Orioles Settle for Option C, Turn DH into Right Fielder

ORIOLES DISCLAIMER: Signings are not official until announced by the team. Player must still pass physical, which is apparently very difficult.

Maybe I shouldn’t even be writing this. I’ve been burned once before. But I’m going to go ahead and submit to the gambler’s fallacy and say there’s no way another medical snafu happens in Baltimore this offseason. Not after the first two. Not this year!

Baltimore’s exploits in the free-agent market this year, at least with regard to bringing in new players, have been like the construction of the Swamp Castle. The Orioles nearly signed Dexter Fowler to fill their void in right field, but at the last second, that deal sank into the swamp. Then they were linked to Austin Jackson, but that idea burned down, fell over, and then sank into the swamp. But the third one! The third one stayed up.

Baltimore’s third attempt at building a castle in a swamp is Pedro Alvarez, with whom the team reportedly agreed to terms last night. Those terms are one year and $5.75 million, with another million or two in possible incentive dollars. It’s probably a little more than we’d expect a platoon bat without a position who was non-tendered in December to receive in early March, but when the terms of a deal begin with “one year and…” the money is almost always inconsequential. Alvarez got what he got, and now the Orioles stand to benefit from whatever he can offer them.

But what can Alvarez offer the Orioles? Well, he can offer them oodles of power, of course. If one were to distribute the $5.75 million Alvarez will reportedly earn according to the importance of his tools, north of $5 million would probably be attributed to his power. The power is Alvarez’s entire game, and it comes from the left-hand side, which helps protect Baltimore’s righty-heavy lineup.

And, despite the non-tendering, and the having-to-wait-until March, and the one-year deal, Alvarez’s bat is as there as it’s ever been. You probably wouldn’t guess it based on the inactivity surrounding Alvarez’s market, but, just last year, he tied a career-high in wRC+. He’s striking out less than he used to, and while the uptick in ground balls could be a small cause for concern, last year’s power output was second only to his 2013 season. Alvarez hits. The reason he had no market was because he needs to throw his glove into a swamp, and there just weren’t many designated-hitter openings for him in the American League.

But there’s a catch. With free-agent signings on March 7, there’s almost always a catch. For one, Alvarez can’t hit lefties at all, and so someone like Nolan Reimold or Joey Rickard will still have to take over for Alvarez in most, if not all, of Baltimore’s games against left-handed starters. But more importantly, the catch is that, in a more ideal world, Baltimore’s March 7 signing is an outfielder. In a perfect world, Baltimore would have already acquired a third outfielder by March 7. But we know about Fowler, and we know about Jackson. Alex Rios and Marlon Byrd were still available, and a trade was always an option, and so even after the first two whiffs, the expectation was that Baltimore would add a competent right fielder. Pedro Alvarez is not a competent right fielder. Neither is Mark Trumbo, but he’s the default square peg for Baltimore’s round hole.

You probably know, intuitively, that Trumbo is not a plus right fielder, but let’s put some context to it. He’s played a little more than 1,000 innings there since 2010 — about a full season’s worth of playing time. And during that time, DRS and UZR agree that he’s cost his team 10 runs due to defense. Only 13 players with as many or more innings have been worse, and five of those players are now retired. In other words, Trumbo plays right field like a guy on the verge of retirement.

Last year, he played some right field for Arizona, and it didn’t go well:

And he played some right field for Seattle, and that didn’t go well, either:

Trumbo as an everyday right fielder will be hard to watch, at best, and a complete disaster, at worst. It doesn’t help that early reports on his outfield defense from Spring Training have been less than encouraging. Reports on Hyun-soo Kim peg his outfield defense as average at best, which is about what the numbers say for Adam Jones. Add it all up, and the outfield defense situation in Baltimore is ugly. Thankfully, they’re projected for the best infield defense in all of baseball, though they don’t have a particularly ground ball-heavy pitching staff, and they might now also be in line for one of the worst outfield defenses, right alongside the White Sox and Rangers.

And so while Alvarez’s bat as a designated hitter may be worth a win or so on its own, having Trumbo play right field most every day likely offsets much of that value. Some have suggested Chris Davis might be the better option in right field, which could be true, but the bigger point is that when the better alternative is Chris Davis playing everyday in the outfield on purpose, you’ve got a problem on your hands.

All things considered, Fowler would have represented something like a 2-3 WAR upgrade. Jackson would have been the 1-2 WAR upgrade. Alvarez, given what he forces the team to do defensively, either moves the needle none at all, or maybe by a win if he thrives in Baltimore’s extremely lefty-friendly park.

As far as Baltimore’s lineup goes, Alvarez is a fit. They’ve now got about as much raw power as anyone, and while all the strikeouts between Davis, Trumbo and Alvarez might scare some, there isn’t actually any evidence that teams with high strikeout rates underperform their expected run totals. The park will help Alvarez more than nearly any other in baseball, he finally gets to be a DH where he belongs, and he helps balance out a lineup filled with righties. The problem is the same as Prince Herbert’s with regards to the Swamp Castle: “But I don’t want any of that.” What the Orioles really wanted was an outfielder, and instead, they’ve got Mark Trumbo, whose presence while standing on grass could outweigh all of Alvarez’s benefits, and then some. That’s what happens when you’ve got to settle for Option C.

August used to cover the Indians for MLB and ohio.com, but now he's here and thinks writing these in the third person is weird. So you can reach me on Twitter @AugustFG_ or e-mail at august.fagerstrom@fangraphs.com.

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8 years ago

It sounds like the Orioles have exactly the wrong pitching staff for their defense. When your outfield is a disgrace to the sport, you should be very heavily invested in groundball pitchers.

8 years ago
Reply to  Johnston

Gallardo is a groundball pitcher at least.