Baltimore Orioles fans are used to sluggish offseasons. During free agency last year, the team lost reigning home run champion Nelson Cruz to the Seattle Mariners, longtime right fielder and fan favorite Nick Markakis to the Atlanta Braves and filthy southpaw reliever Andrew Miller to the Evil Empire, also known as the New York Yankees.
The narrative has varied this year, however, as executive vice president Dan Duquette has been proactive early in the offseason. The team retained the services of catcher Matt Wieters when he signed a one-year, $15.8 million qualifying offer. After dealing with injuries and limited productivity, Wieters will look to rebound and receive a bigger contract from Baltimore or elsewhere in 2016.
The move allowed the O’s to send backup catcher and lifelong Marylander Steve Clevenger to the Mariners in exchange for 29-year-old Mark Trumbo, who can play right field and first base, although he is exceptionally skilled at neither. His real talent lies in his bat. The move was seen as a cash dump for the Mariners, who are now off the hook for Trumbo’s approximately $9 million salary. Baltimore now has a potential replacement for slugger Chris Davis in Trumbo, who hit .262 with 22 home runs and 64 RBI last year between stints with the Arizona Diamondbacks and Seattle Mariners.
The team also stunned analysts when it outbid the Nationals and locked up right-handed reliever Darren O’Day to a four-year, $31 million contract. With a 1.52 ERA in 65.1 innings last season and 1.70 ERA in 68.2 innings the previous year, O’Day has proven himself to be as reliable as any relief pitcher in today’s game. The move was costly, though, for a team that shies away from giving huge contracts to relievers.
One of the most interesting moves was the acquisition of 27-year-old Korean outfielder Hyun-soo Kim. The left-hander will fill two needs as he is projected to play left field and was consistently able to get on base during his 10-year tenure with the Doosan Bears of the Korean Baseball Organization, in which he owned a career on-base percentage of .406. He had 101 walks and 63 strikeouts last year. To put that in perspective, the Orioles’ leader on the basepaths last season (excluding pitchers with minimal at-bats) was Chris Davis at .361. But, to be fair, the Korean Baseball Organization is not nearly as competitive as MLB, so the jury is out on how Kim’s ability will translate to the American game.
From an unknown to a sure thing, Chris Davis was offered a contract of $150 million over seven years, but the Orioles pulled the offer due to Davis’ delay in accepting. His agent, Scott Boras, is notorious for trying to squeeze money out of team owners, and this was no exception. As much as I would like to see Crush smashing baseballs into the stands for the next several years, gigantic contracts rarely work out. Just look at Ryan Howard’s five-year, $125 million extension. Or Alex Rodriguez’s $252 million deal for 10 years. Or Shin-Soo Choo and his seven-year, $140 million deal.
For a guy as streaky as Davis, and for a team that maintains a salary around league average, the team might be better by allocating its resources on some of the other needs. With the likely departure of Wei-Yin Chen, who was not great but very solid over the last four years in Charm City, the Orioles need at least one above-average starting pitcher – preferably a southpaw – and could still use another left-handed batter who can get on-base. Some attractive options for those respective roles are Justin Upton (.336 OBP with 26 homers and 19 steals in 2015), Alex Gordon (.377 OBP last year with 13 dingers), who might command higher salaries than the Orioles are willing to offer. A cheaper and more likely option would be to bring back Gerardo Parra, who had a .328 batting average in 100 games with the Brewers before a July trade to Baltimore, where he hit just .237 in 55 games.
While the Orioles’ offseason has got off to an uncharacteristically productive start, the team still needs to attain a few key pieces if it wants to remain competitive in the AL East.