Daniel Moroz: Would free agent frenzy help O’s to compete in 2012?

With a guaranteed September record of at least .500 (they’re 14-12 going into today’s game, despite being outscored by 13 runs in the month), the Orioles have managed to avoid losing 100 games. That that almost counts as a victory says a lot about how the 2011 season has gone for the Birds. Sure there have been some bright spot - J.J. Hardy, Matt Wieters, Zach Britton - but overall it’s been a disappointing year (especially after how expectations for many were raised with the strong finish last season).

Naturally, with the regular season winding down, attention will turn towards the offseason and what the Orioles can do to improve themselves for next season. It seems like each year, fans clamor for owner Peter Angelos to open up the checkbook and throw enough money at whoever the star free agents are to bring them to Baltimore. I imagine this year will be no different, with local sports radio shows deluged with callers discussing their dreams of seeing Prince Fielder, among others, in an O’s uniform come April 2012. How realistic is it to expect those type of additions to really make a difference though?

For starters, what is the base they’re being added to? The O’s are going to win no more than 68 games this year, though it’s likely their run differential will end up showing that the team is a tad worse than that. Some players look like they’ll be gone (Vlad Guerrero, for example) and some tweaking is sure to be done around the periphery. Maybe, with some improved health and a bit more luck, they’re starting out as a 75-win team for next year. That seems like somewhat of an upside scenario, but I’ll stick with it.

To check how much the potential additions will contribute, I’m going to go with Wins Above Replacement. WAR is a measure of how many wins a player contributes to his team above what a replacement level player - a Quad-A type player who any team can freely pick up - would, given the same amount of playing time. For example, replace Matt Wieters with Craig Tatum, and the O’s are something like four wins worse off. There are different implementations of WAR, and it’s not an exact science, but it should be in the ballpark and at least give an idea of where the team would stand.

Addition No. 1 - Prince Fielder: Great hitter, massive power. He’ll require quite a bit to sign, but would add around five wins to the team for next year (expected decline thereafter is ignored). Chris Davis’ .300 career on-base percentage in more than 1,000 major league plate appearances and the hole at either first or DH mean adding Fielder would seem to be an all upside play (wins aren’t being lost from someone else getting benched). New team total: 80.

Addition No. 2 - C.J. Wilson: Wilson has done a very nice job since moving to the rotation a couple years ago, establishing himself as around a 4-5 win pitcher. Right now, whoever the projected No. 5 starter for the O’s is, likely isn’t very good. That means adding Wilson should provide the full 4-5 wins, like with Fielder. New team total: 85.

Addition No. 3 - Edwin Jackson: Jackson has started to realize some of that potential in recent years, and has turned into a 3-4 win pitcher. The O’s projected No. 4 guy probably isn’t a complete zero, so maybe replacing him with Jackson only adds 2.5-3.5 wins.
New team total: 88.

Addition No. 4 - Francisco Rodriguez (or comparable closer): Relievers, even very good ones, just don’t pitch all that many innings. That limits their possible contributions, which means the O’s would get maybe 1-2 wins here. New team total: 90.

So there you go. Sign four big-time free agents, and the O’s can get to 90 wins. Maybe. This is counting on some progress from the players already on the team and not much drop off from guys like Hardy or the additions. And it’ll only cost $250-300 million overall, raising the O’s 2012 payroll to maybe $150 million. The funny thing about getting to 90 wins is, that would still only be good enough for fourth place in the American League East in 2011.

The Orioles are in a position where becoming competitive via the free agent route isn’t realistic. They need their young players to develop, getting the team to 80-85 wins themselves. Then, adding a major piece or two makes sense, as it can put them over the top. But hoping for a savior to ride into town, whether it’s Fielder or Albert Pujols or zombie Babe Ruth, just isn’t likely to work (unless it’s a really great general manager, in which case it might - but that’ll still take time).

Daniel Moroz blogs about the Orioles for Camden Crazies and joins MASNsports.com as part of our season-long initiative to welcome guest bloggers to our site. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.

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