Trouble in Birdland

As a fan of the Baltimore Orioles, I didn’t come into this season with huge expectations. I didn’t expect the team to be particularly good, but I never would have guessed this team would be 17-41 and more than 20 games out of first place in early June. It’s simply been a disastrous season on a number of levels.

But let me take you back to this offseason. Many Orioles fans were looking for the club to take a big plunge into free agency, whether it be in the form of Matt Holliday or John Lackey, just like they wanted Mark Teixeira in 2009. Not I. For teams like Baltimore, I’ve always felt you needed to wait until you are two or three pieces away from contention before deciding to commit millions and millions of dollars to a couple of free-agent veterans.

It’s pretty simple to understand why: You want to be sure you have the players surrounding your big money stars who are good enough to play playoff-level baseball on a regular basis, because if you don’t, you’re essentially wasting the talent of your star players and the money you gave them.

So I had no major problems with the offseason undertaken by the Orioles. There were some things I disagreed with, but my issue wasn’t their inability to sign a “big bat” or an “ace” in free agency. What I was looking for was the young core of this team to take another step in the right direction — I was looking for signs of progress.

But that hasn’t happened. Almost everything that could have gone wrong, has.

Brian Roberts, the team’s leadoff hitter has had everything from a bad back to pneumonia. He’s been out almost the entire season. The young core the Orioles organization is relying on has stagnated or regressed. A quick rundown of those players…

Adam Jones – Plate discipline and pitch recognition — both of which he’s never been particularly good at in the first place — have fallen off a cliff.

Matt Wieters – Perhaps the most frustrating player of them all, Wieters is mired in a deep slump. He’s not letting the ball travel into his hitting zone and is making contact too far out in front. His swing has gotten longer and he’s turned into a guess hitter at the plate and seems unsure of himself. When he does get a pitch to hit, he’s not hitting it. But at least his defense has been excellent.

Nolan Reimold – He’s been a shell of the player many regarded as one of baseball’s best rookies last season. He’s now struggling in Norfolk.

Chris Tillman – While performing admirably, he seems to have regressed from last year and isn’t showing the dominance that a potential front-of-the-rotation starter typically shows.

Brad Bergesen – It wasn’t a matter of if his ERA was going to regress from its 2009 level, but how much. Not too many expected his ERA to rise to 6.75 and for him to be out of the rotation by June.

Jake Arrieta – He’s been up-and-down the entire season and probably profiles best out of the bullpen though the Orioles I believe will give him every chance to stick as a starter

Josh Bell – The team’s top hitting prospect has a .297 OBP in Triple-A Norfolk and has close to a 5:1 K:BB ratio.

Brandon Snyder – The team’s second best hitting prospect has a .685 OPS in Norfolk.

Brandon Erbe – The best of the team’s secondary pitching prospects, he’s been pounded in Triple-A thus far in 2010.

Kam Mickolio – Also in Norfolk, he was the team’s top relief prospect heading into 2010, but he has a 10.43 ERA with the Tide and and 7.36 ERA in 3+ innings with the Orioles.

Felix Pie – The only young hitter not named Nick Markakis who was actually performing, Pie has been injured most of the year

The bulk of Baltimore’s success this season has come from their stop-gap players, none of whom have any real future with the team.

So what now? Where do the Orioles go from here?

Short Term Plan

1. They have already fired Dave Trembley. It’s not going to make much of a difference, but the change needed to be made, some type of shake up was needed. But I’ve got my eye on another coach: Terry Crowley. Stay tuned for that article in the coming days.

2. Hate to say it, but you have to continue losing. The goal should be the No. 1 pick in the 2011 draft. Buster Olney talked to a scout who said this:

Your instinct is to say that they should trade off their veterans for spare parts before the deadline,” said the evaluator, who was talking about Ty Wigginton, Luke Scott and Kevin Millwood, specifically. “But I almost think those guys would have more value to the organization if you keep them, to stabilize the young players. The second half of the season is going to be hard for them, and they need support. You can’t just continually get your ass kicked without having it affect you.

I’m worried about the psyche of the young players, too, but things are hard now. They are getting their asses kicked now. The steady influence of those veterans hasn’t been felt all year by the looks of things, so why will the second half be any different?

The bottom line is that the Orioles have plenty of holes within their farm system. They should find prospects they feel are undervalued and look to acquire them in deals for teams desperate for additional pitching and hitting. Otherwise, the Orioles will have nothing left to show for many of the veterans on their 2010 roster.

Long Term Thinking

1. There needs to be some serious house cleaning once this season ends. It starts with the coaching staff. But Orioles management needs to look deeper. Some questions to consider…

Why did almost all their young players regress or stagnate this season?

When is the last time this team truly developed a hitter on their own — and don’t count Wieters, a highly advanced college hitter who spent very little time in the minors. For those that actually don’t know, the answer is Nick Markakis. But how many prospects has the team developed other than Markakis in the past five or six years? The answer is zero or one, with that one being Reimold. But he was also a college player. And maybe Snyder can turn it around. But any way you look at it, the team’s record on developing offensive talent is abysmal.

So what’s the main problem: the scouts who pick the players or the coaches who develop them? Or is it the philosophy and teaching methods the organization adheres by?

Whatever it is, it needs to be addressed. There are people who need to be held responsible for the organization’s failure to develop the young talent they’ve brought in over the years.

2. The Orioles are in the toughest division in baseball. They will never be able to spend the kind of money the Red Sox or Yankees do in free agency. So the organization needs to find an upper hand somewhere else. Two areas immediately come to mind:

The Draft

Luck can have a lot to do with the quality of one’s draft. However, one thing teams can control is the amount of talent they draft. Because they are big-market teams, the Red Sox and Yankees can and do spend more money than your average team on players that drop because of signability issues. But it’s not a huge disparity. What amounts to a large sum of money spent on player signing bonuses for a team’s draft choices is around $10 million. That’s roughly half of the one-year salaries for the highest paid players in baseball. Or to put it another way, that’s a little under half of the one-year salary for Houston’s Carlos Lee. So the Astros theoretically could have had Wil Myers (Round 3, $2 million), Max Stassi (Round 4, $1.5 million), Zack Von Rosenberg (Round 6, $1.2 million), Ian Krol (Round 7, $925,000), Madison Younginer (Round 7, $975,000), Jonathan Singleton (Round 8, $200,000), and Kendal Volz (Round 9, $550,000) for $7.35 million. Would you make that trade, Carlos Lee for all those players I just listed from the 2009 draft and $11.65 million? At the time each team made their selection last year, you can make the case for each player I just listed, that they were the best player on the board at the time they were selected.

So there is an opportunity here for teams to take advantage of — and it’s starting to happen, but teams aren’t going far enough. This is especially true for a team like Baltimore which needs to find an edge over their richer counterparts.

Let’s focus on the Red Sox here since they are especially good at taking talent in the middle rounds of the draft and signing them to big money deals. Since 2006, the Red Sox have handed out signing bonuses to an average of 16 players a year. They hand out large signing bonuses (I’ll define this as $800,000 or more) to about three or four players with two of them being $1 million-plus bonuses. You then have around three to five players in that mid-sized bonus range of $400,000 to $799,000. The exception to this was in 2007.

The Orioles, on the other hand, have handed out bonuses to an average of 11 players per year since 2006 with two players typically getting the large bonus and two players in that mid-sized bonus range. The Orioles made an effort to emphasize the draft in 2009 by handing out signing bonuses to 17 players. Four of those players were given large signing bonuses. However, some of that came at the expense of their first-round pick where they drafted the signable Matt Hobgood over more talented prospects that would have cost the team more money. Hobgood is a good prospect, but teams like Baltimore need elite level prospects because they can’t sign elite level players in free agency.

Nevertheless, those 17 players aren’t enough. All they are doing is essentially breaking even with Boston. The Orioles need to go above and beyond what the big-market teams do come draft time.

In an ideal scenario, I’d like to see Baltimore stockpile high school players, especially the arms. A high school pitcher has less wear-and-tear on the arm and the organization can have much more influence on the player’s development as opposed to a college player. The high school player is where the upside is. Will they all work out? Obviously not. But you hope that two — or if you’re lucky three or four — players can break through with each draft class. Then sprinkle in a few college players that have a particular set of skills you look for in young players.

The other area where the Orioles need to take advantage of is an area where they have been an abject failure…

Latin America and International Signings

The most frustrating thing for many Orioles fans has been the complete lack of presence in Latin America. I can’t recall the last time the Orioles signed an elite prospect from Latin America. The Yankees make up for their lack of spending (to their standards) by investing heavily in Latin America. The Red Sox have an active presence globally, the Rays have been very efficient in how they’ve spent their resources as they haven’t signed that many players, but the ones they have signed are making an impact (Alex Colome and Wilking Rodriguez specifically). The Blue Jays are a little behind the others, but they have some intriguing Latin American prospects coming up in the system right now. The Orioles? Not so much. The Orioles have zero International prospects worth watching at the moment.

I understand it takes time to establish a presence in Latin America and the Orioles have made steps to address their shortcomings in this area. I also acknowledge that I’m not privy to all the ins-and-outs of the Orioles organization and everything that has actually been done to increase their presence there. But I do know the team was in the running for Miguel Sano and had we offered somewhere in the range of a $4 million signing bonus, then maybe Sano would be in the Orioles organization instead of Minnesota’s.

But let’s not limit this to Latin America. There is a ton of talent in this world waiting to be tapped into. Why not establish a presence where few teams reside. Set up an academy in India — plant the seeds now for what could be a pipeline of talent a few years down the road. What about scouring areas where seeds have already been planted by other organizations? The work the Twins organization has put into Europe comes to mind.

There is, of course, one major issue that I’ve overlooked, but which I touched on earlier…

Money

Where does the money come from? Isn’t there a budget the Orioles must adhere to?

Well, there are a couple of ways to look at this. The Baltimore payroll has been in the $65 – $75 million range for the past couple of years. As recently as 2007, the payroll was $93 million. That doesn’t account for money allocated for the draft and other team expenditures. Money not used in free agency can be spent elsewhere. This team offered Teixeira a contract worth $150 million over the course of seven years, which comes out to more than $21 million a year. The Orioles obviously failed to sign him. So where did that money go? Why not take some of that money and invest it in the draft and internationally on top of the money already allocated to both areas?

Or let’s look at this another way. This team spent $4 million on Garrett Atkins, $6 million on Miguel Tejada, and $12 million over two years on Mike Gonzalez. I think I speak for Orioles fans everywhere, that money would have been better used elsewhere. It baffles me how a team can spend as much as $4 million on a player with so little upside and no future with that team and then proceed to pass over players that could have a huge impact for your organization over the course of years because they might require a quarter of Atkins’ salary to sign. That doesn’t make sense to me on so many levels.

The Bottom Line

The goal for any organization is to have a foundation in place that allows the team to win games over a number of years. With the way the system is set up, that means in the AL East you must beat out one of the big market teams to make the playoffs and that almost always requires a 90-win season or better. How do you beat teams that outspend you in free agency, outspend you Internationally, and at best draw even with during the draft? When you rely on the failure of your opponents’ prospects to develop, their big free agent signings to simply not work out, or you need another team to have a couple of key injuries so your team can get an edge, then you’ve already lost.

Two or three big name free agents doesn’t fix things. They only mask the underlying issues within this organization and take away resources that are essential to the long term health of the Baltimore Orioles. It’s difficult to ask fans of a team with a losing record in each of the past 12 — soon to be 13 — seasons to be patient. But I know they’d be content to wait it out as long as they knew this team was doing everything in its power to take advantage of a system that allows you to bring in potential impact players for relatively little money.

References & Resources
Cot’s Baseball Contracts
Baseball America

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Comments

  1. Craig said...

    Sounds like you just laid out the Rays organizational plan—you will just be starting almost a decade behind them.  But we do know it works.

  2. Jon Wilt said...

    Alex,
    You need to head over to Orioleshangout.com and check out the forums, if you don’t already.  We throw around ideas like this all day long, right down to the academy in India and the rank idiocy of allocating $4M to Atkins over Sano.

  3. D Leaberry said...

    1. Fire or incapacitate the owner, Peter Angelos, by any means necessary.
    2. Draft pitchers alone.

  4. DonCoburleone said...

    Very good article.  I agree with your points on money allocation for players, the majority needs to be going to young players who could help your team for years rather than a bum like Garret Atkins. 

    But still, and I made this point yesterday when somebody wrote about the Royals. For the Orioles, or any team in the AL East with limited resources, its simply not enough to be good at drafting & developing players. The team must also be able to acquire quality major league talent for little to no cost. Guys like Carlos Pena, Ben Zobrist, JP Howell, Joaquin Benoit, Lance Cormier and Willy Aybar were all acquired for basically nothing by the Rays over the past few years. On top of that, they traded a bust prospect (Delmon Young) for Matt Garza & Jason Bartlett..  Now granted, Longoria, Crawford, Price, Upton, Shields and Niemann are elite talents that were drafted and developed, but put those guys on a team with replacement level talent around them and they ain’t winning the AL East.  You need to be able to supplement your big time draft & develop talent with cheaply acquired major league talent. Which is another skill the Orioles have not shown the ability to do…

  5. Alex Eisenberg said...

    Craig, it’s almost exactly what the Rays are doing.  And I’ve absolutely loved what they have done in this draft.  The O’s?  Not so much after the first couple rounds.

    Jon, I’m well aware of the Orioles Hangout.  I go under the name NoVaO there, but I haven’t been able to post because I haven’t re-upped my plus membership there—until yesterday that is, so I hope to be back posting too.

    Don, I agree.  It’s a function of good scouting, player development, and a little bit of luck.  I actually don’t think the Orioles have done a terrible job in this regard.  Jeremy Guthrie for instance, was picked up for basically nothing.

  6. Jedd said...

    Alex,

    Interesting article but I don’t understand why you think we can’t spend like the Red Sox?

    MASN has 2 million more tv households than NESN. We own 90% give or take of that network. DC and Bmore combine to make the #4 media market in America.

    And that’s just media markets size.

    Network goes from Harrisburg to Charlotte. So we are just as big regionally as the New England market and the Sox compete with Yankees for border fans where we compete with Nats. But it’s not exactly competing when you own their network.

    We can spend like the Sox, but we have a cheap owner and a GM who proved in Chicago that he wouldn’t spend an appropriate payroll related to market size.

    Red Sox have more fans, ratings, and attendance because they put a quality product on the field and their owner and GM are aggressive.

    We are cheap every year and expect the team to get better and then fans will come back.  It’s a joke.

  7. oodood said...

    Bad owners have bad teams. That is issue #1 for the Orioles. It has been for quite some time.

  8. Holgash said...

    Alex,

    Love this article, great in-depth analysis at a lot of the O’s problems. I just had a couple questions: what do you expect from Machado? Do you think it would be wise not to sign him, and get the 4th overall pick next year? I’ve heard next year’s draft is a lot better at the top than this year’s.

  9. Alex Eisenberg said...

    Jedd,

    That’s not a question I can answer.  I’m just looking at the reality of the situation.  The Red Sox budget is larger for whatever reason, so why not be more efficient with the budget Baltimore does work with?

    But if you think about, just look up and down Boston’s roster.  Dustin Pedroia, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Kevin Youkalis are home grown.  Their two best pitchers are home grown.  Their bullpen is almost entirely home grown.  Dice-K was an international free agent. David Ortiz was released by Minnesota before signing with Boston on the cheap.

    The Red Sox used young talent to acquire Josh Beckett.  He was 26 at the time of the trade and the Red Sox ended up buying out the last remaining season of arbitration.  You don’t find pitchers that young on the free agent market very often.

    The Red Sox were able to trade three quality young pitchers for Victor Martinez because they had the depth to do so.  Should the Orioles do the same, the depth of their system would be decimated. 

    John Lackey, making $18 million this season, has a 4.72 ERA.

    JD Drew, a very good player the Red Sox signed for big money, has been an up-and-down player with them.

    What the Red Sox do is supplement already good teams with big money free agents to fill whatever holes they may have.  But the foundation of their success comes from the organization’s ability to bring in and develop talent and when appropriate, using that talent to plug holes on the Major League roster.

    One thing you can take from this article is that using free agency as a means to build a team is an inefficient way of going about it.  Using it to supplement a good team that already has a solid core in place is a much better of going about it.  Unfortunately, the Orioles aren’t there yet.

  10. Alex Eisenberg said...

    Thanks Holgash.

    I thought of that, but if we were to do it, we would have to use the pick on a signable player since we wouldn’t get to recoup the pick should we not sign whomever we draft in 2011.

    As for Machado, I like him.  He was a good pick, a consensus top-3 player.  I wrote an article that breaks down his swing:

    http://www.baseball-intellect.com/2010-draft-scouting-manny-machado/

    The one thing I can’t get a good feel on is how raw he is as a player.  I don’t know how advanced a feel for the game he has or if it’s going to take him some time to develop into a complete player.

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