At the beginning of this off-season, the calls for the Orioles to pick up a big bat were deafening. “Go get Nelson Cruz or Kendrys Morales, and then sign Shin-Soo Choo!” critics would say. “And in the meantime, check if Brandon Phillips or Chase Utley are available!” As the weeks passed it became increasingly clear that the Orioles did not want to spend much, and what money they did spend would be devoted to upgrading the rotation. (We’re waiting.)
However, the Orioles did find enough money to bring in a bevy of minor league free agents and fringe major leaguers that could help their lineup. Although the players the Orioles brought in may not be as expensive or reliable as Choo, Cruz, Morales, or another veteran player, the Orioles still gave themselves the tools to upgrade at every perceived hole in their lineup in 2014.
Last year, Orioles’ left fielders hit a combined .241/.308/.381. Let’s say this year, the Orioles use David Lough as the primary left fielder. Last year, Lough hit .286/.311/.413 in 315 at bats. If he duplicates his numbers from last year, how many more runs will the Orioles score over potential replacements? Would it be enough to give the Orioles a few additional wins and push them into the playoffs?
The Orioles have a similar scenario at second base. Orioles second basemen hit a collective .236/.299/.376 in 2013. While the second base job remains up for grabs between trade addition Jemile Weeks and Orioles’ super utility man Ryan Flaherty, either option could very well represent an improvement over last year’s production.
In the best case scenario Weeks wins the job and matches his 2011 totals of .303/.340/.411 and steals more than 20 bases. While Weeks did not match that productivity in 2012 and did not see significant time with in the major leagues since, he continued to post respectable numbers in the minor leagues. In the last three years, the switch-hitting Weeks posted on-base percentages of .417, .412, and .376. If Weeks brings those numbers to spring training, the Jim Johnson trade suddenly looks drastically different.
I would prefer Ryan Flaherty to remain a super utility man on the Orioles’ roster, but if Weeks doesn’t excel in spring training, the Orioles can rely on Flaherty to play consistent second base and show some pop. Flaherty has not been able to hit for a high average during his time in the major leagues, but he showed improvement in the second half of 2013, batting .242/.333/.500 in a small sample size of 66 at bats.
At designated hitter, the Orioles can plug-in the suddenly bulkier Henry Urrutia against right-handed pitching and the newly signed Delmon Young against lefties. Urrutia batted .294 against right-handed pitching last year, while Young has gone a spectacular .303/.341/.471 for an OPS of .812 versus left handers. Comparing those numbers with the .245/.293/.405 line recorded by all Orioles designated hitters in 2013 shows that Young and Urrutia could improve production at that position if used correctly.The Orioles have quietly upgraded three positions this off-season and did it through low-cost, high-upside moves. David Lough and Jemile Weeks could each be the next “AAAA player” to make The Jump, a la Chris Davis, and Delmon Young gives the Orioles a solid right-handed designated hitter to slot in with the Orioles’ power bats against lefties. Given the Orioles limited payroll, why not gamble on younger players that haven’t truly gotten their shot yet instead of overpaying for predictable mediocre talent? Why not give an established eight year veteran a minor league contract and let him fill a weakness in your lineup?
Filling gaps at left field, designated hitter, and second base with low-cost options will hopefully save the Orioles room to get an established starter. Duquette recently told The Baltimore Sun that he believes the team has about $17 million left to spend on this season’s payroll. That should be enough to add a free agent like Ervin Santana or Bronson Arroyo to help patch the Orioles’ biggest hole, starting pitching. Whether Orioles fans like it or not, and no matter who is to blame, the Orioles operate on a budget. The frugal moves they’ve made so far have brought them to the edge of the diving board, poised to make their splash. Now, it’s up to Peter Angelos and Duquette to jump.