Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Unwashed Masses

Perusing the comments over at the Schmuck Stops Here today and... wow.

"Why didn’t we go for Lowe, Garland, Perez, or Ben Sheets to fill two of those rotation spots?"
- Fritz

Well, Fritz, because Lowe is old and expensive, Garland and Perez aren't very good, and Sheets is extremely injury prone.

"The Orioles missed a significant opportunity by not signing Jon Garland. Garland is a top of the rotation pitcher in his prime and he is an innings eater."
- Larry P

Does he mean this Jon Garland?

There's more, but I gave up. This is precisely the kind thinking that caused 11 years of wandering at the bottom of the standings. Schmuck is right when he chastises commenters that are criticizing MacPhail and making ridiculous demands for signing only "championship caliber" players. Sure, Braden Looper doesn't figure into the long-term plans for the team, but someone has to pitch; as long as he doesn't block anyone who does figure into those plans (or cost a draft pick), and if the O's can get him cheaply, then who cares? Sign the guy.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Brian Roberts

Peter Schmuck penned a column yesterday stating that "the Orioles need to sign Roberts and sign him now." With the news yesterday that the club has offered Roberts a 3-year, $30 million extension, the Orioles appear to be making a serious effort to do just that. Schmuck speculates that the current offer won't be enough to get a deal done. According to Cot's Baseball Contracts, Brian will play 2009 under the second year of a 2-year, $14.3 million contract extension signed before the 2007 season. Thus, the Orioles current offer represents a significant raise for Roberts.

As reported yesterday, a "source" told Fox's Ken Rosenthal that Roberts is seeking a fourth year. In his column, Schmuck suggests that a 4-year, $45 million offer would be enough to get a deal done, which is quite likely considering the news from Rosenthal. Considering that Roberts will play the 2009 season at age 31, a four year deal would pay Roberts an average of $11.25 million through age 35, the 2013 season. Does Roberts deserve that kind of money, and should the Orioles commit to him through his mid-30s?

Brian established himself as an everyday player for the Orioles in the midway through the 2003 season, so let's take a look at his number since that time (all numbers below reflect this adjusted career statistic):

Batting average: .288
On-base percentage: .363
Slugging percentage: .426
OPS: .789
Weighted Average OPS+: 107*

*Note: I cannot calculate his actual OPS+ for the time in question, so I calculated a weighted average of each season's OPS+.

These numbers likely undersell Brian's true offensive abilities since he has been a better player than this baseline for three of the past four seasons. Still, these provide a good starting point for comparison, and would seem to indicate that his true level of ability lies at almost exactly what he produced in each of the past two seasons: .296/.377/.441. Checking out his PECOTA card over a Baseball Prospectus, this seems eminently reasonable: his production fell in line with his 60% forecast. BP can also provide some valuable information about Brian's defense. It seems as though Brian is very much an average major league second baseman; he was -4 FRAA in 2006 and +2 FRAA in 2007, and his forecasts for 2008 (I can't find his actual numbers; if someone could steer me in the right direction, it would be much appreciated) point to him being a slightly below average defender.

What does all this mean? Well, in 2005, which is far and away his best season, Brian was worth 9.2 WARP. In 2006, he fell to 4.9 WARP, posted 7.6 WARP in 2007 and would seem to be in the 7.0 range again for 2008. That's a total of 28.7 WARP for his peak seasons, a very good total. But we aren't especially interested in what Brian has done; we care only about what we can expect him to do over the life of his coming contract. Here again, Baseball Prospectus comes in most handy.

Since we can agree he performed roughly in-line with expectations for 2008, let's look at his projections for the next four seasons. BP projects WARP values of 5.9, 5.3, 4.3 and 3.7, a total of 19.2. Still good, but not nearly as good as the past four seasons. Considering the likely aging curve, this seems like a very reasonable projection. But what does that make him worth to the Orioles?

Based on the Orioles initial contract offer and the projections for Brian's next three seasons, they seem to place a value of roughly $2.0 million on each 1.0 of WARP. Based on other research that exists, this seems to be a reasonable valuation. Extending the contract to four seasons would mean paying Brian about $37.5 million, quite a bit lower than Schmuck's hypothetical offer. So while Schmuck is probably right--$45 million over four years would get a deal done--that doesn't make his contract proposal a smart one for the Orioles. Instead, if MacPhail & Co. feel comfortable guaranteeing a fourth year, and I would given his injury history and skill set, 4-years/$40 million (thus taking into account the off-field and community goodwill value Roberts has to the club) is better way for me to spend Peter Angelos's money for him.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Offseason Recap

With spring training little more than three weeks away, let's take a look back at the Orioles offseason. The offseason lacked major moves of the Brian Roberts trade or Mark Teixeira signing variety, but it shapes up as a successful one nonetheless. To recap:
  • Nick Markakis signed a 6-year, $66.1 million contract extension, ensuring he is an Oriole through the 2014 season.
  • Cesar Izturis signed a 2-year, $6 million contract, filling a glaring hole at shortstop.
  • Ramon Hernandez was traded for Ryan Freel, netting the Orioles a valuable utility player and, more importantly, clearing the way for Matt Wieters to catch in 2009.
  • Greg Olson was traded for Felix Pie, adding outfield depth and upside potential for a pitcher on whom the Orioles had clearly soured.
  • Gregg Zaun signed to be a veteran mentor for Wieters.
  • Koji Uehara signed to fill a rotation slot, marking the Orioles first foray into the Japanese player market.
  • Randor Bierd was traded for David Pauley, giving the Orioles another arm to compete for innings in the rotation.

For a team that finished 2008 with a 68-93 record, none of those moves is particularly overwhelming and certainly, taken individually, does little to boost the Orioles above any one of the Rays, Red Sox, Yankees or Blue Jays. However, the process involved with each move offers a great deal of hope:

1) First and foremost, the Orioles added to the talent pool within the organization and created spots for young talent to play on a daily basis. Matt Wieters, if not the starting catcher on Opening Day, will spend most of 2009 in Baltimore, and Felix Pie, a former top-prospect with lots of tools, will finally get an opportunity to play every day in the majors.

2) The team recognized that the fastest and cheapest way to improve its run prevention was to improve on defense. Cesar Izturis is widely recognized as an excellent glove man, and an outfield of Pie, Jones and Markakis will hopefully chase down lots of balls that would otherwise fall for hits. That should help a pitching staff that is very much a work in progress.

3) MacPhail declined to overpay for veteran pitchers just to fill glaring rotation holes. Behind Jeremy Guthrie, the Orioles figure to have Uehara, and... well, we'll see. Hayden Penn, David Hernandez, Bradley Bergensen, Matt Albers, Danys Baez, Brian Burres, Radhames Liz, Troy Patton, and Pauley all figure to get a good look as candidates to fill the remaining rotation slots. More importantly, Brian Matusz, Chris Tillman and Jake Arrieta are ranked in Keith Law's Top 100 Prospects and could contribute in the relatively near future.

4) The Uehara signing signals a change in philosophy beginning to bear fruit. When MacPhail arrived, he implemented a new emphasis on international scouting. I take it as a good sign that he was able to target and sign a Japanese free agent.

Sure it's not the most exciting offseason, but it might be just what the Orioles needed. The team wasn't going to compete in 2009 under all but the most unlikely of circumstances (say, signing all those free agents who ended up with the Yankees), and thus held to the philosophy of building for 2010. If the young pitching can continue to develop, the Orioles are right on track.

Offseason grade: B+

UPDATE: Brian Roberts has been offered a 3-year, $30 million contract extension. A Roberts extension would likely bump the offseason grade to an "A."

Sunday, January 18, 2009

A Slice of Pie

Felix Pie, that is. News broke this afternoon that the Orioles and Cubs have agreed to a deal that will send Garrett Olson and minor-leaguer Henry Williamson to the Cubs and Felix Pie to Baltimore. Pie has long been a Cubs top-prospect--and subject of Orioles/Cubs trade rumors--but he could never seem to force his way into the lineup on an everyday basis for Chicago as it contended in the NL Central. Olson has been a frustrating pitcher the past two seasons, succeeding on the basis of command, and certainly not raw stuff, in the minors but never having much success in Baltimore. A change of scenery could do him well, especially since it gets him out of the AL East and into the weaker National League.

The addition of the lefthanded hitting Pie, while on the surface a bit curious, is exactly the type of move the Orioles should be making. Sure, the Orioles are set in center and right field and had Luke Scott and maybe even Nolan Reimold to play left, but for a rebuilding team like the Orioles, you choose young talent over old stopgaps at every opportunity. What can a full season of playing time do for Pie's development? Let's hope it turns out similarly to the Adam Jones experiment from 2008.

Speaking of Adam Jones, an outfield of Pie, Jones and Nick Markakis, plus a middle infield of Brian Roberts and Cesar Izturis, should tremendously help the development of the pitching staff. Run prevention comes in two flavors, pitching and defense, and while the Orioles may not have much of the former, they should do very well with the latter. Depending on how prospects like Radhames Liz, Chris Tillman, Brian Matusz, David Hernandez, Jake Arrieta, et al. develop, the first half of that equation could look very different come September.

So what are the Orioles looking at in terms of a lineup for 2009?

2B - Brian Roberts (S)
3B - Melvin Mora (R)
RF - Nick Markakis (L)
1B - Aubrey Huff (L)
CA - Matt Wieters (S)
DH - Luke Scott (L)
CF - Adam Jones (R)
LF - Felix Pie (L)
SS - Cesar Izturis (S)

Bench - Ryan Freel, Greg Zaun, Chris Gomez

Others: Nolan Reimold, Lou Montanez, Oscar Salazar, Scott Moore

That lineup definitely tilts to the left; if the Orioles were closer to contention, they would ideally find a right-handed hitting first baseman, shift Huff to designated hitter and Scott to a back-up role. I suspect that Nolan Reimold will be donning a first baseman's mitt quite a bit this spring.

Still, MacPhail has done an admirable job building this team for 2009 as it waits for young pitching to develop for the future. The lineup above, especially if Reimold earns a slot, has a nice mix of long-term solutions (Markakis, Wieters, Jones, Pie) and veteran fill-ins (Roberts, Mora, Scott, Huff, Izturis), plus it should play very good defense. With Roberts, Mora and Huff, all up for free agency after 2009, there are still lots of holes to fill for the long-term, but this does appear to be a team headed in the right direction.

Markakis Deal Imminent?

The Baltimore Sun is reporting perhaps the best news of the offseason today: "The Orioles and Nick Markakis are close to a six-year deal worth between $64 million and $66 million in guaranteed money." The deal would allow Markakis and the O's to avoid impending arbitration for 2009, as well as 2010 and 2011, and postpone Nick's first chance at free agency until after the 2014 season. This seems like an eminently reasonable deal for both sides, very much in-line with recent deals signed by Dustin Pedroia (6-years, $40 million, two free agent years bought out) and Cole Hamels (3-years, $20.5 million, zero free agent years bought out).

Hard as it is to believe, this will be either the second or third largest deal (in nominal terms) in Orioles history, and unfortunately, neither of the current largest deals turned out very well; Miguel Tejada's 6-year/$72 million deal in 2003 and Albert Belle's 5-year/$65 million deal in 1998 both soured quickly.

So what makes the Markakis deal more promising? First and foremost is age. Markakis will play his age 25 season in 2009, and will be just 30 years old when the contract expires. Thus, the Orioles have locked up their best player for what are likely to be his peak seasons. In comparison, the Orioles signed Tejada prior to his age 30 season and Belle before his age 32 season. Markakis is also regarded as an excellent defensive player, and according to Baseball Prospectus, is roughly a one win upgrade over an average rightfielder. Belle was certainly never known for his fielding prowess, and Tejada rates as (at least) one win below the average shortstop.

I love this deal for the Orioles, and Markakis must be happy that he's going to guarantee himself $65 million in career earnings before he even turns 31. Here's looking forward to at least six more seasons with Nick in right field.