Despite the Orioles recent best efforts, the Birds incredible run to the playoffs bought them a lot of good will in Baltimore. The fanbase connected with their ragtag bunch in a very real way, riding high all the way to a tough Game Five defeat against the Yankees.
The tough part for any upstart/flash in the pan begins as the hangover from an unexpected season of success fades. The Orioles have many tough player choices ahead of them as they attempt to build on 2012 while staving off the ugly forces of regression.
Like any good underdog, the Orioles received unexpected production from numerous sources. The team and their scouting teams deserve credit (begrudging) for identifying players capable of contributing (let’s go with that.)
One of the Orioles heroes down the stretch was Nate McLouth, a former “All Star” who posted bad numbers across three half-seasons since 2009. McLouth fell into the O’s lap after stinking it up in his second tour of duty with the Pirates. After two months in Triple-A, Baltimore stuck McLouth into their starting lineup after Nick Markakis went down in a broken hand, as Eduardo A. Encina notes in the Baltimore Sun. McLouth posted a very surprising 111 wRC+ in 236 plate appearances. McLouth kept performing in the post-season, picking up eight hits and three steals in six games.
Now a free agent, the Orioles must take a frank look at what they have in McLouth: did they reignite his career with some kind of mechanical change or is 2012 a blip on the radar? There are 1000 other plate appearances since 2009 that suggest otherwise. What does McLouth offer in 2013 above what the much more affordable Nolan Reimold brings to the table?
Similarly, the Orioles had their own in-house reclamation project in Mark Reynolds. Reynolds was, in the words of Dan Connolly, nearly outright released and bought out before roaring back to life. Reynolds ended the season with offensive numbers well off his career averages, though a .335 wOBA isn’t something at which noses turn up.
But offense is the only thing Reynolds brings to the table. All told, he has been near replacement level for the past two years. The move off third base salvages some of the value he gives back on defense but his modest offensive output makes him slightly below average for American League first baseman.
Connolly points to the $11 million dollar option the Orioles hold next year as not the end all and be all for his time in Baltimore. While the O’s are almost guaranteed to buy out the option for $500K, he remains under team control for one more season.
Would the Orioles non-tender Reynolds then re-sign him at a lower rate than the arbitration award awaiting him, should the Orioles go that route. A raise on his $7.5 million dollar salary in 2012 is all but assured in the CBA but does not represent good value from the team’s perspective.
These are the difficult choices facing a team at something of a crossroads. Damned by their own success, the Orioles must continue improving their club at all positions. Hoping for another record-breaking run of extra innings good fortune doesn’t seem like a solid business plan.
The O’s have talent. Some of that talent (Manny Machado) looks ready to contribute every day. Others, like Dylan Bundy, still need a tiny bit of seasoning before assuming a big league role. Markakis will be back and healthy, Adam Jones is in for the long haul, Matt Wieters is great and some members of their young pitching staff finally delivered on some of its promise.
The job facing this front office into their second year is a difficult one. Sifting through the myth and reality while considering the availability of legitimate upgrades is a tricky task indeed. Dan Duquette and his staff did well with these bargain bin finds, their new challenge is parsing which bounce backs are for real and which are apparitions. Let someone else overpay for the performance they already delivered in Baltimore while you sniff out the next overlooked contributor.
Handing out fresh contracts to players unlikely to duplicate their recent success is a dicey proposition. If McLouth is better than the other options facing the team, roll with him. If Reynolds can come back at a reduced rate, perhaps in a reduced roll, maybe that’s an option to pursue. Again: not easy decisions. If it was easy, everyone could do it. (Hint: they can not.)