Continuing our series on the off-season to come for the Orioles, let's take a look at the options available in left field.
In 2006, the Baltimore Orioles had an awful lot of trouble finding offense in what are traditionally the easiest spots to fill: Left Field, First Base, and Designated Hitter. Part of this has been the lack of any real contingency plan in case, say, Jeff Conine hit like he had turned 40 years old or when Jay Gibbons made his seemingly annual DL stint. And some of this has been due to a lack of creativity by the front office; it seems odd that Luis Terrero' .900+ OPS in Ottawa barely got him a trial in left field over the likes of Brandon Fahey. However, since the offensive holes on this team are generally the easiest to fill, the Orioles' offense is in a unique position to improve dramatically this off-season.
Please note that in this analysis, Jay Gibbons could fill any one of these three positions for the 2007. We will consider that fact only as far as where any potential signings would wind up for the Orioles. For instance, Barry Bonds would likely be an option for DH, despite having played 2006 in left field. Jay Gibbons would then be shifted to one of the other two voids.
Now consider the situation in left field:
Now keep in mind that the Orioles were far and away the worst team in the American League at this position, so any improvement on their part will likely move the league averages higher. Also, the National League had significantly better left fielders this season, so the bar may need to be set even higher.
The Cream of The Crop
This off-season will likely be dominated by two players, both of whom play in left field. Alfonso Soriano and Carlos Lee stand to make a great deal of money after fine seasons for their respective clubs. All indications are that Soriano could command something in the ball park of 6 years/$90 million. He might be worth that to the right club, assuming he does not decline at all from what was easily his career year. Carlos Lee might not fetch quite as much, but it is likely he will be making around $12-15 million somewhere for the next 4 or 5 years.
The greater problem with each of these players is that their counting stats overrate their contributions. Sure, Soriano hit 46 home runs and drove in 119 runs. But he posted an acceptable walk rate for the first time in his career in 2006 and has never before topped .338 despite being a lifetime .280 hitter. And Carlos Lee is no slouch either, with 37 home runs and 116 runs batted in. But most fans would be surprised to know that Lee has never in his career reached a .900 OPS, something that Fernando Tatis has managed to accomplish at a more difficult defensive position.
Either one of these players would be solid contributors to the Orioles in 2007. It's unlikely, however, that either one of them could carry the offense like their potential salaries suggest they should. Neither is likely to be as valuable in 2007 and beyond as a Manny Ramirez, Lance Berkman, or a Jason Bay.
There are several potential left fielders on the free agent market in their thirties that could impact the 2007 Orioles offense. They include Frank Catalanotto, Jose Cruz Jr., David Dellucci, Cliff Floyd, Jose Guillen, Luis Gonzalez, Trot Nixon, Jay Payton, and Shannon Stewart. Lets take a look at them individually.
Frank Catalanotto would be an odd choice for an Orioles team that has trouble against lefties. He was largely used as a platoon righty-masher and put up a solid .828 OPS against them. He'll likely command a one or two year deal for around $4 million per annum.
Jose Cruz Jr. has one marketable skill: the ability to crush left-handers. Although he would represent an upgrade in left field to few teams outside of Baltimore, Cruz would make a nice bench pick up for the birds. He could do spot duty in the outfield and solidify the lineup against southpaws.
David Dellucci was a tenth round pick by the Orioles back in 1995 before being taken in the expansion draft by the Diamondbacks. He's had a journeyman type career up until the past two seasons, where he's made for an inexpensive and effective corner outfield option. He has power and takes his walks, but there is some concern that he would be overexposed in a full-time role.
Cliff Floyd has long worn the tag of ‘effective when healthy'. That is, until this year. Floyd only managed to get into 97 games this year and did very little damage when he got to the plate. He's unlikely to get a multi-year deal, so it's possible he could be had cheaply.
Jose Guillen had seemingly carved out a niche as a trouble-making source of power from the right side of the plate. This year, though, Guillen was terrible. Although he was slowed by Tommy John surgery in July and suffered hamstring and wrist woes before then, Guillen was downright awful in his limited action. Like Cruz, he is a good weapon against righties, but his strong arm may be wasted in left field.
Luis Gonzalez remains a solid source of OBP and power, but he is clearly on the decline. His power numbers have slipped for the second year in a row, although his defense has remained solid despite Tommy John surgery.
Trot Nixon has had his own long list of injury woes. He's already 32 years old, so that's unlikely to change. When he is healthy, however, he has been one of the top defensive right fielders in the game with plenty of OBP. His power numbers declined to an all time low in 2006, but if there is a Jermaine Dye-like find in this year's class, my money is on Nixon.
Jay Payton is more of a defensive specialist at this point in his career and most teams will be considering him as a fourth outfielder type. He would make sense for the Orioles in that role, since he is versatile and can at least hit left-handers.
Shannon Stewart came down with a case of Plantar Fasciitis in his age 32 season and missed the majority of the season. When he was healthy, he was a decidedly below average offensive corner outfielder. His reputation will likely garner him a higher salary then his performance warrants.
Mike Flanagan and Jim Duquette have made it clear that they are most interested in acquiring young talent. This would allow them to control the players for a number of years through their pre-arbitration and arbitration years and have to commit a smaller part of their payroll since the players lack the sort of leverage that free agents do. The problem is that every General Manager wants this sort of talent and it is not easy to come by. If the Orioles wanted to go after a young corner outfielder, they would likely have to dip into their depth of young pitching. That is, unless Miguel Tejada or Kris Benson goes on the trading block. That said; here are a few names that could potentially pop up in trade talks. Please note that this is by no means an exhaustive list.
Matt Murton is about the only thing worth noticing in the Chicago Cubs' punchless outfield. He hit .297/.365/.444 in his age 24 season and his track record suggests the performance is legitimate. The only potential knock against Murton is that he will never truly be a star because his power potential is limited. Nevertheless, he still has two seasons left before he is eligible for arbitration and would represent a substantial upgrade for the Orioles. Expect his name to be brought up if the Orioles and Cubs rekindle talks about Miguel Tejada.
Jason Lane is no fresh faced kid at 29 years old, but he is likely to be available for cheap after a tough 2006 season that saw him hit .201/.318/.392. The reason I include him on this list is that I expect a very nice bounceback season for Lane in 2007. His secondary skills all stayed intact and his slump was completely batting average induced. Lane is arbitration eligible for the first time after 2007.
Pat Burrell is not exactly a fan favorite in Philadelphia. He makes a ton of money, is less than agile in the field, and many feel he has failed to live up to his lofty amateur status. Yet, in 2006 he posted a .258/.388/.502 batting line. For comparison's sake, that's a more productive batting line than anything Carlos Lee has ever done. Burrell recently turned thirty and has two years and $27 million left on his deal. If the Orioles were willing to absorb the majority of that contract, they could likely have Burrell fairly cheaply. If not, they'll likely have to dip into their young pitching talent for some trading chips. Burrell may be expensive, but at least he won't come with a five or six year commitment.
There are plenty of other names to be discussed. Most of them are either unlikely enough to come to Baltimore that I felt comfortable leaving them out (Adam Dunn) or will be covered in another section (Barry Bonds). This is just a glimpse at some of the many options the Orioles will explore this off-season.
Obviously, the ideal scenario would net the Orioles a young, mashing corner outfielder for years to come. And if Miguel Tejada or Kris Benson become available via trade, that should be one of the first things the Orioles look for. Of the options available via free agency, Trot Nixon and David Dellucci make the most sense for the Orioles. Nixon has a history of injuries and is coming off of his worst season, which, in addition to creating concerns about his potential effectiveness, will make him much cheaper. Dellucci, on the other hand, has never been a full-time player and in almost 300 career at bats against lefties has put up a .587 OPS. Despite the Orioles' inability to do so in the past, however, it is not hard to find a lefty-masher in the free talent market. There are any number of guys sitting in AAA that can come to the majors and put up solid numbers against lefties if confined to that role, as well as players like Jose Cruz Jr. that can be had cheaply.
The Orioles may even choose none of the above and opt for the streaking Jeff Fiorentino, Val Majewski, or the recently acquired Adam Stern. It seems unlikely that any of those options would be viable by opening day 2007, but the possibility exists.
One thing is obvious, though. The Orioles can not afford to go into 2007 with Brandon Fahey as their starting left fielder.
Michael Hollman is the Senior Writer for Inside The Warehouse and can be reached via email at Publisher@InsideTheWarehouse.com