As readers of this blog know, last summer I argued that Nick Markakis should be the star of the trade deadline rather than the building block Baltimore envisioned when the signed him to a 6 year/$66M contract in 2009. Unlike some of the previous teams we’ve discussed, 2011 has been a valuable learning exercise for the O’s. Despite their 36-52 record, Baltimore is much smarter than it was this offseason in a number of ways:
(1) Matt Wieters is a cornerstone. Whispers of “draft bust” have followed Wieters since his 2009 debut, somewhat understandable given the lofty expectations that accompany being the 5th overall pick in the 2007 draft. However, Wieters just turned 25 and appears to be growing comfortable behind the plate at Camden Yards. His K rate has dropped each year, and he’s hitting more line drives than ever. His ISO is up to .141 and his 2.3WAR is second only to Alex Avila (the AL’s starting catcher in the All-Star Game in Phoenix). 2012 will be Wieters first arbitration year (of four) and look for the Orioles to lock him up sooner rather than later.
(2) Nick Markakis is trade bait. 185/160/138/087. Those numbers constitute the 2008-2011 ISO numbers for the now 27 year old Markakis. His walk rate has dropped to 5.8%. Even Markakis’ gold glove defense has now become a liability. Markakis will earn $12M in 2012, and $15M in 2013-14, and turns 28 in November. Markakis is far enough removed from his monster 2006-2008 campaigns,where he looked like a perennial all-star and potential MVP candidate, but young enough that a big market will take a chance on turning him around. Philly, Boston, even Texas have hitting needs and can afford Markakis. Though it might be unpopular with the Oriole faithful, moving him for prospects is the obvious choice this July.
(3) Pitching and Defense. The Orioles have some young talent on the hill, but 2011 is a step sideways at best. Brian Matusz has struggled (and then been demoted) . . . Chris Tillman has showed some improvement. Zach Britton made an early pitch for Rookie of the Year, and carries a more than respectable 3.88 xFIP into the break, and Jake Arrieta boasts the best swing and miss stuff of the group, but struggles with his command. As a group, however, the starters have one weakness – their 6.01 K/9 rate. To compete in the AL East with the young staff the Orioles have assembled, the Orioles are going to have to build a strong defensive club – and because they can’t compete with the finances of Boston or New York, the defense route likely represents the quickest path back to respectability.
(4) Yes on Guthrie, No on Hardy. Both Jeremy Guthrie and JJ Hardy hold significant value at this year’s deadline. Guthrie has proven himself a dependable if unspectacular starter, an innings eater than can be counted on for 200 slightly above average innings, no small feat in the AL East. JJ Hardy has enjoyed a renaissance this season, finally healthy and looking like the 4.5 WAR Shortstop from 2007-08 in Milwaukee. Guthrie is eligible for arbitration next year before heading to free agency, while Hardy is free after playing out this year’s $5.85M contract. With $20M coming off the books this offseason (Vlad Guerrero, Derrek Lee and Mike Gonzalez), the Orioles can afford to bridge to their youth movement. Guthrie is 32, while Hardy turns 29 in August, and age makes all the difference. Guthrie should bring some value to a contender looking to solidify its rotation down the stretch, and could command the return of some prospects because he is under control via arbitration in 2012. Hardy is merely a rental and would command little on the trade market. Moving Guthrie for prospects, while extending Hardy along the lines of 3/$30M makes sense both to maintain a competitive team on the field (if not one that can truly challenge for the AL East crown) and to bridge to Manny Machado, presuming Machado sticks at SS.
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