If the Orioles and Nationals could address only one position each via trade…

by Andrew Bailey

Just one week into the month of May, it’s a fun time for baseball fans to be speculative. Teams have played right around 20% of their season’s games, so there’s been enough at-bats and innings pitched to begin honing in on each team’s strengths, weaknesses, and needs.

At the same time, it’s too early for most fans to be in panic mode. Last season’s World Series champions, the San Francisco Giants, were a cool .500 (14-14) on this date a year ago. The Orioles had the best record in baseball at 19-9 and the Houston Astros, who would finish an abysmal 55-107, were sitting in third place in the NL Central. The season is long, winding, and unpredictable, which is part of the reason baseball is such a fun sport to prognosticate.

With that in mind, I’ve recently found myself tinkering with ideas for what moves the Orioles and Nationals, who are 19-13 and 17-15 today respectively, could make to bolster their rosters in preparation for a postseason run. These brainstorms are nothing new for me. When I was a kid, the MLB trade deadline was like a holiday. It represented an opportunity to fantasize without limit, which was almost assuredly made easier by being too young to understand the intricacies of the game’s front offices (and, in some cases, the basic intelligence of potential trade partners). There wasn’t a single July that I didn’t whip up the recipe for Ken Griffey Jr’s acquisition by the O’s. I still regularly have dreams of the Orioles swapping Jake Arrieta and a few marginal prospects to the hapless Miami Marlins for Giancarlo Stanton.

But it’s one thing to focus on the game’s superstars and hallucinate scenarios where their services somehow become attainable. It’s another thing — and sadly, it’s become the more normal thing for me — to think of what could realistically occur. The Seattle Mariners weren’t going to trade Griffey to the Orioles in, say, 1996, when I was 11 years old and had his poster clipped to the back of my bedroom door. He was already too good, had too much untapped potential, and was far too integral to the success of the organization. He was transcendent. It was a fun idea to salivate over, but get real.

To reel things in a bit, the question I’ve been asking myself lately is this: if the Orioles and Nationals could address just one position each via trade, what position should they target and which players at that position would meet their needs? It’s a tricky question, because both teams could afford to strengthen two or three different roster spots. But here’s where my thinking is today…

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The Nationals are two games above .500, but their record should probably be better. To this point, there are four separate issues that have robbed the team of wins: Stephen Strasburg’s slow start, defensive miscues, offensive inconsistency, and a shaky bullpen. The majority of these issues are likely to be remedied over time.

Though Strasburg is off to a disappointing 1-4 start and has struggled early in nearly every game he’s pitched, his ERA+ is still just shy of where it was before being shut down last season. His strikeouts are down by more than two per nine innings, but the rest of his numbers are in line with where he was last season. Even at his most dominant, Strasburg is a guy that throws a lot of pitches and exits games early. The only thing that’s changed this season is teams have had more success cashing in on their opportunities. It’s been a problem, but it’s not of the variety that can be corrected by a roster move.

The same could be said of the team’s early defensive blunders and offensive erraticism. As of today, the Nationals have racked up 26 errors, which is the worst of any team in the Major Leagues (the Orioles, who have committed 10 errors as a team, sport the league’s third-lowest total). They committed 94 errors all of last season, good for eighth-best in baseball. They retained Gold Glove first baseman Adam LaRoche and added renowned defender Denard Span to patrol center, so they have essentially returned and then improved upon last year’s defensive talent. Ryan Zimmerman and Ian Desmond have been the biggest error-makers, with five and seven respectively. To put that in perspective, over a full 2012, Zimmerman had 19 errors and Desmond had 14. They’re on pace for roughly 60 errors between them, which reeks of sample size distortion. Desmond in particular will never be mistaken for a Gold Glove defender, but my bet is he’s closer with the leather to last year’s records than those of 2010, when he committed 34 errors.

The Nationals have also struggled to hit in unison, meaning that every time one player heats up (Bryce Harper, Desmond), another goes into a horrific dry spell (LaRoche). Like their early defensive woes, this is a problem that good teams tend to correct across the extensive timeline of a season. Besides, the Nationals don’t really have the room in their lineup for another bat, especially if we agree that Danny Espinosa isn’t going to bat .185 and slug .370 all year.

So what position do the Nationals need most?

In my opinion, the answer is easy: relief pitching, specifically of the left-handed variety.

Today, the Nationals’ lone left hander in the bullpen is Zach Duke, who has already thrown more innings this year (14.1) than last (13.2) and given up 10 earned runs. If you exclude his limited Major League duty a year ago, Duke hasn’t turned in an ERA under 4.00 since 2005, his rookie season with the Pittsburgh Pirates. When you have a player occupying a roster spot solely because he throws Southpaw and in ignorance of his ability to get hitters out, you know there’s a screaming need.

So what players should the Nationals target?

When you’re a contending team looking to add a missing piece, the easiest approach is to scour the teams at the bottom of the standings. A team in direct competition with you for the playoffs isn’t going to help address your weaknesses. The other key is finding a team with a surplus of players at the position you need and, if you can find a guy among that surplus whose maxed out his potential, that’s all the better. The connotation of “maxed out potential” is negative, but really that just means finding a player who has plateaued versus one that’s still ascending. Teams always hold tighter — or, in other words, demand more for — players whose best days are ahead of them. Glossing over the league’s bullpen situations, the one that jumps out at me the most is that of the floundering Toronto Blue Jays, who at 11-21 are presently the second-worst team in the American League. They’ve also got a player who fits the bill perfectly: 42-year-old lefty Darren Oliver.

In the seven seasons prior to this year, Oliver has thrived in the bullpens of the New York Mets, Los Angeles Angels, Texas Rangers, and Blue Jays. He’s consistently chipped in 50 or more innings per season in that span and hasn’t posted an ERA worse than 3.78. In 2010 and 2011, he notched the best ERA+ seasons (194 and 207) of his career. And, in case you misread it the first time, he’s 42… years… old. Precisely what incentive do the Blue Jays have to keep him around, especially given that 25-year-old lefty Aaron Loup seems poised to take his role?

The reality is this: prior to the 2013 season, Nationals manager Davey Johnson, who will step into a front office role after the season, poignantly declared this a “World Series or bust” campaign. There’s little argument that the Nationals aren’t a team built to compete for many seasons to come, but they’ve also made no attempt to disguise that they want a championship this year. Oliver’s name doesn’t send shivers of excitement down the spines of any Red Porch faithful, but his skill set would fill the team’s most glaring hole and likely wouldn’t take significant compensation to pull off (would any Nats fans object to flipping Henry Rodriguez straight up for the veteran left-hander?). If the Nationals run into the St. Louis Cardinals again this post-season and Johnson needs a lefty to escape a jam, would you rather he call on Oliver or Duke? The choice seems obvious to me.

Still, it’s a strange thing to put a 42-year-old reliever in the trade market cross hairs, but I think that mostly speaks to the overall talent of the Nationals’ roster. And how often have we seen the quiet, unassuming trade end up paying greater dividends than the one for the name brand superstar?

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The Orioles are winning games in 2013 in much the same way they did in 2012: home runs (with 39, the O’s rank fifth in all of baseball), erratic, bend-but-don’t-break starting pitching, and a highly effective bullpen. But even as the wins mount, it’s tough to look at the depth chart and not feel as though the voids are plentiful. Does anyone look at the starting rotation and imagine those players leading the team deep into the post-season? Though Orioles fans trust Buck Showalter implicitly (and with good reason), is anybody else living in a constant state of anxiety about the Ryan Flaherty-Nolan Reimold-Steve Pearce chunk of the batting order?

Both of those bits of the roster have me concerned, but it’s that last one that has me downright mortified.

Despite the way they play, the Orioles are still, in fact, an American League team. As crucial as pitching and defense is, you have to be able to put things together offensively at some point along the way if you want to win a World Series, and it’s difficult to imagine how that happens with Flaherty starting at second and the duo of Reimold and Pearce alternating at designated hitter. Flaherty’s hitting .125, Reimold is clinging to .200, and Pearce is hitting a comparative Ruth-ian .235. Batting any combination of these guys in the eighth and ninth holes is the equivalent of batting your worst hitter and a pitcher at the bottom of the lineup, as National League squads do. Its frightening.

The first question you have to ask yourself when deciding if the Orioles need starting pitching or an offensively competent player is this: is Brian Roberts going to come back soon and stay healthy? Because if that happens, Flaherty goes back to drawing just the occasional start for the benefit of his glove and we can all turn our attention elsewhere. But at this point, it’s difficult to imagine Roberts staying healthy for an extended period of time. Doing so would be an extraordinary gamble. It’s unfortunate, too, because if Roberts could just stay healthy now, he could help to redeem that entire four-year, $40 million contract that has resulted in a grand total of 118 games played dating back to 2010.

Think about it: when Roberts signed his new contract, the Orioles were riding a decade long wave of failure. That 2010 team he signed to play for boasted Felix Pie and Ty Wigginton as every day starters and invested more than 60 starts in Kevin Millwood and Jeremy Guthrie. Alfredo Simon was the closer. Garrett Atkins was at one time a glimmer of hope as a reclamation project. That Oriole team, to no one’s surprise, lost 96 games. So what, exactly, would a healthy Roberts have accomplished in the grand scheme of things?

But if Roberts could finally stay healthy and productive for this year’s team, it could make a legitimate difference. He’d be starting for a team battling for a playoff spot. If he could chip in — just this once — you could overlook those three injury-riddled seasons of $10 million invisibility.

The redemptive narrative is nice to think about, but I just can’t bet on it. And if I can’t sell myself on Roberts staying active, I can’t help but think the Orioles need to find someone who can to help bolster the bottom of what is otherwise an impressive, at times daunting lineup.

So the Orioles’ biggest positional need is second base then?

Yep. I think so.

Flaherty is most certainly a plus defender, but let’s not kid ourselves into believing his defense is the ultimate game changer versus a second baseman who will hit, say, .270 with 20-25 home runs and average defense. Those are numbers, by the way, that neither Reimold or Pearce are likely to obtain, meaning this theoretical second baseman could be plugged in as a designated hitter occasionally, which would allow the team to continue to benefit from Flaherty’s defensive prowess (or to take advantage of the few days where Roberts is healthy enough to play).

So which second basemen should the Orioles target?

I should preface this suggestion by noting that it wasn’t my idea originally, but was instead planted in my head by a friend who knows the game well. Having said that… how about Chase Utley?

The Philadelphia Phillies are a sad reminder of what time can do to a baseball team. In 2008, the Phillies won a World Series with a core of Utley, Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins, and Cole Hamels. After winning their ring, they’d go on to add Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee, and then Michael Young a year ago, in search of reaching the pinnacle once again. Instead, the Phillies are an old 14-18 team with more injury risk than upside and the third-highest payroll in baseball. Sure, at just four games below .500, it’s conceivable that the Phillies catch some momentum and storm into the post-season. The composition of the roster suggests that this year may have been a last grasp at doing just that. But by July, chances are at least equally as good that this bunch will be in the NL East’s rearview mirror and mostly vanquished from the wildcard race. And if that’s the case, why not begin selling off parts?

At 34-years-old, Utley hasn’t topped 30 home runs since 2009, which was not coincidentally the last time he made it through a season without significant injury. Ergo, if he can stay healthy, he can produce. Like Roberts though, Utley’s health is of perpetual concern. But he’s hitting .263 with six home runs and 21 RBIs (Flaherty, Reimold, and Pearce combined are hitting .179 with six home runs and 19 RBI*) as he plays out the final season of a seven year, $85 million dollar extension signed back in 2007. There’s clearly some gas left in the tank, and the offensive upgrade from Flaherty to Utley would be astronomical and seemingly worth it even with the defensive decline. Plus, again, Utley could oscillate in and out of the DH spot, which might be just what he needs to stay upright through the end of summer and into October.

* I want to isolate these numbers a moment because they may just be the epitome of Moneyball. In 84 less at-bats, Utley is just five hits behind three players combined, two of which are used primarily as designated hitters. However, the home run and RBI totals are essentially equal and Utley has drawn just nine walks all season, whereas Reimold has drawn 10 total and the trio has combined for 21. Utley is being paid $15 million for this year. Meanwhile, Flaherty, Reimold, and Pearce are banking $2.1935 million between them.

One of the underlying principles of the Moneyball theology is that you seek to replace numbers with numbers rather than players with players and pay less monetarily in doing so. In other words, if you needed to replace a hitter who smashed 40 home runs, you don’t need another player who hit 40 home runs. You need two or three players who combined for 40 home runs who, because they didn’t have the big home run totals themselves, will cost millions less than the guy (who you just let walk as a free agent) who did.

Like any philosophy, Moneyball has detractors. I’ve always found it intriguing, but in this case — maybe because I’m an at-times suffering fan who can’t see the big picture through all the Flaherty strikeouts (20 in 81 plate appearances) — I’m genuinely taken aback. Take the enormous contract out of it. If you can get from one roster spot what you’d otherwise get from three, that’s a plus, right? As a fan, I can’t help but feel less concern with the money because it isn’t mine and there aren’t going to be any long-term salary cap ramifications, especially when you’re talking about a trade deadline rental player.

Of course, Utley’s contract does allow him to block trades to 21 different teams (I don’t know if the Orioles are on that list), which means he would have to be convinced to do so before any deal. But here’s the thing: if Utley wants to be a Phillie and the Phillies want Utley back, he could just as easily play out the season for a contending Orioles team and return to Philadelphia this offseason as a free agent. It’s happened before. And switching cities from Philadelphia to Baltimore is a matter of heading two hours South, whereas other teams don’t offer the same kind of geographical benefits.

You also have to imagine that if the Phillies do indeed fall far enough behind the NL East to a point where they’d entertain shipping off one of the faces of their franchise, the price tag would be affordable so long as the Orioles agreed to absorb some of the money left on Utley’s deal. The Orioles are in the middle of the payroll pack, so it’s not as if paying for half a season of Utley would wreak havoc on their books. Really, the money would probably be the biggest factor in such a deal. Clearly, Utley is at a point in his career where they can’t reasonably expect to pry a player like Arrieta away, and that circumstance makes the market all that much alluring for a potential buyer.

The Orioles were wise this past offseason to play it straight after such a successful, if totally unexpected, season. When you fall just five games short of the World Series (how’s that for positive spin?), it would be understandable to go aggressive in trying to bring in the pieces to get over the hump. The Orioles didn’t do that and would be wise not to be too bold at this year’s trading deadline. With Showalter at the helm, they do tend to be conservative. But Utley represents a happy medium: a calculated risk for a player that would be a marked upgrade and likely wouldn’t require breaking apart any of the foundation set in place for the future. In a lot of ways, he’s the perfect target for this team.

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