General Managers are only as good as their team’s performance in the past season. Dan Duquette was genius last season as the Orioles surprised everyone with blowing out the AL East and making it to the American League Championship Series. Duquette brought in pieces that worked perfectly such as Nelson Cruz and Andrew Miller. But so far this off season seems to show a general leaking of talent as Cruz, Miller and now Nick Markakis have been allowed to sign in greener pastures. Will the Orioles be one and done?
Such a pronouncement in December with almost five months of the off season yet to come would be misguided. But the Orioles have allowed at least six wins of offense and two wins of relief pitching to head out the door. In the long run, these decisions may be wise as the total expense of those players long term might be painful. But in the short term, Orioles fans might be getting a little antsy.
The Red Sox and Blue Jays have improved themselves greatly thus far–at least on paper. The Yankees have been spinning in place and the Rays seem in disarray (but with a still promising rotation). If you compare teams in the AL East, you have to look at the Orioles as an 89-win team after losing that talent. Can they make it up in other ways? Perhaps.
The team still has a strong core in Adam Jones, J.J. Hardy, Manny Machado, Chris Davis and Matt Wieters. There are questions marks among that group. Can Davis bounce back off a disappointing season and stay clean? How will Wieters respond after missing so much time with a rebuilt elbow? Can Machado’s knees hold up or is this a chronic season to season thing? But let’s, for now, assume that those folks will all contribute ably.
The starting staff will return all the same pitchers back into the mix even though Bud Norris has had his name rumored in trades all winter. They are not a great rotation, but with good defense, they get the job done. The loss of Miller will hurt, but the bullpen was pretty good before he even got there and that same cast is back for another season.
With that much stability (barring injuries), how can the production and play of Markakis and Cruz be made up?
Markakis is probably the easiest to replace. No knock on the guy as he has been a very good player for the Orioles. But his offense has only been about seven percent better than league average and that is not as hard to replace as you think. The most obvious answer seems to be Dariel Alvarez, the Cuban refugee the O’s signed in 2013. He has raked pretty consistently in the minors and while he is not that patient a hitter, he does hit enough to replace Markakis if his minor league play is an indication.
Harder to replace is Nelson Cruz. While Cruz never saw a pitch he didn’t like to swing at, his power is a high commodity in today’s market. How do the Orioles close that gap? To me, expecting Steve Pearce to repeat his season last year also seems to be dicey. So that is a lot of power to replace.
Let’s say that Wieters comes back as good as he was. That is a plus total of 17 homers over the five he hit last year before he was hurt. If Chris Davis can be somewhere between his monster 2013 and disappointing 2014, he could hit 35 homers and add seven more to the total. Platooning Davis with Christian Walker might produce the same results with a better overall batting average.
I’m not sure Jonathan Schoop will ever develop into an effective MLB hitter. His thirteen walks for all of 2014 are a red flag to me as it led to a .244 OBP. But he could add another six homers to his total of 14 last season. And add to that a bounce-back power year for J.J. Hardy who was way below his career yearly homer output last season could make up some more.
If all of that goes well, which, of course, is a big if, the Orioles could make up the power lost by Nelson Cruz. Whether they can overcome the lack of Cruz’s presence in the lineup is a very big question.
Like I said, there is a lot of off season left to go and I’m sure Dan Duquette is not going to stand pat. Adding Melky Cabrera or someone of that caliber might still be a possibility.
But even if Duquette stands pat, as I have outlined, the Orioles might be okay as is. The core is still there. For the most part, a team built on defense and a winning attitude instilled by Buck Showalter could keep the Orioles in the mix. Only time will tell if this General Manager will go from hero to bum or whether he was shrewd to let those players walk when he did. I wouldn’t count the Orioles out.