The way I see it, the Orioles have at least 10 important decisions to make this offseason. I'll cover five of them in this post and five in the next. So let's get to it.
In no particular order:
#1: Will the Orioles give Nick Markakis a new contract?
Markakis is the best player on the Orioles, and he will turn just 25 in November. But the team couldn't negotiate a contract extension before the start of the season, so he made only $455,000 in 2008. That's not a bad deal for the Orioles considering Markakis has averaged a .299 batting average, .375 on-base percentage, 19 home runs, 172 hits, and 67 walks in his first three years in the majors. However, the Orioles again couldn't complete a contract extension with Markakis in late July, and the team must now work on a deal in the offseason -- especially since he is eligible for arbitration and will make lots of money either way.
The good news for the Orioles is that the team controls Markakis's rights until 2011, but if they cannot complete a deal in the near future, they could risk upsetting him or making him want to play elsewhere -- and that would not be good.
Prediction: Markakis finally gets a long-term deal.
#2: What should the Orioles do with Nolan Reimold?
Playing for the Bowie Baysox, the 25-year-old Reimold had his best season as an Orioles farmhand. Not only did Reimold show that he can stay healthy (139 games played), but he also demonstrated his tremendous hitting ability: .284 BA, .868 OPS, 25 HR. With Markakis in right field and Adam Jones (23 years old) in center, Reimold's presence in left field would give the Orioles a young and extremely talented outfield for many years to come.
Two things seemingly stand in the way of that happening: 1) Reimold might not be ready, and 2) Luke Scott had a pretty good 2008 season. If the Orioles did decide to go with Reimold in left field, Scott could become the primary designated hitter and still play in left every once in a while. Lou Montanez also had a strong showing in the latter part of the season when he was called up, and he could play a part in the final outcome.
Prediction: Reimold stays in the minors and, barring injury, is brought up at some point during the season.
#3: Sign a free agent shortstop or re-sign Juan Castro?
In 61 games with the Orioles in 2008, Castro solved the defensive dilemma at shortstop for the Orioles. He's a slick fielder and has quick hands, but none of those things seemed to help him at the plate, where he batted .193 with 2 home runs and a minuscule .513 OPS. Brandon Fahey laughs at those numbers. (Well, sort of -- Fahey has a career .586 OPS.) Alex Cintron hit the best of all the shortstop experiments this season -- Luis Hernandez, Freddie Bynum, Fahey, Castro -- with a .286 batting average and a .682 OPS, but he made 7 errors at shortstop in only 28 starts and just doesn't have the range to be anything more than a utility infielder. Cintron is also a free agent, so he may not be back in 2009.
Two intriguing names are on the 2009 free agent shortstop list: Orlando Cabrera and Rafael Furcal. Some other names on the list are Alex Cora, David Eckstein, Adam Everett, Cesar Izturis, Edgar Renteria, Juan Uribe, and Omar Vizquel. But all of these shortstops are about 30 years old or older, which probably isn't the best plan for the Orioles if they don't want to give someone more than a one or two-year deal. The Orioles have also shown at least some interest in the past in guys like Eckstein and Everett, but they might as well keep Castro rather than spend some millions on average shortstops.
If the Orioles decide to go after Cabrera or Furcal, Cabrera appears to be the safer option of the two. Furcal, who turns 31 in a few weeks, is three years younger than Cabrera, who turns 34 in November; however, Furcal is more injury-prone. Cabrera has played in 140 games or more in every season since 2001. Until this season, Furcal had played in 138 games or more since 2002, but he also had lower back surgery earlier in the season which caused him to miss five months. Furcal will probably command more money as well; Furcal made $15.7 million in 2008, while Cabrera made $10 million.
Either signing a shortstop for cheap or just letting Castro get most of the starts isn't a bad plan to go with if the Orioles don't want to pay a lot of money for Cabrera or Furcal, and I won't blame them if that's what they choose. At some point, though, the Orioles will need to trade for a solid shortstop prospect or at least draft a few because the farm system doesn't include many options at the position. Then again, Mike Bordick could always come out of retirement and save the day.
Prediction: The Orioles don't sign Cabrera or Furcal and either let Castro start or sign another shortstop for cheap.
#4: Should the Orioles trade Ramon Hernandez and begin the Matt Wieters era now?
The debate among Orioles fans is probably the same as the debate going on in the Orioles front office, which is: Is Matt Wieters ready, and if so, what should be done with Hernandez?
Honestly, there may not be a right answer. The Orioles probably wouldn't get much in return if they were to trade Hernandez because he becomes a free agent after the 2009 season and doesn't appear to have a whole lot left in the tank. But if they start him and he performs as poorly as he did in the first part of the 2008 season, many fans will be calling for his release, which could be awkward if the team isn't ready to go with Wieters at that point.
And that also brings up a critical decision for many organizations: When is the right time to bring up top prospects? Wieters is the best catching prospect in all of baseball, but it could be possible that he's just not ready yet.
Either way, his numbers in his first full season in the minors were outstanding. In 69 games with the Frederick Keys, Wieters batted .345 with 15 home runs and a 1.024 OPS, and in 61 games with the Bowie Baysox, he batted .365 with 12 home runs and a 1.085 OPS.
Andy MacPhail has made plenty of solid decisions so far as President of Baseball Operations with the Orioles, and the handling of Matt Wieters will be very important for the Orioles' future.
Prediction: Hernandez starts the season with the team, but the Orioles eventually bring Wieters up after he continues to dominate minor league pitching.
#5: Give Brian Roberts a new contract or trade him?
Like Hernandez, Roberts is also scheduled to become a free agent in 2009. The Orioles signed Roberts to a two-year, $14.3 million contract extension before the 2007 season, and he made $6.3 million in 2008 and is scheduled to make $8 million in 2009. However, he's due to earn a lucrative new contract very soon, and if the Orioles aren't going to pay him, then moving him to a contending team willing to offer a few talented prospects seems to be the direction to go in.
Roberts, who recently just turned 31, is the fifth-highest paid second baseman in MLB (in average annual value), and he'll probably be looking for a three or four-year contract worth at least $10 million per season. (As a contrast even though Roberts won't make a deal nearly this big, Chase Utley, arguably the best second baseman in MLB, signed a seven-year, $85 million contract with the Phillies before the 2007 season. That's an average of over $12 million per season.) If the Orioles determine that Roberts will be a key piece to turning around their misfortunes, then paying the money would make sense. But that obviously will depend on how much money they (hopefully) want to give to Markakis this offseason and a few other players they could be thinking about going after.
Trading Roberts could end up being a good decision, but there are two drawbacks from doing so. First, he's a fan favorite and someone who plays hard every game. And second, trading Roberts would leave the Orioles with an even more questionable middle infield with no real solution in sight.
Then again, that whole Tejada-Roberts combination didn't exactly win the Orioles a ton of games anyway.
Prediction: The Orioles try to get a deal done with Roberts but don't. He ends up being traded during the season.
Next post: 5 more questions.