There might not be a fan base that has suffered through a drearier offseason to date than that of the Baltimore Orioles, which has watched the New York Yankees import Masahiro Tanaka, Brian McCann and Carlos Beltran while the Boston Red Sox re-signed Mike Napoli and the Tampa Bay Rays added Grant Balfour.
Baltimore, meanwhile, has made more news for the deals it hasn’t been able to close — voided signings for Balfour and Tyler Colvin after physical concerns — than the ones it has actually made. So far, all the Orioles have done is complete minor trades for infielder Jemile Weeks (more of a salary dump of useful reliever Jim Johnson than anything else) and outfielder David Lough along with signing middle reliever Ryan Webb to a two-year deal.
A quiet winter is fine when a team is in the midst of a rebuild, but the Orioles have raised expectations by winning 178 games over the past two seasons, including making it to the playoffs in 2012 for the first time since 1997. Despite that, they have rarely even been mentioned in rumors this winter and by most indications haven’t made a serious push for any of the big-name free agents. Will Webb or a potential Chris Capuano or Bronson Arroyo satisfy the Baltimore faithful? Not likely.
Fortunately for the Orioles, luck just might be on their side. Somewhat unexpectedly, the market has a new “best pitcher available,” one who won’t demand a long-term contract or cost a draft pick and who might limit himself to a geographic area, which means the Orioles need to battle only four or five teams for his services.
He’s A.J. Burnett, and Baltimore absolutely has to sign him if it’s going to make something out of this winter as the 2014 season looms.
A rotation that needs help
Chris Tillman is a fine young pitcher, one who would be worthy of a home in the middle of most big league rotations, so this really isn’t meant to put him down. But he is exactly why the Orioles need another good arm because he’s not in the middle of Baltimore’s rotation; he’s at the top.
Even with an All-Star Game appearance last season — one American League manager Jim Leyland freely admitted was given to Tillman over the superior Hiroki Kuroda simply because Tillman had a better win-loss record — Tillman is misplaced as the ace of a team hoping to contend. Among qualifying starters, his 3.71 ERA was 50th, behind Dillon Gee and Ricky Nolasco; his 4.42 FIP was 72nd, behind Edinson Volquez and Wily Peralta. Only A.J. Griffin and Dan Harenhad higher home run rates, and that’s a problem that keeps Tillman from being considered an elite pitcher.
Despite pitching at 37 years old in 2013, Burnett was superior in nearly every way:
This illustrates Baltimore’s need for an upper-level starter, and while we’ve compared Burnett and Tillman atop the rotation, the true impact wouldn’t be to displace Tillman. The effect would be that Burnett would take innings that would otherwise go to the overrated Bud Norris, the inexperienced (though talented) Kevin Gausman or the merely decent Miguel Gonzalez. Ideally, those are the kind of pitchers you have ready to step in to fill a gap, not the ones you’re counting on from the start of the season.
Best of the bunch
If we repeat the comparison with this winter’s trio of non-Tanaka free-agent starters, we can see that Burnett had a better season than Ubaldo Jimenez and Ervin Santana, as well as Matt Garza, who just collected a guaranteed $50 million from Milwaukee.
Yet while Garza just hit it big and Santana and Jimenez are likely to do the same, Burnett’s age and apparent preference to go year-to-year at this point — as well as the fact that he’s likely to limit the teams he’ll even talk to — should keep his cost at a fraction of their price. Considering that Burnett had a solid 2012 while Jimenez and Santana were replacement-level or below, investing in him is something of a no-brainer.
While moving from the National League Central to the AL East is a concern for any pitcher, Baltimore represents a perfect fit for Burnett for another important reason.
Among all qualified big league starters, only Cleveland’s Justin Masterson induced a higher ground ball rate than Burnett did, thanks to a sinker that Burnett started using as his primary pitch upon his arrival in Pittsburgh. That works with the Orioles stellar left-side defense, since third basemanManny Machado not only led all big league third basemen in defensive runs saved but also put up the highest number at the position since the stat was first recorded in 2003. Next to him is J.J. Hardy, a good enough defender to keep Machado off his natural shortstop position and one who finished fourth in DRS at his position in 2013. (Second base is unsettled, though Ryan Flahertywould be a solid defender if he can hit enough to earn time.)
As a team, Baltimore finished fourth in DRS, and it’s vital for a ground baller to pitch in front of plus gloves.
No place like home
For months, the expectation was that Burnett would either retire or return to Pittsburgh, but it now appears he’s willing to pitch elsewhere. That doesn’t really open up the bidding to any team because he has been consistent about not wanting to leave the area around his Monkton, Md., home, approximately 30 miles north of Baltimore. (Prior to 2012, Burnett reportedly refused to waive his no-trade clause when the Yankees attempted to move him to the Angels.)
The Phillies and Nationals could each use an additional starter, the Pirates will certainly attempt to bring him back, and both New York clubs would have interest in improving their rotations, so bringing Burnett to Baltimore won’t come without a bit of a fight. But Baltimore could argue that it is closer to his home than anyone, that the Mets and Phillies are unlikely to contend and that his initial tour of the Bronx didn’t go smoothly. Burnett could still decide he prefers the National League, in which case the Orioles would be out of luck. If not, they need to make sure he’s wearing orange in 2014. He’s a perfect fit, and he’s the only impact option they have that won’t cost a draft pick.