If the players had not been acquired at bargain prices, would the Orioles have made the moves for Ubaldo Jimenez and Nelson Cruz? While we suspect the answer is no, the fact is the Orioles tacked on significant, albeit risky, players, ones that could make a huge difference in the American League East.
And who knows if free agent righthander Ervin Santana also falls into their lap before all is said and done?
Suffice to say, manager Buck Showalter feels much better about his team.
Owner Peter Angelos was accused all offseason of being, well, cheap. The Orioles refused to pony up big bucks for designated hitter Kendrys Morales. They had a medical issue with Grant Balfour after they dealt two-time 50-save closer Jim Johnson to Oakland.
The trading of Johnson enabled general manager Dan Duquette to get Jimenez for a four-year, $50 million deal, figuring the team saved $20 million-$30 million from the original asking price. While Cruz, hurt by his 50-game suspension for a positive PED test, signed for one year at $8 million after a multiyear concept by the Mariners never materialized into an actual offer.
“I’m in my office one day and Dan comes in, ‘What do you think of Jimenez?’ ’’ said Showalter. “And then Peter says, ‘Let’s give him a fourth year and we’ve got a guy with a track record.’ Then Cruz for one year.”
Duquette and Showalter decided giving up the 17th overall pick by signing Jimenez was worth it after they signed Korean righthander Suk-min Yoon, and other international players such as power-hitting first baseman Carlos Diaz and third baseman Jomar Reyes.
“If you’re picking first five, where we’ve gotten [Matt] Wieters, [Manny] Machado, [Dylan] Bundy, and [Kevin] Gausman, that’s a little different category,” Showalter said. “We had the 17th pick. But when you’ve signed Yoon, the Reyes kid, the Diaz kid, we think those guys are all first-round picks, so there are ways to supplement losing those picks.”
And so Showalter now has a veteran rotation of Chris Tillman, Bud Norris, Miguel Gonzalez, Wei-Yin Chen, and Jimenez, with Gausman and Zach Britton on the periphery.
If Gausman pitches well, there’s the possibility of a trade to make room for him. Norris, acquired from the Astros last season, has value to a National League team. Bundy, who underwent Tommy John surgery, could be pitching again by May. He’s still considered their top prospect.
Showalter is excited about his lineup, speaking of Nick Markakis in glowing terms.
“He put on about 20 pounds [of muscle]. He’s got a real edge to him about this year,” said Showalter. “The first year since I’ve been here he’s been able to have a normal offseason. He’s had hernia surgery, groin surgery, everything that kept him from doing things in the offseason. This offseason he got after it. He wants to stay here. Likes his teammates and [has a team] option for next year. I hope he’s here for forever.”
There’s reason to be excited by the offense this lineup could provide.
“It was a good situation for me,” Cruz said. “We had good lineups in Texas, but this one could be special. We have good hitters, a great ballpark to hit in. It’s going to be fun.”
With the PED suspension, teams treaded softly on Cruz.
“We did our homework,” Showalter said. “He’s a great teammate. He’s going to fit right in. He’s very hungry. We’re proud he picked us, quite frankly. I’m not naive, but I know what good of a heart Nelson has. I would hate to have our lives judged by our worst decision.”
Machado, who underwent knee surgery in January, may not be at third base on Opening Day, but he shouldn’t be too far off. Add 50-homer first baseman Chris Davis, 20-homer shortstop J.J. Hardy, Wieters, superstar Adam Jones in center field, and a revived Markakis in right, and the Orioles are humming.
Second base will be manned by Ryan Flaherty, but Jonathan Schoop is coming on strong, and Jemile Weeks, acquired in the Johnson deal, once hit .300 in the majors.
Are hard-throwing Tommy Hunter and deceptive Darren O’Day the co-closers or will one take the job?
And beyond this year, can this Orioles core stay together?
“I feel confident with Peter that when we come to him and say this is someone we want to hold on to, he’s going to find a way to do it,” said Showalter. “I don’t think our guys want to go anywhere. We all loved Jimmy [Johnson]. When I talked to him after the trade, I told him this is not goodbye, it’s we’ll see you later. Who knows what next year brings? Paths have a way of crossing again and again and again.”
And there’s the improving farm system.
“I’m hoping we have [lefthander] Eduardo Rodriguez and [righthander] Mike Wright and Gausman and Bundy with us for a long time,” said Showalter. “We’re hoping we can break in one of those guys every year. One year Schoop and then Gausman and all of a sudden you have three or four of them.”
Showalter referred to a board the Orioles keep that compares each team at every position. The Orioles may have been deficient in a couple of areas, but the board is getting more even.
They can hang with the Red Sox, Rays, and Yankees. They hope to hang alone soon.
Team now must decide who’s in and who’s out
Now that the games have begun, scouts and player personnel staffs are starting to fit last-minute pieces onto rosters. Much of this involves acquiring or trying to move players who are out of minor league options. Teams risk losing these players if they don’t keep them on 25-man rosters. Some are worth losing because they haven’t been able to perform consistently.
The Twins, for instance, have three pitchers competing for the No. 5 spot in their rotation in Scott Diamond, Vance Worley, and Samuel Deduno. The Twins could put those who lose out in the bullpen, but then that gets too crowded. So, they will have a pitcher or two to deal.
The Orioles have a similar situation with Zach Britton, who finds himself outside the starting five. He could win a bullpen spot or be traded. Britton was once considered a guy who could dominate in the majors, but it hasn’t worked out that way. He may still be worth a gamble.
In Texas, former Red Sox prospect Engel Beltre, the youngster dealt along with David Murphy in the Eric Gagne deal, is out of options and will likely stick on the bench ahead of Michael Choice. One former Rangers executive once said of Beltre, “He can take your breath away and on the same play have you shaking your head.”
Royals outfielders Justin Maxwell and Jarrod Dyson are out of options but have skills, so the Royals will have to make tough decisions. At least one will make the team as a backup.
The Cubs have a dilemma with reliever Alberto Cabrera, the Pirates with former Red Sox farmhand Stolmy Pimentel, and the Dodgers with righty reliever Javy Guerra, who had 21 saves in 2011, and catcher Drew Butera.
Toronto will have choices to make with veteran righthanders Esmil Rogers and Tim Redmond, starters on the outside looking in if the Jays’ rotation is R.A. Dickey, Mark Buehrle, J.A. Happ, and Kyle Drabek. If Drabek falls back to the minors, Rogers or Redmond has a shot.
Apropos of nothing
1. The Giants want to help the A’s by allowing them to play at AT&T Park if they decide to build a new stadium. Contingent, of course, on the A’s not moving to San Jose, which is Giants territory. Montreal, meanwhile, has a tremendous plan with a new stadium, and a feasibility study estimated a fan base of 28,000 per game. The Rays should be interested in that.
2. I get the feeling Bud Selig will hang around for another year. There’s no reason for him to go, and many of the owners feel they’re not close to figuring out his replacement.
3. If I’m the Seattle Seahawks, I’m not liking Russell Wilson, their quarterback, in that Texas Rangers jersey.
4. The best batting practice pitcher on the Red Sox? Assistant hitting coach Victor Rodriguez. What’s the big deal? It is to the players. “You can get up there hacking because he puts it on the money every time,” David Ortiz said. “With some guys you have to wait for your pitch and it gets a little frustrating. Victor puts it where you want it so you can properly work on your swing.”
5. Nationals special assistant Bob Schaefer said the best shortstop he ever worked with on the catch and tag at second base was David Howard, currently the Red Sox’ minor league field coordinator. Schaefer said the quick tag after the catch is something that a lot of fielders don’t do well and it winds up costing their teams runs.
6. As Bill Chuck points out, the Yankees’ entire starting rotation consists of pitchers whose last names end with “a” — CC Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda, Masahiro Tanaka, Ivan Nova, and Michael Pineda.
7. One AL scout pointed out that pitchers won’t be as fearful of the Red Sox to start games with the absence of Jacoby Ellsbury. “Knowing they had to get him out to keep him off the bases was a tough way to have to start your outing,” the scout said. “I think in some games pitchers are going to be able to settle in quicker.”
8. Buck Showalter’s pet peeve: RBIs are not awarded on double plays.
Updates on nine
1. Stephen Drew, SS, free agent — All of a sudden, Drew is a possibility to play second base after an entire winter in which he was strictly a shortstop. For the record, Drew has played 916 games at shortstop and one as a DH. Of course he can play second, but it’s saving face time and Drew needs a job. The Blue Jays, Mets, Yankees, and Red Sox could all still bite, or he can wait for an injury from a shortstop. It seems Drew is going to open eyes for players who turn down qualifying offers. After all, $14.1 million for one year sounds pretty good right about now.
2. Mike Carp, 1B/OF, Red Sox — Will a team such as the Brewers or Pirates buy into Carp being capable of being a full-time first baseman? Both could use a first baseman and Carp is coming off a big year off the bench. But even with his tremendous power and stroke, he remains a mystery. Scouts from both teams are already watching the Red Sox, and Carp in particular.
3. Ervin Santana, RHP, free agent — Much like Ubaldo Jimenez, the big asking price (plus the loss of a draft pick) has never warranted the megadeal he’s been demanding. Jimenez’s deal is where Santana’s ought to be — four years at about $50 million — which is why Santana remains unsigned. The Orioles still appear to be interested, even after signing Jimenez. The Jays say no, but don’t believe it.
4. Oliver Perez, LHP, free agent — Eric Wedge, for one, is surprised Perez is still out there. “He did a great job for us last year,” said the former Mariners manager. “He’s a good guy on the team. Very dependable for us.” There were four teams who were on the verge of signing him two weeks ago, but nothing has transpired. The Yankees, who are relying on Matt Thornton as their main lefthander out of the pen, or the Nationals, could surely use Perez.
5. Johan Santana, LHP, free agent — The Red Sox have passed on Santana’s last two workouts, feeling they have enough veteran depth. Santana has been working out in Fort Myers, Fla., and his recovery from a second major shoulder surgery is going to be a long process, if it happens at all.
6. Ryan Kalish, OF, Cubs — Cubs president Theo Epstein reported, “[Kalish] is moving around well. He feels healthy and looks good. He’s really relieved to just go play without having to think about his body.” Kalish, who spent the first seven years of his professional career with the Red Sox, and has undergone neck and shoulder surgeries, will likely start in the minors. He’s almost a junior Grady Sizemore story. Been hurt so much and for so long, nobody knows what the healthy product looks like anymore.
7. Dave Wallace, pitching coach, Orioles — “He may be the best acquisition we’ve made this offseason,” said Orioles manager Buck Showalter. “He’s really simplified things for us. Sometimes we’re so mechanics-driven in this business.” Wallace had been the Braves’ minor league pitching coordinator. He’d been looking to get back into major league ball after hip surgery and complications a few years back.
8. Dan Butler, C, Red Sox — The Red Sox have 36- and 37-year-old backstops at the end of their contracts (David Ross and A.J. Pierzynski), so they can make room for Christian Vazquez and Blake Swihart in the near future. Butler often gets overlooked, but there’s a reason the Sox keep him on the 40-man roster — he’s really good. Scouts who watch the Red Sox consistently recommend him as a major league backup. Butler, 27, hit .262 with 14 homers and 45 RBIs in 282 at-bats last year in one of his best offensive minor league seasons, but his forte is defense.
9. Jon Lester, LHP, Red Sox — With the Levinson Brothers negotiating Lester’s contract extension, the feeling among GMs is something will get done since the agents are gaining the reputation of persuading clients to take under-market-value contracts if they’re happy where they are. “If you’re a team with a big-ticket guy out there, they are the agents you want to be dealing with right now,” said one National League GM. “The teams love it. You can get something done with them.” According to a team source, the Sox already have had two conversations with Lester’s agents about an extension.
From the Bill Chuck files: “Among lefty batters with at least 150 plate appearances vs. lefty pitchers in 2013, no one had a lower batting average than the Cubs’ Anthony Rizzo at .189, followed by Stephen Drew at .196.” . . . Also, “The pitcher with the most wins in the NL since 2006 is Bronson Arroyo with 105.” . . . And, “Since 2006, Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder, Matt Holliday, Nick Swisher, and David Ortiz have hit 22-plus homers each season.” . . . Happy birthday, Don Schwall (78) and Larry Wolfe (61).
Nick Cafardo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.