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Mid-December thoughts, part 2

Baseball's hot stove chatter has crescendoed in the past week to a mezzo forte. The free-agent market is bustling, the air is thick with trade talk, and adding spice to the mix is the bewildering on-again, off-again relationship between Major League Baseball and our nation's capital. More on that last part later. This article will foray into the Orioles' offseason of thus-far-unfulfilled hopes, beginning with their pursuit of pitching.

A long December

First, a sip of mind-straightening wisdom from Baltimore's onetime philosopher-king:

“A manager wins games in December. He tries not to lose them in July. You win pennants in the offseason when you build your team with trades and free-agent signings.”

—Earl Weaver, from an article by Thomas Boswell in the Washington Post in 1979.

So far, the Orioles have not won any games this December. They haven't lost any, either, but other teams have been more successful at improving themselves, in some cases quite conspicuously. To its credit—and to the dismay of many of the Orioles' famished fans—Baltimore's front office has shown remarkable fiscal restraint (or is it mortification?) in a free-agent atmosphere that can only be described as profligate, as teams have been all too eager to lay millions at the feet of players with questionable track records and troublesome injury histories.

Back in the high life again

The four-year, $50+ million contract the Mets are handing to Pedro Martínez is representative of the tenor of the marketplace. Pedro was great once, and he is still very good when healthy, but his performance is clearly in decline, and his right shoulder is a ticking time bomb. Only a desperate and deep-pocketed team would agree to commit so many years and so much dough to such a blatant injury risk.

Yet Pedro is just one example of this year's trend: virtually every free agent that has been reeled in so far is being paid significantly more than the going rate of the past two years. Russ Ortiz for four years, $34 million? The O's must feel relieved that they secured Sidney Ponson, Miguel Tejada, and Javy López last winter at rates that look like quite reasonable today.

On the other hand, doing nothing while other teams are improving their hands is usually not a recipe for a successful offseason. If the Orioles had a lot of up-and-coming young talent, it would be acceptable for them to sit and watch their free-spending competitors. But there are no Grade-A prospects set to join the big-league club next year. Their outfielders stand to improve on last year's subpar performance, but expecting big leaps forward from Larry Bigbie, Luis Matos, and Jay Gibbons (if he returns) is just not realistic. And while the young pitching staff has a lot of promise, it remains to be seen whether it can improve enough to spring the Birds into contention.

Find romance, fake it

When the wining, dining, and signing began in earnest early this month, the Birds took a long look at Carl Pavano, who is this year's version of the 2003 Sidney Ponson, a starter coming off a stellar season after years of underachievement. After visiting with and gauging the interest of various teams, Pavano ultimately jumped at the Yankees' four years and $40 million and a chance to go home to Connecticut.

This was a tough defeat for the O's, but not a terribly regrettable one. Pavano compiled 5.8 K and 2.0 BB per nine innings over the last two seasons; the 2004 averages for NL starters were 6.5 and 3.2. That makes him a pitcher with mediocre stuff and above-average control—useful, but not an ace. He's best slotted (and paid) as a mid-rotation starter, and $10M per year is the lower end of what most would consider the aces' salary bracket.

Also, there's the matter of health: Pavano's history is littered with time missed due to elbow and shoulder ailments. Oriole Executive VP Jim Beattie should have known this history well, having overseen Pavano's development when both were with the Expos. Although Pavano has pitched over 200 innings for each of the last two seasons, it would not be surprising to see him to land on the disabled list again. (Ponson, in addition to having labrum issues in his past, has a different sort of physical problem—namely, keeping his gut in check—so signing him last year for three years and $22.5 million was risky as well.)

And it's time you should be going

As a general rule, guaranteeing lots of money to free-agent pitchers is a poor way to build a successful franchise for the long haul. Pitchers' performance can be fickle, and the toll that their work exacts on their arms makes them more susceptible to serious injury than position players. Insurance companies have become quite aware of the latter fact, which is why they now refuse to indemnify most pitchers' contracts beyond three years.

If there exists a type of starting pitcher that is a safe bet for a longer-term deal, it is one who, besides having had no serious injuries to his arm, (1) throws lots of strikes, (2) has clean mechanics, and (3) liberally uses off-speed pitches to complement his hard stuff. All of those factors help minimize the stress on a pitcher's arm, and by extension they minimize the chances that the pitcher will break down.

Two big-name pitchers from the past who met these criteria were Greg Maddux in 1992 and Mike Mussina in 2000. Maddux is the prince of low pitch counts, and that has certainly helped him sustain a long and nearly injury-free career. Mussina, as Oriole fans know, is unusually protective of his arm, often taking himself out of games in the late innings when he feels exhausted. This hyper-prudence may make him look like a prima donna at times, but it also has helped him to endure to pitch another day and enjoy the career that he has had.

And there's nothing left worth knowing

There were no Madduxes or Mussinas to be had among this year's free agents, but there were plenty of starters that have had success using a good amount of control and finesse. The Orioles showed little interest in these control artists, letting them sign elsewhere at relatively affordable rates. Brad Radke re-upped with Minnesota for two years and $18 million. Jon Lieber returned to his original team, Philadelphia, for three years and $21 million. Matt Morris re-signed with St. Louis for a year and $2.5 million, with an additional $4.5 million in performance-contingent bonuses. David Wells signed with Boston for two years and $8 million plus incentives that could increase his intake to $18 million. Paul Byrd? Anaheim, one year, $5 million. And back in November, Glendon Rusch stayed with the Cubs for two years and $4 million. All of these pitchers have question marks, but they are the kind of hurlers that Oriole pitching coach Ray Miller would probably find appealing because they follow at least two of his three core rules ("throw strikes, work fast, change speeds").

The remaining pickings are slim and getting slimmer. The best starters left are Matt Clement, Odalis Pérez, Orlando Hernández, Kevin Millwood, Derek Lowe, Eric Milton, and Esteban Loaiza. All have drawbacks, and none is a great pick to lead a rotation, but each of them would have something positive to offer—if it comes at a reasonable price. The Orioles are correct—if a bit optimistic—to surmise that they could get similar performance from one of their own young pitchers at minimal cost.

The Birds did try to trade for Tim Hudson, but rightfully pulled back when Billy Beane's asking price went through the roof. Hudson would have been a plug-in ace for the Orioles' rotation, but his contract ends after next season, and Beane refused to allow the Orioles to negotiate an extension. The Atlanta Braves got Hudson in exchange for a premium pitching prospect (Dan Meyer), a former top prospect since converted to a middle reliever (Juan Cruz), and a young, average corner outfielder with just one year of major-league service time (Charles Thomas). It was a high, but not unreasonable, price.

Perhaps the Orioles could have put together something similar with Erik Bedard, a top pitching prospect such as John Maine or Hayden Penn, and a position prospect such as Val Majewski or Mike Fontenot. But the reality is that the O's do not have enough chips accumulated to make such a swap at the moment without losing a considerable amount of depth from the upper echelon of their prospect ranks. For a one-year rental of Hudson, the cost of Bedard and two top prospects was excessive because it would have seriously deflated the Orioles' chances of contending in 2006 and beyond while hardly guaranteeing a playoff bid in 2005.

While you see a chance, take it

If any other ace-level pitchers become available in the future, though, the Orioles should enter the hunt. Opportunities to acquire aces occur so rarely and can pay off so handsomely that they should not be ignored. Recent postseasons offer ample evidence that a great starting pitcher or two can give a team a leg up towards winning a championship. Think of what Curt Schilling and Randy Johnson single-armedly did for Arizona in 2001, or how Josh Beckett paved the way for the Marlins' victory in 2003, or how Schilling and Pedro helped the BoSox break the Curse in 2004. Of course, the cost must always be measured against the benefit, but if one star pitcher is all a team needs to push it over the top, then that is reason enough to go overboard.

Obviously, the Orioles are not at the point right now where an ace will boost them over the Sox or the Yankees. Moreover, they're still trying to figure out what kind of talent they have in their own stable of pitchers. It's possible (though unlikely) that an ace is lurking in the organization already. Adam Loewen has that ability when healthy, and perhaps Hayden Penn will live up to his hype. And maybe, just maybe, Matt Riley or Kurt Ainsworth will have a breakthrough year in 2005. In December, one can always hope.

Next: a look at the Orioles' pursuit of Richie Sexson, and a survey of the free-agent market for position players.

Comments (2)


If the O's don't sign any free agent pitchers this off-season, how would you compare going into this season compared to last season. Last season it seemed that they were going to rely on their pitching prospects, which resulted in injuries and Bedard and Cabrera being the only ones that made it through the season, though not the entire season. It seems right now they have four probable starters, Ponson, Lopez, Bedard, Cabrera, but would the fifth come from Riley, Ainsworth or Dubose? Will any of those guys be healthy come spring training, and even if healthy, ready for a full season? Do you think they might try to push Maine or Penn up to the Major League level this year? And if they do, would this be too quick? Just concerned we might see more of what happened at the beginnig of last year with the growing pains at the beginning of this year as well.


You read my thoughts exactly. I had actually started writing an analysis of the Orioles' starting pitching situation in 2004 and how it is shaping up for 2005. I had intended to include that analysis in this very article, but I decided to pull it out because it would have made this story way too long to read in one sitting. Expect to see that analysis in the coming days, perhaps even later this weekend.


This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on December 17, 2004 3:06 PM.

The previous post in this blog was Mid-December thoughts, part 1.

The next post in this blog is December 20 transaction analysis.

Many more can be found on the main index page or by looking through the archives.

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