Friday, March 4, 2011

The Orioles are not like the Astros

Earlier today on ESPN's SweetSpot blog, Austin Swafford (of Astros 290) wrote that the Orioles are headed down a dangerous road -- similar to one the Astros have taken the last few years. In the piece, Swafford argued that the O's didn't need to make many of their offseason moves because the O's are not "a few overpriced veterans away from going to the World Series."

Here's more of what he had to say:
There's certainly nothing wrong with trying to win right now if you have the right parts. But I have thought about the lesson that could be learned from the Astros as I have watched the Orioles since the end of last season. They closed 2010 on a good note. They hired Buck Showalter and, with him at the helm, went 34-23 to end the year.

So, naturally, they looked around at their very talented division and said, "No rush. We have a good manager, we're making good progress and we have young talent. We can be patient while that young talent develops." Right?

It'd be nice if that were the case, but instead of doing that, the Orioles got very involved in free agency, went out and got J.J. Hardy, Derrek Lee, Mark Reynolds, Vladimir Guerrero, Justin Duchscherer and Kevin Gregg. Average age: 31.8.

They're not all old and I don't dislike all of the signings, but why the urgency? Why the apparently desperate need to compete now when they probably won't?
I encourage you to read the whole post. Swafford made some strong points, some of which have been brought up by other baseball analysts, and even O's fans themselves.

But here are a few points before I get to my main problem with the piece:
  • Yes, the O's did sign or trade for all of those players listed above. Hardy, Lee, Guerrero, and Duchscherer are all signed to one-year deals. Gregg signed a two-year deal, and sure, that was far from the best signing. And Reynolds has a guaranteed deal through 2012, with a club option for 2013. I'm not arguing that all of those deals are fantastic and will definitely work out, but they hardly strain the organization's position financially like Carlos Lee's six-year, $100 million deal in 2007 with the Astros.
  • The O's did not trade away a bunch of young talent in an effort to get better overnight. The best player the O's traded, David Hernandez, is a reliever. Kam Mickolio and Jim Hoey are also relievers who either couldn't stay healthy or simply weren't very effective (or both), and Brett Jacobson, another reliever, is 24 and hasn't played above Single A. Those players -- four relievers -- still have some value, but not a ton of upside. So it's not like the O's took an enormous gamble or anything on Reynolds or Hardy.
  • No one thinks the O's are going to the World Series. Even the most optimistic fans would be thrilled with third place -- not that that's the ultimate goal (it's obviously not), but still. It's possible that Andy MacPhail made a few of the team's moves (like the Guerrero signing) to improve the team in the short term, which would be unfortunate. But even someone like Guerrero could possibly be flipped at the trade deadline for a younger player or two, as could several other veterans.
Really, though, my problem is with Swafford's thinking that many of these signed players are blocking MLB-ready talent. To me, there are only two cases where that applies:

1) Guerrero, who's signing may block Felix Pie/Nolan Reimold
2) Duchscherer, who may force Chris Tillman (or another young starter) back to Triple A

That's it. Reynolds, Hardy, and Lee are not blocking anyone in the infield. Josh Bell has recently been working out at first base, but he showed last season that he's not close to being ready to assuming any kind of everyday role. Brandon Snyder probably isn't ready either, if he ever will be. With Guerrero serving as the O's designated hitter, Luke Scott will move to left field, which will likely force Pie and Reimold to either the bench or the minors. It would be nice to see both get regular playing time, so in that sense, Guerrero does seem to be blocking them. But, as I've mentioned before, Pie is 26 and Reimold is 27; we're not talking about young up-and-comers here.

Then there's Duchscherer. Duchscherer is 33, and the O's are banking on him returning to form to give the O's another reliable option in the rotation. If he stays healthy (not a guarantee) and pitches well, he may be another player the O's could trade at the deadline. But he was signed for less than $1 million, so if he can't stay healthy or is ineffective, it's not a huge loss. Considering the O's already have several other young starters to choose from -- Brian Matusz (24), Brad Bergesen (25), Jake Arrieta (24), and Tillman (22), and even Zach Britton (23) down the road -- it's not the worst thing to bring in a low-risk, high-reward starter like Duchscherer. What's the worst that could happen? That Duchscherer keeps getting hurt? Or maybe that he stays healthy enough to pitch but isn't effective? If that's the case, the O's aren't required to keep him in the rotation, and it wouldn't be difficult to let him go. It would be nice to give every young starter plenty of chances, but the season is long and pitchers always get hurt. There will be opportunities during the season to perform.

If someone wants to make the argument (like Keith Law has) that the O's would have been better off using money on signing international prospects or putting that money toward draft picks, that's one thing. But it's hard to get too upset with the majority of moves the O's have made, especially since most of the contracts signed are short-term deals. Besides maybe Gregg, the O's are not stuck with a truly horrible contract, and even Gregg is signed for just two years.

Considering what the O's have gone through for the last 13 seasons, it's hard to say that the O's are headed for trouble. They've been in a ton of trouble for a while, and while playing in the AL East, things will not get any easier. They still have a ton of work to do, but when is that not the case?

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