Last offseason, the Orioles signed outfielder Nelson Cruz to a one-year, $8 million contract. Coming off a season in which he got caught using steroids, his market was down, so it became a platform deal for Cruz. If he were to have a good season with Baltimore, he would set himself up for a huge payday. Playing every day as the left fielder or DH, Cruz had an MVP-worthy season, with 40 home runs, 108 RBI, a .271 average, .333 OBP, and .525 slugging. He finished seventh in MVP voting. In seven postseason games, he hit two home runs, drove in seven, and hit .357. Simply put, the O’s got their money’s worth and then some.
It was clear that Cruz would walk after the season – and that he did, signing a four-year, $57M deal with Seattle. The O’s not making more of an effort to re-sign Cruz drew great criticism from fans, as did showing reluctance to give right fielder and impending free agent Nick Markakis a fourth year, as the Braves did. Markakis expressed interest in staying in Baltimore, but the O’s had concern about Markakis’ neck problems, and let him sign with Atlanta, who gave him $44 million for four years.
The Orioles still have depth in the outfield. Last season, they traded minor league pitchers Miguel Chalas and Mark Blackmar for White Sox corner outfielder Alejandro De Aza. They have Steve Pearce, who hit 21 home runs in just 102 games. Not to mention, they just re-signed Delmon Young, who hit .302 with seven home runs off the bench. They also have David Lough, who hit .247 in 197 at bats, and will likely get more opportunities next year. In free agency, they’ve expressed interest in Nori Aoki, Colby Rasmus, and Ichiro Suzuki.
Rasmus and Aoki seem to be getting the most interest, and the Orioles hope Rasmus would accept a one-year deal in the $5-8 million range. Just like Cruz, it’s a classic platform deal. If Rasmus can play like he did in 2013 (22 HR, 66 RBI, .278 in 118 games) and not like he did in 2014 (18 HR, 40 RBI, .225) for the Orioles, he could find a decent pay-day after the year. Maybe not to the Cruz or Markakis-level, but a three-year deal in the $21-24M range isn’t too far-fetched.
Both guys would make sense. In getting a healthy Wieters and Machado, the Orioles get some significant power and defense back, plus, they hope for a rebound year from Chris Davis. That power gained could replace or possibly even exceed the hole left by the departures of Markakis and Cruz. Rasmus could provide 20-25 home runs in the hitter friendly park that is Camden Yards, and he plays good defense. His experience in the AL East is a plus as well.
Aoki is a bit older, and probably wouldn’t want a one-year deal, but would be that top-of-the-order contact hitter who could give them 140-180 hits a year like Markakis did, while stealing 15-30 bases. He’s also been getting interest from Cincinnati and Seattle, but after Seattle went out and traded for the Orioles’ target, Seth Smith, it seems unlikely the M’s will try for Aoki, who could be looking for a two-year deal in the $14-17M range. And after the Reds traded for power hitter Marlon Byrd, it seems unlikely that they’ll also get Aoki.
At 41, Ichiro is as old as it comes on the free agent market, but the future Hall of Famer can still play. In his last three years (mostly with the Yankees), he’s played 455 games, has 17 homers, 112 RBI, a .276 average, and 64 steals. Like Aoki, he could be the leadoff guy who specializes in singles, plays solid defense, and steal bases. If the O’s want to play more small ball next year, Aoki or Ichiro would make sense.
Last year, the Orioles invested a total of $23 million in Cruz and Markakis. While Cruz was a late signing last offseason, the AL East champs have yet to make a major splash this offseason, letting many of the big name free agents go elsewhere. They’ve spent about $1.7M on reliever Wesley Wright, and $2.25M on re-signing bench bat Delmon Young. They’ve got some money to play with, and I believe they shouldn’t limit themselves. If they were to go out and sign Rasmus, and also sign Ichiro or Aoki, they wouldn’t have the same superstars they had in the outfield, but they’d have even better depth.
It would likely mean Lough would be sent to Triple A, but they’d be more prepared for a Davis or Machado injury, and they could start De Aza in left, Jones in center, Pearce in right, and Rasmus at DH. If they signed Ichiro, who wouldn’t ask for much, they’d have great depth, with Ichiro, Delmon Young, Lough, and possibly prospect Dariel Alvarez offering help off the bench.
In signing any combination of Rasmus, Ichiro, and Aoki, the O’s would fill in the holes left by Markakis and Cruz, as well as have some depth in case of injuries, being able to use Pearce all over the field.
With the guys on the roster now, the Orioles don’t have to sign anybody, but it would be nice to have the depth. Right now, they could go into the season playing De Aza, Jones, and Pearce from left to right, and DH’ing a variety of guys, as they’ll have guys like Walker, Caleb Joseph, Jimmy Paredes to help off the bench. It seems unlikely that they’ll take that gamble, though. At this point, it seems they have very real interest in Rasmus, as they have been keeping tabs on him all offseason. They’ve seen a lot of him over the last three years, as he’s hit 63 home runs with Toronto, and has a .284 average with five homers in 24 games against Baltimore.
If they were to sign more than one guy, perhaps they’d be worried about creating a bit of a log jam in the outfield. Signing any combination of those three would make it hard to give the same at bats to a Steve Pearce, Alejandro De Aza, or Delmon Young, but they could still create those opportunities. They’ll likely want to ease Manny Machado into action, and giving him an occasional day off, playing Chris Davis at third, Steve Pearce at first, and having guys at RF/DH would benefit everyone.
The Orioles won 96 games last season, winning the East by 12 games. The competition should be better in 2015, so the O’s can’t take their window of winning for granted. It’s time to add depth in the outfield, as they have decent depth everywhere else.
As previously stated, they wouldn’t have the same star power, but they’d have depth, fully rested guys, and likely, health, with the ability to give rest to guys like Davis, Machado, and Pearce. They’d also be able to give more playing time to a guy like Ryan Flaherty, who plays better with more playing time.
All in all, depth is key to great teams, and with a lackluster remaining crop of free agents, the Orioles may have to bank on depth in 2015.