The Brian Roberts Conundrum

One week into Spring Training the news concerning veteran 2B Brian Roberts has been entirely positive.  The 35 year-old reported to the Orioles’ Spring Training home in Sarasota weeks before Friday’s official report date with full clearance to participate in Spring Training activities.  For now at least, the post-concussion symptoms, back, and hip issues that have derailed his career for the last three years are a concern of the past.  Roberts appears to be noticeably bigger than he was at this time last year, when lingering concussion symptoms curtailed his usual offseason workouts.  Manager Buck Showalter has indicated that Roberts will accompany the team on road games this Spring and play more often than he might under “normal” circumstances – a development which Roberts has wholeheartedly welcomed. For this part, Brian has made it clear he intends to be the team’s Opening Day second baseman.  He’s also stated his desire to show that the Orioles that he is the team’s best option atop the order, while at the same time conceding that he will be content with where ever he ultimately ends up batting.  It is abundantly clear to everyone involved that Brian Roberts is in a far better position – both physically and mentally – then he has been since the 2009 baseball season ended.

So everything is good, right?

Well, not exactly.

See, Roberts is 35 years old – an age where many baseball players (especially middle infielders) are in the serious decline stages of their respective careers.  Not only that, but Roberts has amassed a mere 513 plate appearances in the past three seasons – well less than what he would normally get during one full season as the Orioles’ leadoff hitter.  His body has gone through a lot of trauma in recent years and when he has been on the field, Roberts has looked like a shadow of his former dynamic, All-Star self.  His defense appeared to be in decline as far back as his last full season in 2009.

While it is great to see Brian Roberts healthy once again, there are many valid concerns that he might not be the Orioles best 2B option come Opening Day.

Further complicating issues Roberts’ contract status.  Given the nature of his contract – Roberts makes $10 million in 2013 and will become a free agent at the conclusion of the season – the Orioles will give him every opportunity to be their second baseman in 2013.  No team is going to sit or cut a player making $10 million unless there is simply not way around it.  Roberts appears to be healthy enough to assume that role, but will he productive enough to justify being given a starting spot?

That’s the big question and really, the elephant in the room until Roberts either proves he is unquestionably Baltimore’s best option at second base or until Showalter removes him as a starter.  Ideally, Roberts hits the ground running in Spring Training, performs well in Grapefruit League games, and at the very least makes it obvious that he deserves a shot to start at 2B come April.  The other end of the spectrum – Roberts proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that he is “done” during Spring Training – would be far more unfortunate but in some ways an equally positive outcome as it would allow the Orioles to put their Plan B option (likely Alexi Casilla) at second to begin the season.

Personally, I do not think either of those extreme outcomes is very likely to occur.  Realistically, even if Roberts puts up a .750 OPS during Spring Training and plays an adequate second base, doubts will still linger over his ability to be an effective starter during the regular season.  I also would be surprised if Roberts’ performance will be so bad this Spring that the Orioles bench him or otherwise cut ties with the longest tenured Oriole.  The most likely outcome is that Roberts performs well enough to earn a starting role but with significant questions still looming over his career.

How well does Roberts have to perform to prove that he is the best option at second base?  It is hard to say.  Baltimore second basemen were truly awful offensively in 2012.  As a unit, they posted a .596 OPS (2nd worst in MLB) and a .282 OPS which was dead last in all of Major League Baseball for 2B in 2012.  Roberts owns a career .764 OPS and a .351 OBP.  The last time Roberts surpassed 200 plate appearances in one season (2010 where returned from back issues to finish the season) he had an OPS of .745 and an OBP of .354.  While nobody expects Brian to get back to his career or even 2010 form at age 35 after missing most of the past two seasons , clearly he wouldn’t need to in order to improve on the low standards set up Oriole 2B in 2012.  Essentially, Roberts would have to perform at a sub-.600 OPS level for him to be a downgrade for 2012.

Of course, it is not just enough to improve on prior year performance.  Roberts must also show that he is the best 2B option the Orioles have.  Here is where things get a bit more blurry.  Alexi Casilla – claimed off of waivers from the Twins this winter – provides the most direct competition for Roberts.  Casilla is coming off a season at the plate where he really struggled and ended the year with a .603 OPS and a .282 OBP.  Those are the numbers that are only marginally better than what Oriole second baseman did last season.  Casilla’s career numbers are better (.305 OBP and .639 OPS) but not by a whole lot.

Other internal 2B options for the Orioles include Ryan Flaherty, Yamaico Navarro, and Jonathan Schoop.  While those three have good minor league numbers and upside, none have any real Major League track record.  It is difficult to say what any one of those three might do in the Majors this season and whether that performance would be better than what Roberts provides.

Therefore, just looking at offensive production it might be fair to say that Roberts will have to have a .650 or worse OPS for the Orioles to seriously consider removing him from the starting spot.  The organization should feel reasonably well that Casilla can put-up an OPS in that range.  He also provides very good base stealing abilities (it remains to be seen how much base stealing will remain a part of Roberts’ game at the age of 35).

There is a defensive component that might play a big factor.  Roberts’ range at second appeared to be eroding as far back as the 2009 season.  UZR shows a decrease in Brian’s defensive skills in 2009 to the point of being a below average defender.  He has not gotten enough consistent playing time in the seasons since to draw a real conclusion on where his defense might be going in 2013.  Certainly the fact that he has not played much over the past three years and is now three years older provide additional negative – if not purely conjectural – evidence that he will be a below average fielder in 2013.

What we do know is Alexi Casilla is a strong defender.  Despite his lackluster offensive numbers in 2012, Casilla was still valued at 2.0 wins above replacement level (per Baseball Reference) almost entirely based on his defense.  Casilla is known as a good defensive second baseman with strong range.   UZR has been inconsistent on Casilla but his 7.3 UZR in 2012 is better than any single-season UZR for Roberts since he put up a 7.6 at 2B in 2006.  Based on statistical evidence and scouting reports, Casilla is almost certainly a better defender than Roberts at this stage of their respective careers.

Factoring in that Casilla almost definitely provides a defensive upgrade – and perhaps a significant one – the bar for Robert’s offensive performance might be raised a bit higher than the .650 OPS mentioned earlier.  Would Showalter overlook slightly below average defense at 2B if Roberts has a .730 OPS and .340 OBP?  I would imagine so.  If those numbers are .700 and below and .320 and below, below average defense likely becomes harder to ignore with Casilla right there on the bench.

The truth is there are so many variables that it not fair to draw the line in the sand on February 19th and definitively state “this is the bottom line performance the Orioles will/should accept from Brian Roberts before he losses the starting spot.”  Casilla – who blames the tinkering of the Twins’ organization on his 2012 offensive woes – might get back to his 2011 production where he had a .322 OBP and a .691 OPS.  In that case, the rope for Roberts is much shorter.  It is pointless trying to predict those things now when we have so little to go off of.  I will say that if Roberts is below a .660 OPS and .320 OBP well into May, the Orioles should seriously consider options other than having Roberts as the starting 2B five or six times a week.

The situation with Brian Roberts this season has potential to be a tricky one.  Unfortunately, it also has the potential to drag out well into the season.  The fate of Brian Roberts – and his value to the Orioles – will almost certainly not be decided in February and March.  The best way to eliminate any potential controversy is for Roberts to buck the odds and resemble his 2010 self (if not his 2009 self) when the season gets underway.  History tells us that is not the most likely outcome, but it is definitely the one I will be pulling fo