Thursday, December 29, 2005

Peter Angelos, You Slay Me

Oh, those Baltimore Orioles and their wacky antics. From a comic viewpoint, they’re priceless, continually adding big parts but not necessarily the right ones. Of course, that irks my baseball viewpoint, but only to a certain extent because they’re an AL East rival.

Every year there are whispers – or even rumblings last year – that this is the year the Orioles contend for the AL East title. But they always suffered from the same ailment: lack of pitching. From 2002 through 2005, the O’s ranked seventh, 10th, seventh, and 10th in the AL in pitching. That’s just not going to get the job done. The AL World Series representative in those years ranked second (Anaheim), third (Yanks), third (Boston), and first (Chicago), respectively.

The solution for the Orioles had/has become overcompensating for a thin pitching market with big bats. The team spent big in the winter of 03-04 on Miguel Tejada, Javy Lopez, and Rafael Palmeiro, hoping to see them lead the team past the Yanks and the Sox. Problem is, the Yanks and the Sox had/have big bats as well, and actually have/had some semblance of a pitching staff.

For some context, from 2002 through 2005 the Yankees ranked first, third, second and second in runs per game, while finishing fourth, third sixth, and ninth in ERA. The Red Sox finished second, first, first, and first in runs per game, and third, eighth, third, and eleventh in ERA. Only one mark in that group was worse than any Orioles mark, which is the 2005 Red Sox team ERA.

The only AL World Series representative to finish worse than seventh in league ERA – Baltimore’s highest mark over the past four years – is Cleveland in 1997. But remember, they didn’t exactly dominate over the regular season with their 86-75 record, they just came up big in a lot of crucial spots in the playoffs, leading to a run that finally ended with the Marlins coming up bigger. Funny, though, that Baltimore finished second in league ERA that year.

Let’s be clear for just one second (just one). A low team ERA doesn’t necessarily translate into playoff success, but playoff success does derive from a strong pitching staff. Plenty of teams with low ERAs have failed in the playoffs, but very few teams have succeeded in the postseason with mediocre pitching.

I bring up the continuing struggles of the Orioles mainly because of the Tejada trade rumors. There have been critics upon critics who think that the Orioles would be foolish to give up a player the caliber of Tejada. While he has been their second best player in the two years since he signed (Melvin Mora in 2004 and Brian Roberts in 2005 were better), he certainly isn’t indispensable, especially when they would receive pitching in return.

The prominent rumor involving Tejada is packaging him with Erik Bedard in exchange for Mark Prior. Like any sane person, Orioles owner and ostensible GM Peter Angelos has told the Cubs, "thanks for the offer, but Prior has an injury history that I’m just not comfortable with." Prior has proven that he can pitch in the bigs, and pitch well, but has also shown his tendency to spend days dormant on the DL. True, Bedard spent significant time injured this year, but that doesn’t mean you should up and trade him with one of your top hitters for another injury prone pitcher.

Personally, I wouldn’t think about this deal until the price tag came down to Tejada and Chen for Prior and an A-level prospect. And seeing as Jim Hendry would probably have on interest in such an exchange, we’re pretty much talking moot at this point.

Another interesting Tejada rumor comes courtesy of Gotham Baseball. It would involve four teams, each of which would be plugging significant holes. To get the ball rolling, the Mets would send Aaron Heilman, Kaz Matsui, and $5 mil (to help pay Matsui’s $7 mil salary) to Tampa Bay in exchange for Julio Lugo. The Mets would then take Lugo and package him with Kris Benson, Brian Bannister, and Victor Diaz in a deal with Baltimore for Tejada. And then the Mets take Tejada and flip him to Boston straight up for Manny, which is what Boston wanted to do with Baltimore.

Tampa Bay wins because while they sacrifice Lugo’s adequate bat for Matsui’s poor one, then acquire a young arm, a coveted and elusive puzzle piece. Baltimore wins because they upgrade their pitching staff with Benson, fill the shortstop void with Lugo, and gain an extra bat with Diaz. Boston wins because they’re rid of a complaining Manny and replace him with Tejada, which is as close as they’re going to get as far as a comparable hitter. And the Mets win because they finally acquire Manny, as well as solving any starting pitcher controversies heading into 2006.

I have little doubt that Tampa Bay and New York are set to go on this deal, give or take a prospect or two. Boston most likely is warm to it, since all they have to do is flip Manny for Miggy, an idea they bounced off Peter Angelos a week or so ago. Baltimore, however, is the team most affected by this move. But all they’re giving up is Miggy, so it comes right down to compensation.

If you were Peter Angelos, who would your rather have as compensation for Tejada: Mark Prior (and also lose a starting pitcher) or Julio Lugo, Kris Benson, Victor Diaz, and 25-year-old righty in Brian Bannister? I’m taking Plan B every time. Call me crazy (and it’s been done before), but the runs created by Lugo and Diaz plus the runs prevented by Benson will at least equal Tejada’s runs created.

Let’s put a bit of shaky science behind this. Bill James uses a statistic called Runs Created to measure the efficiency of a hitter. I know that using last year’s statistics as a predictor of this year is highly inefficient, but sometimes it’s all we have to go by. Let’s compare the 2005 Orioles in terms of runs created per 27 outs with the potential 2006 lineup.

2005 StarterRC/272006 StarterRC/27
Javy Lopez5.07Ramon Hernandez5.21
Rafael Palmeiro5.25B.J. Surhoff3.53
Brian Roberts7.38Brian Roberts7.38
Miguel Tejada6.46Julio Lugo5.26
Melvin Mora5.71Melvin Mora5.71
B.J. Surhoff3.53Victor Diaz5.16
Luis Matos4.23Luis Matos4.23
Sammy Sosa3.60Jeromy Burnitz4.87
Jay Gibbons5.85Javy Lopez5.07
David Newhan2.77Jay Gibbons5.85
2005 Total49.85200652.27

Of course, there are other factors, such as Burnitz’s decline, but there is also room for growth in Victor Diaz. But by making this trade, the Orioles probably won’t lose much off the offense, if any, and will be able to replace Sidney Ponson with a significant upgrade in Benson. And when you throw in Brian Bannister to sweeten the deal, this begins to make all the sense in the world for the Orioles.

Even though there is only a glimmer of consummating this trade, it realistically helps every team involved. Two teams part ways with guys who want out, and acquire parts that they need in 2006. The D-Rays unload Lugo and acquire a replacement and a pitcher, while the Mets would acquire their Lost Jewel of the Nile.

Of course, Tampa Bay has to see a situation here where they have some leverage, since the first step in the trade involves them shipping off Lugo. Without Lugo, this is a dead deal, and as such the Rays would probably do themselves well by demanding a mid-level prospect from the Mets. Then again, the Mets are giving up the most in this deal, so they may be reluctant to oblige. See, this is why blockbusters like this are a rarity.

This deal just makes too much sense, which obviously means it will be squashed, probably sooner rather than later.