Four Potential Solutions to the Orioles' Outfield Problem

In one of the more bizarre turn of events in recent Orioles history, Dexter Fowler went from being a surefire Oriole to being a Cub yesterday. As much as I might want to rant about that whole situation and the entirely suspect manner in which Fowler’s agent Casey Close handled it, that would not make for a very readable blog post. It also probably wouldn’t do much good for my health. So instead – as we often do around here – I want to look forward at the possibilities that exist to fill the hole "left behind" by Fowler. The slow developing 2015-2016 offseason has left one free agent and a trio of trade possibilities on the table who could potentially help the Orioles. I look at each individual’s case below.

Pedro Alvarez

Fitting Pedro Alvarez into the Orioles’ lineup conjures up images of square pegs and round holes. Alvarez is so poor defensively – both at first base and third base – by most metrics that he is best utilized as a designated hitter. Scott Boras thinks otherwise but Scott Boras is paid to think (and let the baseball world know) that his clients can do things that all objective evidence indicates they cannot do. The fact that Alvarez is still on the market at this point might suggest that teams view him as a non-defender as well. The Orioles and Buck Showalter value defense highly. It is highly unlikely they would use Alvarez in any role other than a full-time DH who maybe occasionally is thrown a bone with a start at first. The problem with Alvarez as an everyday DH is the trickledown effect. Mark Trumbo would likely move from DH to right field with Chris Davis to right field (and Trumbo to first) as an alternate solution. Both scenarios are far from ideal.

I do not believe that Alvarez is such an irregular fit as to completely take him out of the discussion. Showalter is often praised – and often deservedly so – for his ability to manage a roster. Alvarez should be platooned in order to get the most out of his skillset. Right away we can remove 20%-25% of DH plate appearances from Alvarez over to Trumbo with right-handed hitters Nolan Reimold, Joey Rickard, or another outfielder slotting into right field against lefties. Trumbo does not have severe platoon splits but the splits are there and could be used to justify sitting Trumbo at times versus tough right-handed pitchers, in which case Alvarez would slot in at DH. Without going down the path of a strict platoon, Showalter could conceivably manipulate the lineup just enough to minimize Trumbo’s playing time in the field to around 50% while also giving both Trumbo and Alvarez sufficient playing time. It won’t be easy, but it could be done.
The larger concern with Alvarez is he would another high strikeout, huge power guy in a lineup filled with them. I would rather take the best available player than worry about obtaining a certain type, but it would be a bit of a shock to the system to go from Fowler and his high OBP to another power hitter . . .

Jon Jay

 . . . Enter Jon Jay.

The Federalist (for my money, best nickname in baseball) does not go about reaching base in the same way as Dexter Fowler does but he is nearly as effective at it with a .354 career OBP to Fowler’s .363. Jay walks less, hits more. His 6.9% career walk rate is below average but he partially makes up for it being a .287 career hitter (compared to .267 for Fowler). Jay not only hits more, he gets hit more. Since the 2012 season, Jay has averaged twenty (!) hit-by-pitches per 162 games played. He led the league in that distinguished category for the 2014 season. Different methods, same results. Jay also has the reputation – both by scouts and metrics – as being the better outfielder (like Fowler, Jay is a centerfielder by trade). Jay’s downside is he had a remarkably poor season in 2015. Jay underwent surgery on his right wrist in the offseason between the 2014 and 2015 seasons and seemingly never recovered. He spent significant time on the disabled list with bruises to and tendentious in the same right wrist. In 245 plate appearances with the Cardinals, Jay managed only a 56 OPS+.

The hope is that Jay is now healthy and will get back to his pre-2015 form (where he never registered an OPS+ below 100). The concern is that the injury is not healed or that the injury was not the only reason for his poo season. The Cardinals have a reputation of being well run and making few mistakes, so there is at least some cause for concern that they dumped him off on the Padres for Jedd Gyorko earlier this winter because they believe a bounce back season is unlikely.

If the Orioles acquire Jay, we can be assured they believe he is healthy. It stands to reason that San Diego would make Jay available. He was acquired for Jedd Gyorko in a move that was clearly designed from San Diego’s perspective to rid themselves for Gyorko’s questionable long-term contract. San Diego is a longshot to compete this year and Jay is only under contract for the 2016 season. While San Diego needs someone to play outfield, it doesn’t make sense for them to hold onto Jay if a sensible trade offer is extended. Given that they did not give up a lot for Jay and he likely does not factor into their long term plans, San Diego would seemingly be willing to part with him a relatively minimal cost to the Orioles. If a deal was consummated and if Jay returns to his pre-2015 form, the Orioles could wind up with a player equally or more valuable than Fowler for a fraction of the cost.

Andre Ethier

I know – we have been down this road before but hear me out. Ethier is owed $38 million in guaranteed money which could jump to $53 million if his 2018 vesting option (based on number of plate appearances in 2016 and 2017) kicks in. That’s a lot of money to commit to a 34 year old who was a below average hitter in 2014. Many of those factors are likely the reason why the Orioles have hesitated to trade for Ethier in the past, despite the Dodgers and Orioles discussing the possibility.

The catch is that the current situation in Baltimore is different than in years past. The Orioles have already shown a willingness to spend far more than they ever have before. The thought of paying a declining player $38 million of the next two seasons doesn’t seem so scary next to the prospects of paying Chris Davis $17 million a year for the next seven seasons as he declines. I am not suggestion throwing good money after bad but the paradigm has shifted in Baltimore to the point where that short term commitment might be worth the risk. The Dodgers would almost certainly cover some of Ethier’s contract as well. The other thing that has changed since last offseason is Ethier is coming off of a strong offensive campaign where he put up a 136 OPS+ in 142 games. Perhaps his 2014 season (which was not terrible) was a blip. At some point Ethier is going to show actual age-related decline but the O’s would be hoping for him to hold on for two more seasons before he does.

Ethier – and Jay for that matter – would need to be platooned. Ethier is very expensive for a platoon player but there is a side-benefit to him being one. His 2018 option is triggered with 550 plate appearances in 2017 or 1,100 between 2016 and 2017. In part because he is a platoon player (and in part because he has suffered through some injuries), Ethier has averaged only 536 plate appearances per season during his 10 year major league career. He did not break 500 in Ethier of the last two seasons. Platooning Ethier will not only maximize his value, but might keep his 2018 option from vesting. Sitting Ethier 20%-25% of the time while paying him significant money is easier to stomach when there is also a reward tied into it (maximizing his value while keeping his 2018 option from exercising).

Ethier has always been an imperfect fit and he still is, but the Orioles have shown a willingness to roll the dice this winter in order to attempt to win over the next three seasons. Ethier would fit into that strategy.

Jay Bruce

Jay Bruce’s name has come up a lot in relation to the Orioles this winter. The rebuilding Reds want to move him. They want to move him because he is coming off of two straight seasons where he was a below average offensive player. However, the Reds do not appear ready to simply give Bruce away. The fact that the Blue Jays had to get a third team (the Angels) involved in an attempt to finish a trade for Bruce suggests that the prospect asking price from Toronto was more than what Toronto was willing to pay on its own. Giving up prospects just to take on an under-performing player’s (rather significant) contract does not sound like it should be the organization’s Plan A.

Bruce only intrigues because of his power, which as mentioned might not be as attractive to the Orioles at this point as other tools. Bruce’s power is legitimate. He owns a career .215 ISO which stayed up (.209) even as he struggled at the plate last season. Bruce is a left-handed hitter who would ideally be platooned. If strictly platooned and if he gets back to his pre-2014 results, Bruce might be able to reach base somewhere around 33% of the time which is not great but is not terrible either.

Bruce is down my list just because of the cost of obtaining him. The thought of giving up prospects and taking on his contract feels like it should be a last resort and I am not sure we have reached last resort territory quite yet (though we are certainly speeding towards it).

The Rankings

For all of the reasons listed above, I would rank those four players in the following order from the player I think is the best bet (both in terms of performance and cost) to the one who interests me the least.

1.       Jon Jay
2.       Andre Ethier
3.       Pedro Alvarez
4.       Jay Bruce

From a production and cost standpoint, Jay is my favorite potential target. Ethier and Alvarez are relatively close for me, with Ethier’s skillset and overall likelihood of performing at a high level outweighing the fact that acquiring Alvarez would only cost the Orioles some money rather than prospects. Bruce would seemingly cost both which is a steep price to pay for a player coming off of two subpar seasons.