It's time for the Orioles to get busy
The Orioles are falling behind in the AL East, and it's time for them to address their needs.
The Orioles are coming off a nifty two-year run, at least by the standards of recent franchise history. In 2012, the claimed an AL wild card berth, and in doing so made the playoffs for the first time since 1997. Then last year the O's followed up with a solid 85-win campaign.
Put them in most other divisions, and the 2013 Orioles probably would've made the postseason. However, being as they are denizens of the mighty AL East, they wound up playing just 66 of 162 regular-season games against teams with losing records. The 2014 campaign figures to be no easier.
After all, the world-champion Red Sox have suffered some free agent losses, but they have youngsters ready to step into the breach and are working from a 97-win baseline. The Rays are still the Rays, and the Yankees have compensated for the loss of Robinson Cano by lassoing talents like Jacoby Ellsbury, Brian McCann and Carlos Beltran (and they may yet sign Masahiro Tanaka). As for the last-place Blue Jays, they have enough talent on the roster to muster a bounce-back season.
In other words, the AL East this season figures to yet again be a rugged loop, particularly with the unbalanced schedule. The Orioles, although they have plenty of incumbent talent -- nothing wrong with a core of Chris Davis, Adam Jones Manny Machado and Matt Wieters -- have holes to fill. In and of itself, there's nothing wrong with having needs in January, but the problem is that the O's have shown no signs of seeking frontline solutions. Yet that's precisely what's needed when you're competing with the likes of the Red Sox, Rays and Yankees.
Specifically, the Orioles right now are slated to open the season with Nolan Reimold as the regular DH. Obviously, the DH spot is all about offensive production, and on that point it's worth noting that Reimold is projected by the RotoChamp composite system to put up a batting line of .236/.301/.406 in 2014. That's not awful production in the current suppressed run-scoring environment, but a .301 OBP from a bat-only "position" is far from optimal, even in the current context. The O's need to do better.
They should certainly avoid Nelson Cruz, who's a potential free agent bust, but Kendrys Morales, even though signing him would entail the loss of a first-round draft pick, would be a good fit for a win-now team in need of help at DH. As well, since the switch-hitting Morales is stronger from the left side of the plate, he could be paired quite nicely with the right-handed-hitting Reimold.
The greater need, though, is in the Baltimore rotation. At this writing, the starting five figures to be Chris Tillman, Wei-Yin Chen, Bud Norris, Miguel Gonzalez and perhaps Kevin Gausman. There are some innings and some upside in there, but it's a rotation that very much lacks a certifiable ace. It's possible phenom Dylan Bundy will be able to contribute in the second half once he recovers from Tommy John surgery, but -- given his youth and given the seriousness of his injury -- he offers no guarantees. What the Orioles should do is go all in on Tanaka, who's easily the best pitcher on the market. They're not named among the leading contenders for Tanaka's services, but they should absolutely be in on the bidding, especially given the modest $20-million posting fee.
More broadly, this is a fan base at once starved for winning after so many prior years and whetted for winning after the last two seasons. It's on Peter Angelos to seize the opportunity and invest in the product by going for Tanaka. Sure, it's possible Tanaka won't have any interest in pitching in Baltimore, and it's possible more well-heeled teams will out-bid the Orioles. Still, a good-faith effort is in order because Tanaka gives the Orioles and their designs on contention precisely what they need. The O's have interest in A.J. Burnett, but Burnett -- or even the more expensive likes of Ervin Santana or Matt Garza -- may constitute a half-measure. Baltimore needs a true impact starter at the front end, and there's only one of those available on the free agent market. Angelos needs to loosen the purse-strings.
Elsewhere ... After the trade of Jim Johnson to the Athletics, the Orioles are without an established closer, but that's not so much a concern. Many teams, of course, have proved that a team can hold ninth-inning leads without a name closer in the bullpen. Along those same lines, there's reason to believe that Tommy Hunter would fare just fine in the role.
The O's do, however, need some relief depth. Moving Norris to the pen makes some sense given his power arsenal and lack of a third reliable pitch against the opposite side (which is yet another reason to address the rotation). Failing that, there are still a few worthy relief arms on the market who are available at something less than inflated closer prices.
Second base is also a potential trouble spot. Jemile Weeks appears targeted for primary duty, and he might be passable provided he hits the high end of his OBP projections (i.e., .330-ish or so), but he's far from ideal. The problem is that there aren't any strong stop-gaps left on the market. The O's best hope is that 21-year-old Jonathan Schoop, who's on the 40-man, distinguishes himself in spring training and seizes the job. He certainly has a higher ceiling than Weeks.
Mostly, though, the front of the rotation and the DH spot must be addressed. Spending heavily on free agents isn't always a panacea, but the Orioles need to do just that in order to keep up in what may yet again be the toughest division in baseball. It's getting late out there, and if the Orioles aspire to relevance, then they'll need to grab a few headlines before spring training.
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