rotation. Daniel Cabrera continues to frustrate, though at least he can eat up some innings. Radhames Liz and Garret Olson are suffering lots of growing pains, Brian Burres is not a long-term answer for any pitching staff, and Adam Loewen is going to give hitting a try since he could never stay healthy as a pitcher. As for the minor leagues, the rotation in Norfolk is filled with non-prospects and the perpetually frustrating Hayden Penn, who is 4-6 with a 5.17 ERA and 1.51 WHIP. There is much more excitement about the rotation in Bowie, however. Twenty-year old Chris Tillman is 7-3 with a 3.11 ERA and 94 strikeouts in 92.2 IP, though with a needs-improvement 48 walks. Twenty-four year old Jason Berken is 8-3 with a 3.67 ERA, 91 strikeouts and 27 walks in 110.1 IP. Twenty-three year old David Hernandez 5-4 with a 2.63 ERA, 129 strikeouts and 55 walks in 109.1 IP. Those three arms would seem to be legitimate prospects, and a fourth, Bradley Bergensen (12-3, 2.91 ERA, 55 K, 20 BB, 108.1 IP) is also producing solid results, though with red flags because of a low strikeout rate. If Matt Albers and Troy Patton can recover from their injuries, the Orioles will have a number of arms to compete for the rotation. While caution must always be exercised when projecting contributions from young pitchers, it is very possible that pitching help is on the way, if not in 2009 than in 2010.

In the bullpen, the best possible strategy has seemed to be accumulate quality arms as cheaply as possible and hope seven of them can form a well-balanced bullpen. Chris Ray will be back next year, and it would be great if Dennis Sarfate could take a step forward with his control. Otherwise, hopefully the current collection in the majors and minors will produce a few guys capable of contributing next year.

So where does this leave the team for the rest of 2008? Efforts should be made to trade Aubrey Huff, Kevin Millar and Ramon Hernandez. While Huff is a solid hitter, he's also expensive and could provide significant value to a team in search of a lefthanded bat for the stretch run. He is under contract for next season, and if the Orioles were willing to eat a significant amount of money, he could bring back some value in return. Millar has a reputation as a great clubhouse leader, and perhaps a contender would find that trait useful in a right-handed bat off the bench. He has minimal value to the Orioles in the short-term and his long-run value is nil. Using the see what sticks bullpen theory, I would try and acquire a bullpen arm with some upside for him. Hernandez holds no long-term value to the Orioles and is a free agent at the end of the season. I do not know if he will bring a draft-pick when he leaves in the offseason, but if he will not, the Orioles would do well to trade him now; I doubt they'll find any takers, however.

Those are easy decisions; more difficult are what to do with the more marketable players, Brian Roberts and George Sherrill. Sherrill would be desirable for a contender; teams nearly always need more help in the bullpen. However, there seems to be a plethora of quality lefthanders available on the trade market this year, driving down the price MacPhail could hope to extract from a trade partner. MacPhail may well decide that the prospects that could be had in return for Sherrill, who is still under team control until 2011, are not worth the cost of losing more games this season and needing to find another lefthander in the bullpen for next season.

Brian Roberts is in a similar situation, though under contract through the end of the 2009 season. No team that is out of the playoff race would be likely to deal for Roberts during the season; that leaves the contenders as possible trade partners. Let's look at each, first in the NL:

NY Mets - Just signed Luis Castillo to a three-year contract
Phillies - some guy named Chase Utley
Marlins - Dan Uggla
Cubs - this offseason's rumored Brian Roberts destination, they could never offer enough to entice MacPhail; have since dealt nearly all the players rumored to be involved a potential trade
Brewers - Rickie Weeks and Ray Durham
Cardinals - could use a second baseman, but have never been mentioned as a possible destination
Diamondbacks - Orlando Hudson
Dodgers - Jeff Kent, though Roberts would be an upgrade

Red Sox - Dustin Pedroia
Yankees - Robinson Cano
Rays - Akinori Iwamura
White Sox - rumored to be interested in Roberts, though talks haven't progressed very quickly
Twins - Alexi Casilla
Tigers - Placido Polanco
Angels - Howie Kendrick

Only three teams might realistically be interested in Roberts: the Cubs, White Sox and Cardinals. One tried, failed and moved on, one has apparently contacted MacPhail recently but failed to impress with their offer, and the other seems to be much more focused on acquiring bullpen help. Thus, any Roberts trade is very unlikely. But if Roberts was a hot commodity, should the Orioles trade him? As a rebuilding team, MacPhail should be listening to nearly any offer a team brings; no one is untouchable, but Roberts is very popular with the fans and a rare commodity: a lead-off hitter and very good offensive performer at a premium defensive position. However, he is 30 years old and only under contract for one more season. He has expressed frustration in the past with the Orioles inability to compete; he may decide that he'd much rather sign with another organization than re-up with the Orioles, even for more money. Or, his asking price could exceed what the Orioles are willing to pay and the club will receive only draft picks in return. The team is already in dire need of one middle infielder; trading Roberts would mean they'd need two. Still, as we've established above, they are very unlikely to compete in 2009, and Roberts' status as an Oriole for 2010 and beyond is iffy, at best. If the right deal comes along, the Orioles should trade Brian Roberts.

Since there is little than can be done in the next week to upgrade this team for next year and beyond between now and the trade deadline, any improvement will be of the much less exciting variety. We'll take a look at those projects and decisions next.

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