By late August, the Baltimore Orioles were running away with the American League East. The defending champion Red Sox and rebooted Yankees barely put up a fight as the season wore on, but Buck Showalter’s club seemed to thrive when the dog days of summer hit. After losing Nelson Cruz, Nick Markakis, and Andrew Miller to free agency, the Orioles have their work cut out for themselves ahead of 2015. Here are the club’s five biggest needs.
1. Designated hitter
Did the Orioles front office make the right move by letting Nelson Cruz walk? At $58 million for four years, the price was simply too high for the Birds (yes, even when it came with a Twitter handle like @ncboomstick23). The club’s front office has made so many smart moves in recent years that it is impossible to second-guess GM Dan Duquette and his crew. After all,they were the ones that took the chance on Cruz that paid off so handsomely.
Then again, replacing 40 HR and 32 2B is a heck of a task. The Orioles won’t be able to manage that. Victor Martinez, the other high-priced DH on the market, resigned with the Tigers. Baltimore will miss Cruz’s offense any way you cut it, but there is the potential for a bounce-back campaign from Chris Davis in 2015. Coupled with a full season of Manny Machado and the return of Matt Wieters, the hole in the offense may not be so glaring. But they need to put a bat — preferably one from the right side — in the DH spot for 2015.
2. Corner outfielders
Duquette and his staff let lifelong Oriole Nick Markakis head off to Atlanta for $44 million over four years. While Markakis’s production (.276 BA, .729 OPS) is much easier to replace than Cruz’s, replacing a solid defender in right field is a tall order. Throw in the fact that Markakis was the leadoff hitter with the best on-base percentage (.342) and it gets harder. That’s all before you replace his presence in the clubhouse.
Whatever the Orioles decide to do, they need more than Alejandro De Aza and Steve Pearce at Adam Jones’s side when they take the field in 2015. The flip side of losing Nelson Cruz was he did double duty in left field. At this point, few options exist on the free agent market, so the Orioles would either have to accept the leftovers or explore the trade circuit.
Note: This post was updated to reflect the signing of Melky Cabrera and the trades of Justin Upton and Matt Kemp.
3. Relief help
Baltimore traded Eduardo Perez, the team’s No. 3 prospect, in the deal that brought lockdown lefty Andrew Miller to the Orioles bullpen. With Miller headed to the Yankees on a four-year, $36 million deal, the Orioles need to bolster the ‘pen for the coming season. Giving up such a highly rated prospect for a reliever rental may sting, but Miller was lights-out late in the season and through the postseason for Baltimore (Many expect Max Scherzer will sign in the AL East.). It was the starters that did not get the job done for Baltimore in the playoffs.
4. A leadoff hitter
As we noted earlier, losing Markakis in right also means losing the leadoff hitter with the team’s best OBP. Baltimore was heavy on boppers in 2014 when they led the majors in home runs, but the ability to play small ball cannot be underestimated, especially if more tough pitching is headed to the division. (Many expect Max Scherzer to sign in the AL East.) The Orioles would do well for themselves to get an on-base threat at the top of the batting order.
5. An ace
So the Orioles already conceded they won’t sign Max Scherzer? That’s too bad. We understand letting Markakis ($11 million), Miller ($9 million), and Cruz ($14.5 million) go off to free agency, but shouldn’t the savings free up cash for arguably the team’s biggest need? Ask us the difference between the Orioles and Royals in the 2014 ALCS and the answer’s easy: Baltimore didn’t have an ace to push the club over the top. Their Game One and Game Two starters gave up 9 ER in 8.2 IP. Even with the offense the team put up, Baltimore lost both games.
In fact, Baltimore has needed that lockdown, no-questions-asked ace for several years now. One could argue it would turn the Orioles into a top-shelf contender, possibly a favorite if the team’s other chips fall back into place. Pity the owner of a team with such a dedicated fan base will not spend the extra $10 million a year to get that done. That’s about the difference between Ubaldo Jimenez ($12.5 million per year) and a starter like Max Scherzer. Maybe we take it back: Dan Duquette is almost beyond second-guessing.