Tha Crossroads

 

I feel like this needs to be discussed with all the Jeff Samardzija talk flying around lately, are the Orioles buyers or sellers this year and more importantly which one should they be? As you can probably tell, I think the O’s are at a crossroads as an organization and how they answer the above question (both in words and even more so in actions) will have a huge impact on the teams we see in the next 4-5 years.

Obviously the short term view depends a lot on where they are in the standings as we get closer to the trade deadline.  I’m not a fan of that approach unless you think you can make it to the World Series and not just make it to the playoffs. I think it is more complicated than that.  I’ll start with the current MLB Roster and contracts that will be expiring soon.

  • Nick Markakis – 30 years old, contract expires after 2014 season with a $17.5M team option for 2015.
  • JJ Hardy – 31 years old, contract expires after 2014 season.
  • Wei-Yin Chen – 28 years old, contract expires after 2014 season with a $4.75M team option for 2015.
  • Chris Davis – 28 years old, 2nd arbitration year eligible would become FA after 2015 season.
  • Nick Hundley – 30 years old, contract expires after 2014 season with a $5M team option for 2015.
  • Nelson Cruz – 33 years old, contract expires after 2014 season.
  • Matt Wieters – 28 years old, arbitration eligible would become FA after 2015 season.
  • Darren O’Day – 31 years old, contract expires after 2014 season with $4.25M team option for 2015.
  • Bud Norris – 29 years old, arbitration eligible would become FA after 2015 season.
  • Tommy Hunter – 27 years old, arbitration eligible would become FA after 2015 season.
  • Steve Pearce – 31 years old, arbitration eligible would become FA after 2015 season.

Everybody else is under team control until at least after the 2016 season.  There are 5 every day position players on this list and one very valuable platoon piece in Pearce.  Also on the list is O’Day who is probably the teams best reliever as well as (potential) closer of the next few years in Tommy Hunter.  Let’s look more specifically at the contracts expiring after this season though.  Nick Markakis (everyday RF), JJ Hardy (everyday SS), Wei-Yin Chen (solid 6IP or < 100 pitches SP), Nick Hundley (current C due to Wieters injury), Darren O’Day (major bullpen arm) and Nelson Cruz (homerun hitter extraordinaire so far in 2014).  You can probably cross Hundley off the list of future plans and I’d be pretty shocked if the team option for O’Day isn’t picked up.  Chen at this point would probably have his option picked up as well, so that extends O’Day and Chen until after the 2015 season where you have to give huge money (probably) to either Chris Davis or Matt Wieters (or both if the Orioles somehow decide to dramatically increase their budget) if you want to keep them and more importantly IF they want to stay, especially as Boras clients.  Anyway, that leaves this years free agents to be as Markakis, Hardy and Cruz followed by (probably) at least one of Wieters and Davis plus Bud Norris, Pearce and Hunter the following season.  That is a large part of the MLB roster over the next 2 years.  As far as trade chips go ranked in order from most valuable to least it probably goes something like Cruz, Davis, Wieters, Hardy, Markakis, Norris, Hunter, Pearce with really only the top 3 having definite value.  Markakis and Hardy have value but that value will fluctuate wildly depending on how this current season continues to unfold.

Let’s just assume that all of these players leave via free agency and look at the other side of the scenario, which is the farm system, to see what we have to replace them.  To do that, let’s look at some minor league rankings.

First from fangraphs who rank the O’s system 14th:

14 – Baltimore Orioles
– IMPACT (4) – RHP Dylan Bundy, RHP Kevin Gausman, RHP Hunter Harvey, RHP Eduardo Rodriguez
– Other 2013 Impact – None
– Strength/Weakness – Obvious strength is high-end starting pitching; obvious weakness is almost total absence of high-end offensive potential.
– Depth Ratio – 1.00
– One I Like More – C Chance Sisco – It’s only 102 rookie ball at-bats, but for an 18-year-old to bat .363-.468-.451 at any position is a big deal. For a lefthanded-hitting catcher, it’s an even bigger deal.
– One I Like Less – LHP Tim Berry – Can’t get too worked up by a 22-year-old putting up below league average numbers and peripherals in the pitcher-friendly Carolina League. He’s a prospect, but not a major one.
– Observation – As usual, the O’s system is top-heavy, but each of those four impact pitchers is extremely interesting. Harvey’s 2013 was scintillating – he could turn out to be one of the single best selections in last year’s draft.

And now from Baseball Prospectus who rank them 12th:

12. Baltimore Orioles
Farm System Ranking in 2013: 20
2014 Top Ten Prospects: Link
State of the System: Gausman and Bundy are still frontline monsters, but a strong draft in 2013 (Harvey, Hart) and the continued development of Eduardo Rodriguez and Mike Wright have taken the system up a few notches.
Top Prospect:Kevin Gausman (10)
Breakout Candidates for 2014: Chance Sisco and Stephen Tarpley
Prospects on the BP 101: 5
Must-See Affiliate: Double-A Bowie
Prospects to See There: Eduardo Rodriguez, Tim BerryZachary DaviesChristian Walker.
Farm System Trajectory for 2015: Down. The Orioles are likely to graduate five of their top six prospects to the majors, leaving the fate of the farm on the young talent at the lower levels of the minors.

They seem to be pretty much in line with my thinking as well, the top of the system is full of talented young pitchers who inflate the value of the system as a whole that is bereft of an hitters of consequence.  There is trade value in the minor league system to be sure but their names are Bundy, Gausman and Harvey and not much else as anything more than a throw in to a deal as a sweetener.

Given the lack of hitting prospects it makes it an even bigger gamble to trade away future arms for 1 overrated Jeff Samardzija with an expiring contract at the end of 2015.  Especially when you will likely lose 2-3 of your 5 best hitters to free agency by the end of that contract.

Now the crossroads part.  Looking at the talent level at the major and minor league level you have to seriously decide if you can turn any combination of that into a World Series appearance in the next 2 years.  Some may think that with a Jeff Samardzija type starter and a few other complimentary pieces that you you could be a contender with Cruz under contract this season and Davis/Wieters next year.  That would not be my opinion though.  I think that even with a new top of the rotation starter the Orioles are not much more than a Wild Card team that would need everything to go right in order to advance out of the divisional round.  I am more of the opinion that you should trade away Cruz while you have the chance for some young bats and do the same with Matt Wieters when he is healthy.  I have a soft spot for Davis and I’d have to love the haul to be excited about a trade involving him though I would definitely understand.  In the meantime if you can get decent enough returns for Markakis and Hardy I would pull the trigger there as well.  In reality the team will not be able to resign all their free agents and should get something for them before their value turns into Jemile Weeks.  I’ll be rooting for both Kakes and JJ to get hot over the summer and increase their value, though that will cause many O’s fans to further support the mortgaging of the farm.  I guess we’ll find out that one side will unfortunately mirror the fate of dear old Uncle Charles.  Until then, I’ll see you at tha crossroads.

~Jjaks Clayton

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