Understanding the Orioles’ Unwillingness to Spend Big

According to Dan Connolly of the Baltimore Sun, the $150 million offer to Chris Davis is the only big offer the Baltimore Orioles ownership group and front office are willing to make this offseason. That means no Justin Upton, no Yoenis Cespedes, and most likely, no Alex Gordon. The big offer was made to Davis because Peter Angelos has grown to like the big slugger for his power and what he means to the City of Baltimore. Power, especially from a likable face, is a rare commodity in Major League Baseball these days.

If the Orioles were willing to pay big bucks for Davis, but not one of the other outfielders, where will the rest of their offseason go? Scott Boras continues to claim that the Orioles are still in contact with his client, and there are several other mid-tier starting pitchers and outfielders who could wind up playing in Baltimore.

The bigger question remains, why are the Orioles willing to risk a seven-year deal on Davis, but not a player like Upton? He is younger, and fills a glaring need for a corner outfielder. The Orioles tried to play the plug-and-play game last season with Alejandro De Aza and Travis Snider. Davis ended up playing some right field last season as Buck Showalter became desperate to get some production out of his outfield.

Both Davis and Upton come with plenty of downside risk. Upton has only one 30-homer season and one 100-RBI season in his nine-year career. Neither came in the same season. He struck out 171 times in 2014, and has struck out over 150 times in four seasons. At times Upton can carry a team, but at others, he runs extremely cold. There are questions about his defense and effort on the field. Upton is not a superstar that can carry a team, but given his young age and relatively solid statistics to date, someone will pay him over $22 million per year. That team, it now appears, will not be the Orioles.

Davis has many of the same risks, and is coming off a 47-homer, 208-strikeout season. Early in the year, Davis was hitting close to .200 and on pace to surpass 250 strikeouts. He pulled it together in the second half, getting close to the stellar numbers of the epic 2013 first half. Many of his second-half homers, however, came against less-than-stellar pitching. In August, as the Orioles slumped, Davis struck out nearly 50 times.

Davis and Upton are a risk. Cespedes is a risk. Gordon is older than all three.

After pulling the initial Davis offer from the table, the Orioles sent their fanbase into a collective tizzy, with speculation pouring in that a deal with another big free agent would be on the horizon. Well, not so fast. There are special circumstances when negotiating with a homegrown superstar (and that is how Davis should be viewed after the Texas Rangers gave up on him). The St. Louis Cardinals tried to blow Jason Heyward away. He spurned them, signed with the rival Chicago Cubs, but the Cardinals have yet to attempt to turn his money into another big name. When it is your own player, a front office may be more willing than usual to take a risk. The fans love Davis, and there is a certain level of familiarity in Baltimore. That is not the case with a player like Upton.

If the Orioles do not spend $22 million per year on Chris Davis, it does not mean they cannot have a great offseason. Other options like Denard Span are being considered, and a starting pitcher like Yovani Gallardo or Scott Kazmir could replace Wei-Yin Chen. There is even an outside shot that Chen returns. The Orioles are already having a solid offseason, with the addition of Mark Trumbo, the re-signing of Darren O’Day, and the recent import of Hyun-soo Kim. There are better ways to spend the money than on one player. For example, Pedro Alvarez could be signed to work first base in a platoon with Trumbo. Don’t think that duo could combine for 35 homers in Camden Yards? Think again. The outfield was a mess last year, and Span would be a welcome addition in right field, an immediate upgrade.

The Orioles will enter the 2016 season having spent money to upgrade their team. It will be looked at as a failed offseason by some if a big bat is not added, but the Orioles have more holes than that. By adding solid players like Kim and Span, who possess attributes lacking on last year’s team, the Orioles will be able to get away from their over reliance on the home run ball. Manny Machado is continuing to grow as a hitter, and should bat third or fourth next year. Adam Jones should bounce back from an injury-plagued 2015, as should Matt Wieters with more consistent playing time. The Orioles can fill a Davis-sized hole in creative ways that will allow them to sign more than one player this winter. The sum of Kim, Span, Trumbo, Alvarez, and a mid-tier starter will in fact be greater than Justin Upton.

This news seems like an unwillingness to spend money, but it is not. Rather, the Orioles will be careful with their money and look to upgrade their team at more than one position. There’s a lot of offseason left, and the Orioles will indeed find a way to maximize the remaining three months before Opening Day 2016.

One Response

  1. turn2

    Josh, I’m not sure why you’re drawing this conclusion that the Orioles are unwilling to spend big on Cespedes, Gordon or Upton, rather than opting to spreading it out over a couple of lower tier players. Of course, they’ve already inked one of those in Kim, pending the results of the physical, and he’s a potential steal at 2 years/$7M.

    On the same day you wrote this, Buster Olney was reporting that the O’s were talking to Cespedes camp, and earlier in the month, the club had discussions with Upton’s agent. Olney’s saying that the asking price for them–and Gordon–would likely need to come down some for the Birds to land one of them.

    Whether the team should go all in for a high-priced star or spend the money for a couple of couple of adequate ones would appear to be more open, then, than you suggest. Now, it’s possible the O’s are bluffing Davis and Boras, since teams haven’t exactly been beating down his door to sign him, in the hope that eventually Crush will decide Baltimore’s not that bad a place to play.

    But someone like a Cespedes seems like a real contingency plan. Trumbo’s going to add some clout, but Cespedes could be a real difference maker in the lineup and in the field. He’s definitely more of a box office draw, as well. I just can’t see the team allow another fiasco like last offseason to occur, where key players like Cruz and Markakis were allowed to walk and their replacements were far lesser talents, such as Snider and De Aza.

    As for the need for a starting pitcher, all signals from the club is that the collective struggle of the 2015 rotation constitutes an outlier, and that the core of Gausman, Gonzalez, Jimenez and Tillman should be better next year. Yes, another starter needs to be found, but the O’s aren’t prepared to dump a lot of money into a free agent signing; the ceiling seems to be around what they paid Ubaldo.

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