The Orioles are second in the AL East at the moment despite being just two games above .500, a fact that says as much about the state of that division as it does about Baltimore's 2014 season to this point. The Orioles have not stood out in any way, but their mediocre results have been good enough to keep them in the race through the first two months and with the trade season drawing near, that is enough to make them a strong bet to upgrade.
Prior to the start of the season, the Orioles looked a team that would excel offensively while struggling with their starting rotation and late-inning relief. That has been true to some degree. Their 4.23 team ERA ranks 12th in the American League and it is supported by an AL-worst 4.30 FIP. Their starters have the third highest ERA in the league and the highest FIP and their relievers are in the middle of the pack with a 3.75 ERA but hold the fourth highest FIP in the league at 4.12.
Unfortunately, their position players have not produced enough offense to balance things out. Baltimore ranks ninth in the AL in total runs scored and eighth in runs-per-game. Advanced metrics like them a bit more; they are sixth by wRC+ and fourth in fWAR for position players. However, their free-swinging approach has produced the lowest walk rate in the league (6.5%) and their power and contact skills have not stood out enough to produce anything more than an average hitting team overall. The injury to catcher Matt Wieters has hurt the team on both sides of the ball, but, conversely, the Orioles have also gotten much better than expect production from DH Nelson Cruz.
Are the Orioles Buyers or Sellers?
Baltimore may not be much better than a .500 team at this point, but that is enough to leave them within striking distance of the AL East title and in the hunt for one of the two Wild Card spots. Improved production from stars like Chris Davis and Manny Machado could provide a significant boost to the offense throughout the summer and while the rotation remains a serious weakness, some positive regression could result in improvements there as well. With the Blue Jays sitting just 5.5 games ahead and few other AL teams standing out at this point, an infusion of talent could be the difference-maker for the Orioles. They are unlikely to deal Kevin Gausman or Dylan Bundy to land one of the top players on the market but they have a number of second-tier pitching prospects who could appeal to teams at the deadline.
The Orioles rotation is probably not as bad as its ERA suggests, but it isn't good either. Better results from players like Ubaldo Jimenez and Chris Tillman would certainly help Baltimore climb in the standings, but this team also needs to raise the level of talent here if they are going to challenge to Blue Jays for the division title. With Miguel Gonzalez missing time with an oblique strain, Kevin Gausman got a chance to show that his early struggles at the major league level are behind him, but it looks like he still has a few things to work out before he can be the answer for the Orioles rotation. Dylan Bundy is back on the mound and headed for short-season ball, according to Brittany Ghiroli of MLB.com, so theoretically, he could help at some point later this year. However, Bundy is making his way back from Tommy John surgery and the loss of a full year of development probably means that he will need to build up his experience and arm strength in the minors this year.
The lack of internal options might push the Orioles to the trade market, but it is difficult to gauge exactly where that route might lead them. It is hard to imagine the Rays trading David Price in the division and it is even harder to imagine the Orioles paying the price for him. Jeff Samardzija could land on their radar and thanks to their lack of top tier pitching prospects, the Cubs are a good match for the Orioles as trade partners. Players like Ian Kennedy and Brandon McCarthy could also interest the Orioles, but unless they lose a starter to injury, Baltimore has comparable back-of-the-rotation options. I would expect them to focus their energy on impact pitchers like Price, Samardzija or the Phillies' Cliff Lee, rather than more modest upgrades but it just remains to be seen if they are willing to pony up the package it would take to make such a deal happen.
Trade Likelihood: Low
The struggles in the rotation may not have an obvious solution, but there appears to be an easy fix for the bullpen: adding a true closer. Over the offseason, the Orioles shipped closer Jim Johnson to the Athletics and then backed out of a deal with free agent closer Grant Balfour due to injury concerns. Instead of spending on another free agent like Fernando Rodney, Baltimore decided to move eighth-inning man Tommy Hunter into the role. Hunter struggled some, blowing three saves in 14 chances, and then landed on the DL with a groin strain. He returned to the roster on Sunday, but it appears that the Orioles will stick with Zach Britton or a closer-by-committee system for the ninth inning at this point. The 26-year-old Britton leads the Baltimore bullpen with a 0.83 ERA and he has converted five of six save opportunities since mid-May.
Britton could be the Orioles ninth-inning solution, but GM Dan Duquette appears to eyeing the reliever trade market as well. The Athletics have dropped the struggling Jim Johnson out of the closer role and they nearly dealt him to the Marlins this week. Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe sees the Orioles as a potential suitor for their former closer and at this point, it probably would not take much to bring him back. Balfour has also fallen on hard times and figures to be available at a low cost. Manager Buck Showalter has typically preferred to have a single player serve as the closer, so the addition of a player with experience in the role seems like a good bet. Even if Britton thrives in the role, Baltimore could use another experienced arm to help them handle what has been the fifth-heaviest workload of any American League bullpen to this point.
Trade Likelihood: High
When Matt Wieters first fell to an elbow injury, the Orioles looked to the trade market to fill the gap,eventually trading reliever Troy Patton to the Padres for Nick Hundley. Now, Roch Kubatko of MASN reports that Matt Wieters is heading to see Dr. Andrews again, so his return for the 2014 season seems like a long shot. In place of Wieters, the combination of Hundley and Steve Clevenger has been unbearable. Clevenger own a .243/.300/.378 batting line for the season and since joining the Orioles, Hundley has hit just .125/.185/.125 in 27 plate appearances. Replacing Wieters is impossible at this point, but an upgrade from the combination of Hundley, Clevenger and Caleb Joseph is certainly obtainable.
Trade Likelihood: High
Pieces to deal
.286/.318/.369, 1 HR, 7 RBI, 89 wRC+, -0.1 fWAR (88 plate appearances)
The former top prospect has not been above replacement level (by fWAR) since 2010, but that hasn't stopped teams from giving him a chance to play. Baltimore has little use for him now that Steve Pierce is hitting and Ken Rosenthal believes they will shop him as a low-cost alternative for the teams that missed out on Kendrys Morales. That might not bring much value back in return, but if Young has enough appeal to bring in a struggling ex-closer or a serviceable backstop, the Orioles would likely jump at the chance to get something back for him.
Trade Likelihood: Moderate
More realistically, if the Orioles want to make serious improvements this summer, they will have to tap the wealth of pitching talent they have down on the farm. It is hard to see them dealing Bundy, Gausman or even Hunter Harvey, but arms like Tim Berry, Mike Wright and Zachary Davies should appeal to rebuilding teams and could form the start of a solid trade package for all but the biggest names on the market. With the exception of Wright, the best arms after Gausman, Harvey and Bundy are all in the low minors, which makes them less appealing to teams expecting to compete in 2015, but the upside in this system gives GM Dan Duquette the tools he needs to win in a bidding war. If the Orioles target a starting pitcher, packaging a young arm with a pitcher like Bud Norris or Wei-Yin Chen, who both have some limited team control remaining, might do the trick.