Five Questions: Baltimore Orioles

Baltimore is a team with an interesting dichotomy. The Orioles went out and signed four expensive, veteran free agents, but they will feature a very young outfield and starting rotation. It will be interesting to see what comes of this combination of young and old, cheap and costly.

1) How much will Miguel Tejada, Javy Lopez, and Rafael Palmeiro help the Orioles?

First of all, Palmeiro doesn’t really help the Orioles at all. He is essentially replacing Jeff Conine in Baltimore’s lineup, and he can’t be expected to produce more than Conine did last year.

In his time with the Orioles, Conine hit .290/.338/.460 for a .267 GPA in 547 plate appearances. At first glance, it may seem like Palmeiro was much better than that. After all, he hit .260/.359/.508 for a .289 GPA in 654 plate appearances.

However, when you look more closely, you can see that Palmeiro’s 117 OPS+ was only slightly better than Conine’s 113 OPS+ and his 19 Win Shares were only five more than the 14 Win Shares Conine had for Baltimore. When you figure in that Palmeiro will likely decline at least slightly at age 39, he is not going to be an upgrade over what the Orioles had last year.

Tejada and Lopez are big improvements for Baltimore, though. It’s not just that the two of them are good, but also that the players they are replacing were terrible. Last season, Tejada (25) and Lopez (30) combined for 55 Win Shares. The players they’re replacing — Deivi Cruz (10) and Brook Fordyce (5) — combined for 15 Win Shares. With three Win Shares worth one win, Tejada and Lopez alone were about 13 wins better than Cruz and Fordyce.

Before you get all excited, that does not mean that the Orioles would win 84 games this season if they got the same production as last year from every position besides shortstop and catcher. First, even if Tejada and Lopez exactly match last year’s production, you have to remember that they combined for 1,198 plate appearances while Cruz and Fordyce combined for 948 plate appearances. The players who made up that 250 plate appearance difference did provide some value for the Orioles.

Second, Tejada and Lopez will not exactly match their production from last year. While Tejada could match, or even improve upon, last season’s performance, Lopez is going to decline significantly.

By now you’ve probably already heard enough about Lopez’s turnaround, but here it is again just in case you’ve forgotten. Last year, Lopez hit .328/.378/.687 for a .342 GPA and 30 Win Shares in 495 plate appearances. In the previous two seasons combined, Lopez hit .252/.311/.401 for a .240 GPA and 23 Win Shares in 867 plate appearances.

I would expect that Lopez will hit about .290/.340/.500 for a .278 GPA and about 20 Win Shares in 500 plate appearances (assuming he sees some time at designated hitter). With Tejada likely to put up another 25-27 Win Share season, Baltimore’s trio of big free agent hitters will probably be about seven wins better than what the Orioles got from those spots last year.

2) Haven’t we seen this before from the Orioles?

Well, there are some similarities to Baltimore’s recent history. In 1998, the Orioles finished a disappointing fourth and had to watch as division rivals New York and Boston both played in the post-season. That off-season, the Orioles went out and signed, among others, Albert Belle, Will Clark and Delino DeShields, each of whom were coming off seasons ranging from solid to great.

The Orioles ended up paying those three players approximately $85 million for, supposedly, 10 years of service. As I’ve already mentioned, the Orioles — who finished fourth last year and had to watch the Yankees and Red Sox meet in the ALCS — went out and signed, among others, Miguel Tejada, Javy Lopez and Rafael Palmeiro. Those three players are due to earn approximately $100 million for 10 years of service.

In case you don’t remember, Baltimore’s last foray into the free agent market didn’t go so well. Belle was good in his first season in Baltimore, but he slumped to about average for a corner outfielder the next year before hip problems ended his career.

Clark hit well in his first season in Baltimore, but injuries limited to just 77 games. He was hitting well again the next year before the Orioles traded him to St. Louis. DeShields had an awful first season in Baltimore and then rebounded with a solid second season. He was on his way to a terrible third season when the Orioles released him after 58 games.

Is this year’s trio of free agent hitters going to be a better investment than that year’s?

Palmeiro’s probably the easiest of the three to evaluate because he was only signed for one year and $4.5 million. Even though he will probably decline this year, Palmeiro should be good enough that his contract won’t end up looking ridiculous.

Lopez, on the other hand, is not going to provide a good return on Baltimore’s investment. He’s 33 years old and has had trouble with injuries throughout his career, and catchers haven’t been known to get more durable as they age. While I expect him to be better than average this year, he could very well be bad and/or unable to play much for the final two years of the contract.

The player who will ultimately determine whether or not this off-season splurge was worthwhile is obviously Tejada, who is signed for $72 million over six years. If Tejada is really 27 years old and has four seasons similar to the last three before tailing off a little over the final two years, then his deal will end up being a good one.

If 2002 was the peak of Tejada’s career and he continues to decline from that peak, he could be a below average shortstop for the last two or three years of his contract. If that happens, then Baltimore will have vastly overspent on yet another trio of free agents.

Belle’s hip shows that you never know what can happen two or three seasons down the road, but it’s definitely smarter to give an expensive, six-year contract to a 27-year-old shortstop than it is to give an expensive, five-year contract to a 32-year-old outfielder.

3) What does 2004 have in store for Melvin Mora?

Between Mora and Lopez, Baltimore has two of baseball’s four or five most surprisingly-good hitters from last year. Just as Lopez is very unlikely to match last season’s performance, Mora is almost certain to regress significantly this year.

Mora’s minor-league numbers were never all that inspiring. He generally had decent OBPs, but he showed very little power and he didn’t even get his first taste of the major leagues until he was 27 years old (and even then, he only got 31 at-bats).

His first three full seasons in the majors were similar to his minor-league performances, as he had OBPs of .337, .329 and .338, but showed little power and had an OPS+ below 100 each year. Then came last year’s career year.

Mora struggled with injuries last season and was only able to play 96 games, but he was unbelievable when he did play. He hit .317/.418/.503 for a .314 GPA and 148 OPS+ in 413 plate appearances. My best guess is that Mora will slump to around .280/.350/.425 for a .264 GPA this year.

The real key for the Orioles, however, might be Mora’s health. If Mora can play 150 games this season, he should actually be able to surpass the 16 Win Shares he earned for Baltimore last year. If he has to miss a significant amount of time, however, the Orioles will have to fill in with Luis Lopez, which would be a big problem.

4) How good is Baltimore’s young outfield?

The Orioles have the second-youngest outfield in the major leagues, and one of just three outfields in which each starter has yet to reach his 30th birthday. Luis Matos (25) will start in center field with Larry Bigbie (26) in left field and Jay Gibbons (27) in right field.

The only team with a younger outfield is Tampa Bay, with Carl Crawford (21), Rocco Baldelli (22) and Jose Cruz Jr. (29), and Cruz will turn 30 on April 19. The third team with three starting outfielders younger than 30 is Milwaukee, with Ben Grieve (27), Scott Podsednik (28) and Geoff Jenkins (29).

So, we’ve established that Baltimore’s outfield is young, but is it any good? Well, Gibbons has the most experience of the three, so let’s look at him first.

Gibbons has been pretty consistent in his major-league career. He posted a 109 OPS+ in his half-season in 2001, followed that with a 109 OPS+ in his first full season and then improved all the way to a 110 OPS+ last year. However, the manner in which he achieved those numbers changed from 2002 to 2003. He improved his batting average by 30 points last year, but he hit five fewer home runs in 135 more at-bats.

Because Gibbons improved his OBP, his GPA went up slightly, from .260 to .263. However, his unintentional walk rate actually declined significantly. Gibbons drew an unintentional walk once every 11.7 at-bats in 2002, but slipped to one every 16.4 at-bats last year. If his improved batting average was a fluke and he slips back to the .250 range, his OBP will be awful and he’ll need to get his 2002 power numbers back.

Bigbie got his first chance to see a decent amount of playing time in the majors last year, and he was pretty impressive, hitting .303/.365/.456 for a .278 GPA and a 120 OPS+ in 319 plate appearances. Bigbie didn’t show nearly as much power in the minors as you’d like to see from an outfielder, but he did hit .290-.300 at three different levels.

Bigbie may not ever hit 30 home runs, but he’ll get on base and provide enough power to be an effictive offensive player.

Matos also saw regular playing time in the majors for the first time last year, and he put up numbers nearly identical to those of Bigbie. He hit .303/.353/.458 for a .273 GPA and a 117 OPS+ in 486 plate appearances. He also provided almost those same numbers (.303/.347/.457) in 45 games at Class AAA.

Matos could use some more plate discipline, but he does have a decent combination of power and speed. He also appears to be at least average defensively in center field.

Gibbons probably has the lowest ceiling of the three, but he’s been a solid major leaguer for more than two seasons. If the Orioles hang on to all three players, they should have an above average hitter at each outfield position for at least the next few years.

5) Is there any hope for Baltimore’s starting rotation?

Surprisingly enough, there is. Omar Daal is out until at least the All-Star break and Rodrigo Lopez had been demoted to the bullpen, so Baltimore will be surrounding Sidney Ponson, an elder statesman at 27 years old, with four inexperienced youngsters.

Number two starter Eric DuBose is 27 years old, and actually older than Ponson, but he’s only pitched 79.2 innings in the majors. Kurt Ainsworth, 25 years old, has pitched 96 major-league innings and will be the number three starter and 24-year-old Matt Riley, who pitched 11 innings in the majors in 1999 and then took three seasons to get back there and pitch 10 innings last year, will be the fourth starter. Finally, Erik Bedard, 25 years old, will be the fifth starter despite the fact that he’s gotten just two hitters out in the major leagues.

Some people look at that rotation and say that the four starters following Ponson have combined for 10 wins in their careers. I look at that rotation and say that I’d rather have four young, talented uncertainties than four veterans who have proven that they aren’t any good.

Actually, the Baltimore rotation is a perfect example of the unreliability of young pitchers and the miracles of modern medicine. Aside from Ponson, who was signed as a non-drafted free agent in 1993, each member of the rotation was a fairly high draft pick who has suffered a serious injury in the last three years.

DuBose was a first round pick of the Oakland A’s in 1997, and he missed all of 2001 after having surgery on his left labrum and rotator cuff. Ainsworth was drafted in the first round by San Francisco in 1999 and his rookie season was cut short by a broken shoulder last year. Riley was Baltimore’s third-round pick in 1997, but he missed all of 2001 recovering from Tommy John surgery. Bedard was Baltimore’s sixth-round pick in 1997, and he had Tommy John surgery in September of 2002 that limited him to just 19.1 innings last year.

So, we know each of these four young players had high expectations, but carry injury histories. Now let’s look at what each of them have done since being drafted.

After missing the 2001 season, DuBose played in Class AA in 2002 and posted a 2.51 ERA, 9.19 K/9IP and 2.92 BB/9IP with just two homers allowed in 64.2 innings. He started last season in Class AAA Ottawa. After posting a 3.39 ERA, 8.45 K/9IP, 2.68 BB/9IP and 0.55 HR/9IP in 114 innings, he was promoted to the majors. He did post a solid 3.79 ERA, but his strikeout rate took a hit (5.38 K/9IP) and he’ll need to improve that to be successful this year.

Ainsworth was having a solid rookie season with a 3.82 ERA in 66 innings for the Giants when he broke his shoulder. However, his strikeouts (6.55 K/9IP) were significantly down from his minor league rates and he was still issuing a lot of walks (3.55 BB/9IP). At Class AAA, Ainsworth had a 9.48 K/9IP and 3.26 BB/9IP in 149 innings in 2001 and a 9.23 K/9IP and 3.34 BB/9IP in 116 innings in 2002. He’ll be more likely to keep his ERA under 4.00 this year if he can cut down on the walks slightly and get the strikeout rate back up in the 7.00-8.00 range.

Riley came out of Sacramento City College, dominated at three levels his first two seasons and made his major-league debut at age 19. Then everything fell apart in 2000, he missed 2001 recovering from surgery and he struggled mightily in 2002. Last year, Riley was finally back, pitching just over 70 innings each at Class AA and Class AAA and posting an ERA below 3.60 and K/9IP rate above 9.00 with just four home runs allowed at each level.

Bedard was dominant in his first four seasons as a pro before Tommy John surgery ended his 2002 season and cost him most of last season. He had a 10.62 K/9IP at Class A in 2000, a 12.19 K/9IP at Class A in 2001 and a 8.65 K/9IP at Class AA in 2002 and he’s allowed just eight home runs in his professional career.

So, you can see that while all four are inexperienced, they’ve all had success of varying degrees at varying levels. They’ll all experience growing pains and take a beating every now and then, but the fact that the potential to be a good pitcher is there is a nice thing.

Actually, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if Ponson, who probably will not be quite as good as he was last year, is not Baltimore’s best pitcher this season. I couldn’t guess which of the other four would top him, but I’d be willing to bet that one of them will.

In Closing…

Is Baltimore a lock for yet another fourth-place finish? No, not at all. If they stay healthy and get breakout seasons from at least two of their young starters, along with a lucky break or two, the Orioles could certainly pass Toronto for third place.

However, it’s just as possible that all of the young starters will struggle, Lopez, Mora and Palmeiro will decline more than expected and Baltimore will finish in last place. Ultimately, fourth place seems to be the most likely destination for a seventh consecutive season.

There are reasons to be excited about baseball in Baltimore for the first time in a while, though. The team has some good (although probably overpaid) veterans and several talented youngsters. The potential is there for the team to keep improving, but the division they play in is going to be the toughest in baseball for a while.

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