Fix My Team!: Baltimore Orioles Edition

Yesterday, the Orioles were eliminated from the postseason, like the Astros before them. Twenty more teams are going to join them before the season finally winds down. We’re looking at those clubs that fall short and consider how to fix them for 2012. What should their plans be? What moves should they make? And who should they count on going forward?

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The Orioles came in to 2011 with high hopes that an infusion of veterans could gel around a young and talented pitching staff. The Orioles started 5-1 in its first week, and fans raised their expectations to epic heights, only to see the club predictably falter and fall to the bottom of the AL East, where they will have finished each of the last four seasons, and to 90+ losses, which they’ve done for their last 6.

The problem, ironically, has been that vaunted pitching staff, which has allowed 5.27 runs per game, more than a third of a run higher than the next closest team in the AL. The team’s defense also hasn’t helped matters either, turning in the lowest defensive efficiency in the American League, and by far the lowest Total Zone and Defensive Runs Saved totals, according to Baseball Reference. Such is the problem with having the statuesque and sloppy Mark Reynolds playing third base.

But the problem certainly isn’t all defense. Jake Arrieta, Chris Tillman, and Brian Matusz have all backslid from their promising debuts, with Matusz’s 9.07 ERA being one of the highest all time for anyone with more than 40 innings pitched. As Keith Law has documented, their velocity is down across the board, and there are troubling injury concerns with all of them. Something is rotten in Baltimore, and it’s infecting the pitching staff the Orioles are going to have to rely on if they’re going to pull themselves out of these doldrums.

And there’s another problem looming on the horizon. As Baltimore tries to solve the problems plaguing their young pitchers, their window for winning with the current crop of hitters at the Major League level is closing. Luke Scott will be entering his final year of arbitration, though he’s a non-tender candidate. Reynolds and Adam Jones are only under contract for the next two. While Nick Markakis is going to be around through 2014, he continues his frustrating decline from his 2008 career year, posting the worst season of his career this year. If they’re going to turn things around, they need to do it quickly.

There’s close to a zero percent chance of the Orioles being a contender next year, but here are constructive steps the team can take to improve its process and its product going forward:

1) Figure out what’s happening to the pitchers.

Something is going on with the development of Baltimore’s young arms. Since Andy MacPhail is almost certainly leaving this fall, it’s essential for the O’s to get his replacement in place quickly, so that the new GM has time to inventory the franchise, decide on a course of action, and implement it. The Orioles are going to fly or fall based on the young pitchers already in the system, and the #4 overall pick from this year’s amateur draft, Dylan Bundy.

Not pictured: The ensuing throwing error.

2) Keep Mark Reynolds away from 3B.

Whether you go by Ultimate Zone Rating, Total Zone, Defensive Runs Saved, or even Fielding Percentage, Reynolds has been the worst defensive player in baseball this year.  The Orioles have essentially acknowledged Reynolds’ terribleness at 3B by moving him to 1B recently in the wake of the Derek Lee trade, and Chris Davis injury. Reynolds would probably be best suited as a designated hitter going forward, and with Vlad Guerrero almost certain to not be re-signed, that spot may be open on the O’s (depending on the Luke Scott situation). But first base will be a decent fallback option for one of the worst defenders in baseball. Simply upgrading at 3B to a league-average fielder could save the O’s 20 runs next year.

3) Stop signing free agents.

The O’s misfired the last two years when they brought in Miguel Tejada, Mike Gonzalez, Derek Lee, and Vladimir Guerrero to free agent contracts. These players have been expensive relative to the value they contributed, and only Lee has yielded anything tangible once the team tired of his services, and that was a 23 year old 1B who had yet to play at AA.

Meanwhile, they’ve acquired good talent in JJ Hardy and Mark Reynolds in trades, and picked up two intriguing pieces from the Rangers for impending free agent Koji Uehara. They also can use some of the savings to upgrade their minor league system with international amateur signings and in targeting tougher signs in the Ammy Draft. There is, quite simply, no reason for a going-nowhere fast club like the O’s to be signing overpriced free agents who will hamper their long-term efforts to be competitive.

In the meantime, they should play who they have. Matt Wieters is one of the better young catchers in the game. Adam Jones is a very good young centerfielder who looks to be improving. JJ Hardy is set at SS and Mark Reynolds can hold down 1B. Chris Davis needs 400 at bats to prove, once and for all, whether he can stick at the Major League level at 3B. Speaking of stuck, Nick Markakis isn’t going anywhere. If healthy, and not non-tendered, the O’s should spend all summer showcasing Luke Scott in LF, 1B, and DH for a mid-season trade. And there are plentiful options on-hand to hold down 2B and/or LF, should the need arise. The O’s goal cannot be to win 80 games, or they’ll almost certainly never win 90.

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