With the All-Star game rapidly approaching, and the season nearly halfway over, I think it’s safe to conclude that thus far, 2011 has been a disappointment. If you’re a fellow Orioles diehard, then you know all too well that the Os seem to excel at concocting nuanced definitions of the word.
Five years ago, they couldn’t win because they didn’t have the right players in their system and made ill-advised free agent signings. Remember Jamie Walker? Three years ago, they did have some talented young players, but they weren’t quite ready for the spotlight. Now that they finally do seem to have a quorum of talented young players, they seem not be able to avoid injuries, or total talent regression.
The inconsistency of the starting pitching, injuries, and a lack of timely hitting have all contributed to a subpar performance for the 2011 team. Still, there are some signs of hope. JJ Hardy has demonstrated himself to be an excellent shortstop, maybe the best in the American League so far this year. Adam Jones is having a big season, and seems to have greatly improved his approach and strike zone discipline.
Although it’s tempting to only look at the negatives, the question that most interests me is this: how can we get better? How can the Orioles take what they’ve learned so far this year, process it, and come up with a roadmap that means the future will be better? To my mind, failure is only worthless if you don’t learn anything from it. Based on what we’ve seen so far this season, here are 3 things that I think the Orioles MUST do, to avoid sacrificing the glacial progress they’ve been able to realize over the past couple of years.
1. Extend Hardy, Jones, and Wieters.
The challenge of building a better baseball team rests chiefly in acquiring talent. Hardy, Jones, and Wieters represent some of the Orioles most successful trades and best talent evaluation. While I understand that many will point to Hardy’s history of inconsistency and injury, I would argue that at 28, it’s well worth exploring the option of an extension if he would be amenable to reasonable contract terms. I’m not suggesting we should offer Hardy a 7Y/100M deal, but I think it would definitely be worth having him around if he would sign a 3 or 4 year contract. I also agree with Andy MacPhail that we need not worry about blocking what we hope is our future in Manny Machado by offering Hardy an extension. As MacPhail noted, we need to worry about getting enough talented players in our system that we’re left with difficult choices about who best completes our roster. Until we reach that point, any discussion about blocking players is premature and misguided.
While I suppose one can always conjecture that a player over the age of 25 (or so) is going to decline in value, I think one also has to consider the converse. Acquiring young players is wonderful and exciting, but they are largely unproven commodities. For every Joey Votto or Ken Griffey Jr., there are hundreds of can’t-miss prospects who never amount to much, or at least take a while to develop. I’m sure everyone wishes they had an Evan Longoria or young superstar who obviously deserves a huge multiyear deal, but the fact is that most teams don’t. If we spend all our time waiting to offer a multi-year deal to someone under the age of 28, who is an elite player, and who has no history of injury, I think we’re going to be waiting a long time.
I also think the time is right to offer extensions to Jones, who is about to enter his arbitration eligible years, and who is showing signs of beginning to realize his potential. Despite occasional defensive miscues, Jones also makes his fair share of great defensive plays, and has really come around this season with his batting average. He’s also starting to hit for more power, has good speed on the bases (though not an adept base stealer), and is a team leader.
Finally, I think the Orioles should go ahead and lock up Wieters, to complete their nucleus of young, talented players. While continuing to make improvements on offense, Wieters has established himself as probably the best defensive catcher in the game. He routinely blocks wild pitches, throws out would-be base stealers at an alarming rate (even while working with a staff that doesn’t hold runners well), always blocks the plate, and by all accounts, calls a really great game. Matt has also demonstrated himself as a quiet leader, routinely showing up early to the stadium, and dealing with a pitching staff that seems to make a roster move every other day.
If they tendered all of these signings, then the Orioles would have Wieters, Jones, Hardy, Markakis, Matusz, Arrieta, and Britton to build around for at least the next four years. They may need more talent to get where they are going, but I’d say that’s a pretty solid core group.
2. Sign Dylan Bundy.
The second thing the Orioles absolutely must do is sign Dylan Bundy. As much work as they’ve done to assemble young talented pitchers, it is absolutely critical that they bring him into the fold. If you aren’t going to spend money on free agents, then you at least have to spend whatever kind of money it takes to acquire top talent in the draft. By all accounts, Bundy is very much an elite prospect. Though I’m in general against the concept of kids holding teams hostage for millions of dollars despite not having played an inning of professional baseball, I don’t think the Orioles are in any position to quibble about sign-ability or contract demands. It’s an imperative that all struggling small market teams at least sign these young prospects, if they hope to give themselves any chance at competing, especially in the AL East. It’s possible that Bundy might turn out to be mediocre — or maybe he’ll be the second coming — but the Orioles need to be sure that they invest whatever resources are necessary to find out. After all, if you don’t sign top-flight free agents, and you don’t sign top-quality prospects, what exactly is is that you are doing? Losing, I guess.
3. Sign Prince Fielder.
Grow the arms, buy the bats. The time has come to exercise the second part of that philosophy. While I won’t say that Prince Fielder is the best 1B who ever lived, he does seem to be a very good one, who is rarely injured, young, and consistently hits for power. In order for the Orioles to fill their hole at 1B after this season, and dramatically upgrade their power hitting potential, I think Prince Fielder is the player that they must sign.
I understand that some will say he isn’t the greatest defensive first baseman, or a very fast baserunner, and maybe he isn’t. But I do think that players of his offensive caliber still don’t come up at auction very often, and more to the point, he would fit in perfectly with the Orioles intended timeline for talent coalescence. Assuming the Os do take my advice and keep Jones, Hardy, Wieters, Britton, Matusz, and Markakis, then their window for competition with those players under contractual control extends out about 4 years or so, depending on the terms of the individual agreements. That would mean they would most greatly benefit from signing a player at a position of need, who can step in and contribute immediately to the team. Fielder could do exactly that.
To argue the point from a different angle, I think the Orioles need to acquire Fielder as a proof of concept about their developmental philosophy. While I would concede that there are times when restraint is justified when paying out large contracts, I would argue you also must not fail to act when you have the chance to sign a player who fits in to your philosophy. To pass on Fielder, however grandiose his contract demands, would to to me be tantamount to a forfeit of of the gentle signs of hope they’ve toiled so long to nurture; it would be a concession that they don’t believe in what they’ve been doing, and don’t know when they will be ready to compete.
Barring a miraculous singing from the bottom of the scrap heap in the style of the Tampa Bay Rays (think 2008 Carlos Pena), the Orioles absolutely have to sign an excellent player when they have the chance to do it. Especially when that player fills a position of need, supplements pre-existing talent, and is still relatively young.
Right now, there’s no question about it, things are not going well. But in order to avoid sacrificing fragile signs of progress, it’s imperative that the Orioles not lose sight of what assets they do still have available, and maintain a forward trajectory.