November 16, 2012 in Baltimore Orioles Offseason
The Baltimore Orioles are coming off their best season since the 90's, and are facing an AL East that has it's two juggernauts retooling, as both the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox are seeing age and contracts catch up to them. While neither should be considered out of the hunt, both are weaker than they've been in the last decade. Now the Orioles other two division opponents aren't to be forgotten. The Rays despite their small payroll are incredibly dangerous with their deep rotation and farm system. The Toronto Blue Jays, just made a mega deal landing them two very good starters and an All-star shortstop without giving up much in immediate talent. Toronto and Tampa both have some key players returning from injuries, and present a real threat for the Orioles chances of winning 90+ games. The Orioles need a strong offseason if they hope take the East or make it back to the playoffs as a wild card. This is my blueprint and reasoning for the moves they should make. .
Needs:2 Starting Pitchers
The Orioles are set in the bullpen, but need to make some serious upgrades both on offense and in the rotation. Though many don't consider the rotation that much of an issue due to the presences of Jason Hammel, Wei-Yin Chen, Miguel Gonzalez, Chris Tillman, Zach Britton, Steve Johnson, Brian Matusz, Tommy Hunter, Jake Arrieta, and Dylan Bundy, that is extremely short-sided. Though Hammel and Chen were both very good last year, and are well deserving of spots they aren't on par with top pitchers in baseball, putting additional pressure on the other three spots to be effective. Also, Hammel has never pitched more than 177 innings in a season and is in the final year of team control. As for the rest of the names mentioned, conventional wisdom is that both Gonzalez and Tillman did enough to earn a spot in the rotation, and the 5th spot can be filled by one of the other names or a moderate free agent signing. Miguel Gonzalez no doubt was impressive last year, but he's a 28 year old journeyman starter, who was solid (not great despite the record) for 15 starts last year. He's never pitched more than 145 innings in any season (and that is a combination of minors and majors), and you are now expecting him to be an integral member of a playoff rotation, capable of 180+ innings and 32+ starts. As for Tillman, he's looked the best he's been, but the Orioles have been teased by his promise before, and it's bitten them. Guys like Matusz and Britton have a ton of promise as well, but it's unclear if it will ever come through. While a guy like Bundy has untold potential, rushing him could be a recipe for disaster. The other guys are really nothing more than filler and stopgaps. It would be one thing to go into a season with this group of pitchers if you were a rebuilding team hoping for 75 or more wins, but to pin your playoff hopes on this rotation would be irresponsible. That is why the Orioles need not just one, but two good starters.
Don't believe it? Well consider these numbers. The Orioles finished 21st in the league in quality starts, and while their team ERA was middle of the pack their bullpen had a lot to do with that. Among starting pitchers the Orioles finished tied for 13th with 61 wins, while 13th doesn't seem that bad it was the lowest among all 10 playoff teams. They ranked 15th worst in losses among their starters, again worst among all playoff teams. They also had the fewest innings pitched by their starters among playoff teams. The Orioles starters were tied for the 4th highest home runs per 9 innings, and while being in the AL East and playing at Camden Yards will impact that, it's a number that has to go down. Their starters ERA is 10th worst in baseball and not surprisingly the highest among playoff teams. There are plenty of additional stats that put the Orioles starters at the bottom of the pile among playoff teams (and sometimes in general as well), leaving the simple fact that their starting pitching is well below par. Yes the Orioles bullpen was able to make up for it, but that can't be relied upon to occur every time. The Orioles due to their propensity for extra inning games, pitched the highest number of innings in baseball 1,483 last season, and despite finishing 20th in starter innings, their starters still accounted for 63% of all the innings. Fixing the starting rotation is an absolute must.
(Though there are some trade targets the Orioles weaker farm system keeps them from likely going that route)
SP Anibal Sanchez:
Sanchez might not wow you with his win totals, but his peripheral numbers indicated that he's exactly what the Orioles are looking for. He's had a sub 4.00 ERA each of the last three years (and in fact any year where he's made more than 10 starts), and even looking at his 12 AL starts with the Tigers his ERA was 3.75. Each of the last three seasons he's pitched either 195 or 196 innings, showing nice durability. His walk rate would have been lower than any of the Orioles starters that started at least 15 games. His ground ball percentage and Home run rate would have only been behind Hammel in terms of effectiveness. Sanchez also picked up some playoff experience this past year and posted a 1.77 ERA and sub 1.0 WHIP in his 20.1 innings for the Tigers this fall. Sanchez at 29 years old (age for the start of next season) is one of the few sub-30 quality pitchers out there and could be someone the Orioles build with the next few years. Now he will cost some money and years, but he's someone the Orioles need to open up their checkbook for if they are serious about a repeat playoff appearance. They could be looking at a 4 year deal in the neighborhood of $15 million a year, but it is worth it for Baltimore.
Jackson is in many ways a lot like Anibal Sanchez, though is perhaps underrated. Jackson came up as a top pitching prospect for the Dodgers and has flashed brilliance at times, but he's not near consistent enough to think that he can turn the corner. He has been remarkably consistent, despite pitching six different teams in the last five years. Since 2008 Jackson has never pitched less than 183 innings, and has gone over the 200 inning mark twice, Of those five years he has two seasons with sub 4.00 ERA's, including 2009 where he pitched in Detroit and 2011 where he pitched most of the year with the White Sox. His peripherals fluctuate some as well, but he's shown an ability to be a solid ground ball pitcher (47.3% last year), and in both 2010 and 2011 had a home run rate below 1 per 9 innings pitched. Those two stats are a must to succeed in Baltimore and the AL East. While his playoff performance hasn't been stellar he's been a part of contending teams each of the last 5 years (for at least part of the year). He's by no means an ace, but he's a far better durable and consistent option than most of the guys the Orioles would look to trot out there next year. Jackson will be just 29 next season, and actually could be undervalued by the market. It wouldn't be shocking to see him average closer to $10 million a year for no more than 3 years.
Sanchez and Jackson are by no means the only quality starters available, but unless the Orioles break the bank for Zack Grienke, they will be hard pressed to find pitchers that suit their needs as much. Sanchez and Jackson are both young (in terms of free agents), durable starters who are relatively strong in the areas where the Orioles need the most help. Ground ball pitchers who aren't as homer prone, and who don't walk as many batters are the best way to get by without having a pure ace. A rotation of Hammel, Chen, Sanchez, and Jackson all but ensures the Orioles of the starting pitching talent of a real playoff team. If their bullpen, and offense repeat their performance (or come close), the Orioles should be able to get 90+ wins again. Yes it may lead to some tough decisions among the rest of the Orioles pitchers, but that is the mark of a quality team, and could give them some depth to trade from for future assets.