How The Orioles Can Prove They Want To Contend In 2018
With Opening Day now less than two weeks away, the Orioles find themselves in a difficult situation, one largely of their own doing.
They want to be contenders and to show that last season’s drop into the AL East basement was a fluke. To show that with some good fortune and Buck Showalter’s deft touch, they can do better. To justify holding onto Manny Machado this offseason.
But they are also staring into the face of a reality that is not exactly welcoming, a reality that includes a patchwork starting rotation (again), a Zach Britton-less bullpen and the return of the New York Yankees to full bully status.
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Meanwhile, the Orioles continue to pilot their ship along the edge of the storm, unwilling to sail into the rough waters of a full rebuild, yet also reluctant to take the bold steps toward the sunny skies of at least wild-card contention.
It appears that Executive VP of Baseball Operations Dan Duquette and Owner Peter Angelos are waiting to see if this team – as it is – can make a run before deciding whether to sell off Machado and other expensive assets. Yet at the same time, other than bringing in a collection of middling veterans on minor league deals, along with a hoard of Rule 5 draftees, they aren’t doing a whole lot to help this group make that desired run.
Instead, they’re simply kicking the decision-making-can down the road. It’s a classic case of fence-sitting, and as our fearless leader Chris Stoner recently wrote, there is nothing worse than baseball purgatory.
But all hope is not lost, and even this late in spring training there are some moves the Orioles can make to hop off that fence and come down on the greener side, the side of playoff contention. They clearly aren’t ready to commit to a rebuild, so maybe they should commit to contending. Here are some suggestions to help the cause:
Sign Alex Cobb
We’re less than two weeks from Opening Day and Cobb is somehow still on the market, victim of a bizarre offseason which has seen teams almost collectively decide to clutch their purse strings.
It was Cobb’s turn to punch his Tommy John card in May of 2015 and it took him awhile to show he had fully recovered. He did just that last season, pitching a career-high 179.1 innings with a sparkling 3.66 ERA, 113 ERA+, 1.221 WHIP and a 2.91 K/BB ratio. His reward for that was … well, he’s still waiting.
This presents an opportunity for the Orioles, who are currently going with a rotation of Kevin Gausman, Dylan Bundy, Andrew Cashner, Chris Tillman and probably Nestor Cortes. Cobb would slip right in at No. 3 or better, moving everyone else down. Also, his ability to go more than six innings per start would prove beneficial to bullpen usage.
As far as money is concerned, it doesn’t sound like Cobb is looking for anything unreasonable. Roch Kubatko reports that he’s wants a multi-year deal and that the one-year, $12 million contract the Twins gave Lance Lynn just won’t do. There was an earlier report that Cobb turned down a 4-year, $48 million deal from an unknown team. He’s not going to get that now.
How about a three-year, $36 million offer with a player opt-out after year two? Or a one-year $16 million deal? It seems like there are a number of ways to entice Cobb. As for the Orioles, their payroll currently sits at about $122 million, including DL salaries (Britton) and minors deals to Pedro Alvarez, Danny Valencia and Craig Gentry. Last year it was more than $180 million.
Again, if you want to contend this summer, prove it.
Sign Greg Holland
Like Cobb, Holland was coming off Tommy John and also put together a stellar 2017, compiling an NL-best 41 saves for the Colorado Rockies. Holland’s ERA was a bit inflated (3.61) and he gave up seven homers, but the 139 ERA+ and 11.0 Ks/9 were nice to see in his first action after surgery. He was even good at the pitcher hell that is Coors Field, where he had 17 saves, a 3.31 ERA and 11.8 Ks/9.
Unfortunately for him, he also followed Cobb’s lead in misreading the market, reportedly turning down a 3-year, $51 million offer from the Rockies, which they then gave to Wade Davis. Could the Orioles land Holland? That’s the big question. There are a number of teams that are uncertain at the closer role, and everyone likes more bullpen depth. If I’m Duquette, I offer something approaching what the Rockies did – three-years, $45 million? – but I throw in an escape clause after year one. That gives Holland a solid money guarantee but also flexibility. So if Britton comes back strong and regains the closer role (and doesn’t get traded), Holland can look for a better deal and role elsewhere.
Again, the Orioles have available short-term money to bring in both Cobb and Holland. And if you assume they are not going to be able to ultimately re-sign Machado, which seems like a safe bet, they will have the money long-term as well.
Put Chance Sisco on the 25-man roster already
Caleb Joseph is ready to assume the starting catcher duties. He’ll give competent performance across the board, from hitting (.700 OPS in 2017), to calling a game and handling pitchers, to pitch framing (10th in MLB last season). He’s your starter and he’ll be perfectly fine.
Sisco is not the all-around catcher that Joseph is, but he’s a better hitter and he’s your future. He had a .736 OPS at Norfolk, then hit the cover off the ball in a 10-game audition with the O’s, producing a 1.232 OPS. He’s doing more of the same this spring – a .360 average and 1.029 OPS.
So why not give him his chance now?
I understand and often agree with the argument that it’s better for prospects to get full-time action in the minors than sit the bench in the majors. But it’s a different story with catchers. Even the best only play about 130-135 games a year. The position is simply too demanding for much more than that. Welington Castillo played 96 games for the O’s last season, with Joseph appearing in 89. Meanwhile, Sisco played in 97 games at Norfolk. I would rather have Sisco play in a modified platoon with Joseph than give him another 97 games at Triple-A.
It’s time for him to get an extended look in the majors, get to know the Orioles pitchers and receive first-hand guidance for Showalter. As a bonus, he’ll produce at the plate.
Extend your braintrust
Realistically, I know this isn’t going to happen at this stage of the game. Just as Angelos is waiting to see how the season goes before determining what to do with his roster, he’s also putting off a decision on Duquette and Showalter, both of whom are in the final years of their contracts.
I have plenty of issues with how the Orioles are run, not the least of which is an unexplainable aversion to scouting and signing affordable young players from talent-rich Latin America. But the blame for that rests with Angelos, not Duquette and Showalter, who have proven adept at putting together a product that consistently proves greater than the sum of its parts.
Unless Angelos is planning splashy GM/manager hires for 2019 (fat chance) he should lock these two up. It would send a message to the players that there is a commitment to winning now and remove any possible distractions on that front as the season progresses.
Bob Harkins is a former editor and writer for Time Warner Cable Sports in Los Angeles, where he helped cover the Dodgers and Lakers. Prior to that, he was a senior editor and writer for NBCSports.com, leading the site’s coverage of Major League Baseball for nine seasons. He always believed that Major League catcher was the toughest job in sports -- until he wrote a series on professional rodeo cowboys. Talk about tough!