Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Hot Stove Time!

It’s December.  Hockey season is in full swing.  The NFL is entering the home stretch and millions of fantasy football players are bitching about their team for the tenth year in a row.  So it’s the perfect time to write about baseball.  That’s right, with the grey clouds and brisk winds blowing lets talk about summer’s game.

There is something about going back to Baltimore that always puts me in a mood to talk about baseball.  Perhaps it’s hanging out in my brother-in-laws basement which is adorned with Orioles gear from wall to wall.  Or it’s seeing all of the black and orange, or staying at a hotel overlooking the ballpark (if you’re going to town to see the game, the Sheraton Inner Harbor can’t be beat for location).

So let‘s talk Hot Stove! It’s still early in the process - of the top 10 free agents on the market only 1 has signed.  The ink is barely drying on Jordan Zimmermann’s new deal with the Tigers. One of the top starters on the market set the bar at 5 years and $110 million.  That will pretty much price the Orioles out of the David Price/Zach Grienke/Johnny Cuerto market.  With an estimated $30-$40 million to spend and A LOT of holes to patch, blowing it all on one starter isn’t in their plans.

So what should they do?  Hoping that Dylan Bundy’s arm stays together for an entire season is probably not the best plan.  There aren’t any prospects to call up that can step into a starting role. There is too much needed for Dan Duquette to rely on his patented wait-and-see style.  Without having a top tier ace available to them (sorry Chris Tillman) they should probably focus on adding as much offense as possible to the line up.  Doing that without Chris Davis and his 40 home runs is going to be challenging.(but not impossible).

At least our GM doesn't have one foot out the door this offseason

First off, go hard for a free agent corner outfielder not named Gerardo Parra.  The top two on the market are Alex Gordon and Jason Heyward (Don’t come at me with Yoenis Cespedes, too many injuries and much too inconsistency..  Also, there has to be a reason he’s been traded roughly 75 times over the last two years). Both Gordon and Heyward would cost the O’s their number one pick in the upcoming draft so it’s a huge decision to make.  Actually it’s not.  Go ahead and look at the O’s draft history.  I’ll wait…..not pretty, eh? .

If I had my druthers I would sign Heyward. You sacrifice a little bit of power for a more all-around game. He does something that the O’s struggle to do - get on base. He posted a .359 On-Base Percentage last year, which would tie him for second on the O’s with Manny Machado (Chris Davis, despite his strike out tendencies led the team with a .361 OBP).  Playing with a shorter porch in right field might see the former Atlanta Brave bring his power levels up to the  low-to-mid 20’s.  Not quite Crush Davis territory, but better than what they’ve gotten out of right field the last few years.

The J-Hey Kid would also give Baltimore some semblance of a running game.  He averages 20+ stolen bases a game (I know, stolen bases are an old-timey stat nobody likes anymore), but for a team that doesn’t manufacture runs very well, having someone who can pick up an extra base with a steal roughly 76% of the time isn’t a bad thing.  Would he hit leadoff?  Maybe. I could see Buck Showalter rotating Heyward and Machado in the top spot depending on match-ups.  Slide Adam Jones into the third slot with Matt Wieters hitting clean up wouldn’t be a shabby way to start off a lineup.

Speaking of Jones. Having an outfield of Jones, Heyward and a pot of steamed crabs in left field would be better than some of the combinations they put out there last year.  Heyward would give the O’s some consistency they haven’t seen in right field since Nick Markakis left. With the depth chart showing Ryan Flaherty as the de facto starting right fielder should the season start today, Heyward would be a tremendous upgrade.

So what’s this going to cost the O’s? Well, their first round pick since Heyward declined his qualifying offer from the Cardinals.  At 26-years-old his most productive years are still ahead of him.  I could see him signing anywhere from a 6-10 year deal with an annual value between $20-$22 million. Not cheap, but not too crazy considering he is probably the best all around position player available.  This is exactly the type of free agent that is worth sacrificing a first round pick for.

As a second choice, Alex Gordon wouldn’t be bad either.  The main separator between him and Heyward would be the fact that Gordon is five years older.  The benefit is that he would be a little cheaper to sign in terms of length of contract. The drawback being well…he’s five years older and his window of productivity is shorter.

Gordon would give Showalter some lineup flexibility as he can fill in at first base as well as play the outfield.  He brings the same strengths to the lineup - defense, getting on base and a little bit of pop in the bat. Giving him $20 million per year over 4 or 5 years wouldn’t be absurd.

Plus, we could all re-live the Alex Gordon Rookie Card Story!

Signing either player sucks up about half of the club’s theological money to spend.  That leaves them $15-$20 million to find another corner outfielder, a starting pitcher and a first baseman.  That’s going to be tough, and at least one of those spots will have to be filled internally. However, that’s an upgrade considering they’ve been trying to patch two or three spots with AAAA players for the past two seasons.

There has been some mutterings on the internets that the O’s could consider giving prospect Trey Mancini a chance of winning the first base job in spring training.  Which I would love, because promoting from within is awesome, but asking a kid who hasn’t played above AA to jump into the minors is a bit much.  I’d rather see him start in AA or AAA to keep his confidence up and see if they can get a stop-gap solution for this year.

Enter Mr. James Loney. The 31-year-old Tampa Bay Ray might be on the downside of his career, but he still brings value in his defense and experience.  The O’s might not have the caliber of prospects to go after higher end trade targets, but they do have the ability to pay his contract.  If they call up the Rays and offer to take Loney off of their hands and pay 90% of the $9.67 million he is owed, they can get him for a mid-tier prospect.

Let Loney start and have Christian Walker on the bench if you feel the overwhelming need to have a home-grown talent on the roster.  God, looking at the top prospects for the O’s is a little depressing. I haven't seen this many C and D ratings since my sisters high school report card. Draft better Baltimore!

Loney won’t strike fear into pitchers, but he will make the infield better.  Imagine an infield of Loney, Machado, JJ Hardy and Jonathan Scoop.  Not a bad foursome to pitch in front of.  Especially if you’re a ground ball pitcher like….

…Mike Leake.  A second-tier free agent pitcher who probably won’t sign until after the big boys start getting crossed off the list, Leake would be a good fit for Camden Yards. He doesn’t walk many (2.3 walks/9 innings) and gets a lot of groundballs (over 50% ground ball rate for his career).  While I normally don’t like pitchers jumping from the National League to the AL East, he has a skill set that should carry over.  Plus he’s only 27!  And he doesn’t cost another draft pick!

Would he be an ace?  Simply put - no.  He would slide in behind Tillman as the probable number 2 starter, or 3rd if Kevin Gausman lives up to his potential.  What he would do is eat up a lot of innings while keeping the O’s in the game.  The fact that he barely touches 90MPH with his fastball is offset by the fact that he throws strikes and mixes up his pitches.  No one is going to confuse him with Greg Maddux, but a second coming of Mike Boddicker wouldn’t hurt the rotation.

Signing him to a five-year $75 million deal wouldn’t break the bank (even if it would be the 3rd highest deal on the team) and keep him under control through his prime years.  Since he isn’t a power pitcher, his numbers should stay consistent as he ages since he won’t be hurt by a deteriorating fast ball (can’t lose what you never had!).

If the O’s could pull off those two signings and one trade they would be a much deeper team than the 2015 version.  They would still have a hole or two (hey maybe this is the year Nolan Reimold stays healthy!) and a don’t think they would be a favorite to win the AL East, but they wouldn’t embarrass themselves.

Justin G.’s Projected Rotation and Lineup:

Chris Tillman
Ubaldo Jimenez
Mike Leake
Kevin Gausman
Michael Gonzalez

Manny Machado - 3B
Jason Heyward - RF
Adam Jones - CF
Matt Wieters - C
James Loney - 1B
Steve Clevenger - DH
JJ Hardy - SS
LJ Hoes - LF
Jonathan Scoop - 2B

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