• Apr

    April Q&A w/ Dan Szymborski, ESPN / BBTF

    On a monthly basis Orioles Hangout will be checking in with Dan Szymborski, the Editor-in-Chief of Baseball Think Factory (http://www.baseballthinkfactory.org/) and a contributing writer for ESPN.

    You can also find Szymborski on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/#!/DSzymborski

    Below is our initial installment in this series.

    Orioles Hangout: “When you and I had last spoke in December, the O’s had obtained Reynolds and Hardy, and had yet to obtain Lee and Guerrero. I posed a scenario to you where the O’s signed either LaRoche or Lee and a DH that moved Scott to LF, asking if you would expect the O’s offense to score 125+ runs over what they did in 2010.

    At the time you replied by stating, “I actually don’t think improving by 125 runs on offense is all that difficult a hurdle for this team. They probably scored less than the talent in the lineup merited and Hardy and Reynolds upgrade two positions from which the O’s got nothing in 2010 (.668 OPS at 3rd, .549 OPS at SS). The offense at 1st was so lousy (.226/.289/.336) that you could literally stick a random Minor League Free Agent 1st baseman and get sizable improvement. I fully expect the team to be middle of the back offensively in 2011.”

    The Orioles scored 613 runs in 2010. Joe Sheehan has predicted the O’s to improve by just 52 runs (665) this year.  Does this strike you as overly pessimistic?”

    Dan Szymborski: “I think that Joe’s probably on the pessimistic side.  As I noted in December, the Orioles really got absolutely nothing at a number of positions.  I haven’t seen anything yet to change my opinion and I feel the team will be somewhere in the middle of the pack and runs scored. Simplifying run improvement is that I expect more runs to be scored in the league than last year as offense regresses to the long-term mean, which is a very strong tendency.  I do feel that the downside is a little greater than the upside as the O’s generally aren’t that deep anywhere in the sense of being able to deal with injuries or related nasty surprises.”

    Orioles Hangout: “We asked 22 writers this winter to predict the O’s 2011 record. The average predicted win total was 78. Diamond Mind’s projection agrees, with 78.6 wins being their average simulated result.  If the O’s are slightly below or slightly above .500 at the non-waiver trading deadline, they will be significantly improved but still outside of contention. If that occurs, part of the fanbase will want to push towards the first non-losing season for the franchise since ’97, and the other side will want to trade anyone not projected to help you going forward. Here in April, how do you see late July playing out for Baltimore?”

    Dan Szymborski: “You tend to get a lot of agreement with the projection systems.  The Diamond Mind projection disk released this year (it may be released by the time this goes live) actually uses ZiPS projection.  From ZiPS, I had the Orioles at 77-85 for the 4/4 issue of ESPN Magazine and I don’t seen any reason, outside of personal desire, to really quibble with that number.  Of interest is that I have the O’s with the 2nd-toughest schedule in baseball (a smidgen behind the Blue Jays), which will help make the team look worse than they actually are.

    The organization is likely to have some difficulties if they have a winning percentage in the .480 range at the halfway mark and will have to make some decisions I won’t envy.  The team has been hyped a bit as a major improvement and my biggest worry as a fan is that the team feels the need to short-circuit the building process in order to keep the season from being a failure.  Unlike a lot of Oriole fans, I wasn’t really big on signing Lee and Guerrero when the team’s not a likely competitor and that money can go a long way towards repairing an international scouting system that’s being lapped by the competition.”

    Orioles Hangout: “The limited sample size of spring training obviously only means so much. That said, Britton’s spring results simply reconfirmed the existing opinion that he is probably one of the O’s best 5 starters now.  The Orioles broke camp without Britton, with the intention of him staying in AAA until at least 4/21 to obtain an additional year of service time. It was pretty understandable to most that an additional full year of team control in Britton’s prime was worth sacrificing 2-3 April starts (in a year you do not expect to contend) during his rookie year. However, before the first game of the year Brian Matusz came up with a back injury that caused the O’s to promote Britton. Do you think was the right move for the Orioles, or even after accounting for the injury to Matusz, should the O’s have made the decision to go with other temporary starters?”

    Dan Szymborski: “I’d rather have the extra year of service time. It’s unlikely that Britton will be *that* much better over a fill-in over 2 or 3 starts.  Some might make the comparison to the Giants and Buster Posey last year, in that the team came very close to missing the playoffs because of those early season games in which Posey was creating runs for Fresno instead of San Francisco.  However, the Giants were in a better position competitively and there’s less of an adjustment period in the majors for hitters, so the cost was greater.  Britton’s had only 12 starts at AAA, so it’s not like he’s been down there for a year or two and is out of challenges.”

    Orioles Hangout: “In our previous discussion we talked about possible extensions for Hardy and Jones.

    With Hardy you said, “Hardy’s a great pickup and I don’t think the Orioles will come out too unhappy for 2-3 years at $5-8M (depending on his willingness to stay). He’s a very underrated defensive player and the injuries should keep his price down.

    With Jones you commented, “If you want to keep a player long-term, sooner is always better if you want to save money. His negative defensive numbers are probably overblown – defensive numbers have improved greatly over the last 15 years, but you still need a far bigger sample size for defensive stats than offensive ones. His UZR for his career in Center is -2 runs per 150 games and that’s probably where we should consider him for the time being. There’s a lot of similarity with him and Markakis actually. Not that they are similar types of players, but like Markakis, Jones is a lot more exciting once you’re past him not being a superstar and just content with a really good player.”

    The commonality with both Hardy and Jones is that they are position players. This past week Andrew Friedman and the Tampa Rays announced a 7 year deal (options for what would be his final arbitration year, and first two years of free agency) with their pitcher Wade Davis.

    Like Davis and Tampa, the O’s have plenty of their own young pitchers that they could try and extend now to save money later. Do you have reservations about giving young pitchers such deals? Would you advise the O’s to work on extending their positional players first?”

    Dan Szymborski: “Both!  Any player that they feel can contribute significantly over the long-haul should be seriously considered.  Cost certainty has a great deal of value and there’s no reason to limit the scope to a particular group of players on the team.  After all, not all players are going to have the same personal views on the balance of risks and benefits and some will be more willing to sign long-term than others.  There’s always risk to the team in committing guaranteed money, but unless a team is willing to spend gobs of money, there is no better way to keep a solid core together without taking some risks unless you’re the world’s best developer of talent.”

    Orioles Hangout: “I have been asked several times this offseason, who cares if the O’s improve, if they are not contending? I think a somewhat better question is who cares if the O’s improve, if the younger core does not perform better? To me the only way the O’s will significantly improve as I expect (predicting 83-79, 4th) is if that younger core steps up. Do you foresee any scenario where the O’s could improve to that 77-85 win range, without a jump in performance from large portions of the youth? (Markakis 27, Jones 25, Wieters 24, Matusz 24, Arrieta 25, Tillman 23, Britton 24, Bergesen 25).”

    Dan Szymborski: “No.  If the team gets above .500, it means that they cobbled a good enough pitching staff to keep from wasting a decent offense and there’s no way to do it, especially with Justin Duchscherer displaying the injury tendency of, well, Justin Duchscherer, without young ptichers stepping up.”

    Orioles Hangout: “In their Organizational rankings, FanGraphs.com selected the Orioles as the 15th best overall organization. (http://www.fangraphs.com/blogs/index.php/2011-organizational-rankings-15-baltimore/) As an Oriole fan, my two takeaways from their series were that the other AL East teams were ranked 1st, 2nd, 4th, and 8th overall; and that the O’s were ranked 5th overall in terms of ‘future’ talent. To me that illustrates just how competitive the AL East is, and the potential that exists for the core talent that exists to mature as they reach their respective primes. Based on the criteria FanGraphs used (Present Talent, Future Talent, Financial Resources, Baseball Operations) does 15th seem about right to you for the O’s?”

    Dan Szymborski: “15th sounds about right.  The organization isn’t going to spend $150 million, but they’re willing to support a mid-level payroll.  To really move into Top 10 if you re-ranked the organizations, the team needs to always be churning out minor league depth (outside of the very obvious top two prospects in the system) and have a more coherent long-term planning.  The “Let’s Go .500” plan that clearly seems to have been in effect this winter was more what the Orioles wanted to see happened, rather than a clear evaluation of what the team actually had and what the likely results would be.  As Saint-Exupery said, “A goal without a plan is just a wish.”

    Orioles Hangout: “Let us take a brief tour around the division. Obviously Boston has improved long-term with the additions of Crawford, and Gonzalez, but to me, if you are going to talk about the Red Sox improving for ’11, the discussion should be less about their external additions and more about a likely return to health for players that were already there. Or in other words, for 2011 alone how much better do you think Boston is with Crawford and Gonzalez vs. Beltre and Martinez?”

    Dan Szymborski: “Boston’s a better team simply by being healthy.  I’ll take Crawford/Gonzalez over Beltre/Martinez, mainly because he’s not quite as good a player as a lot of the public thinks (his bat is excellent for a catcher, but he’s not really a catcher, and as a DH, he’s good, but nothing MVP-like).  Boston does have terrific depth, however, and can stand injuries at most positions, something which is always underrated when people look at projected lineups/rotations in April.”

    Orioles Hangout: “Thoughts on the Toronto offense in 2011? Do you see Hill and Lind returning to their 2009 numbers? Does Arencibia replace Buck’s 2010 offense (.803 OPS, 20 homers)? Snider has just turned 23, and has had 612 Major League at-bats. Is this the year he fully emerges? Should the expectation for Bautista be his new career averages of a .795 OPS, and 25 homers?”

    Dan Szymborski: “Hill and Lind will have better years, but neither, player, especially Hill, isn’t going to return to 2009 levels anytime soon (or possibly ever). Bautista should be expected to have a good year, though not 2010 as it’s extremely unlikely that he was simply the 2009 Jose Bautista getting lucky last season.” 

    Orioles Hangout: “Even without Garza, the rotation of Price, Shields, Davis, Niemann, and Hellickson is one of the most talented in the league. With those starters, is the worry about the Rays bullpen overstated?”

    Dan Szymborski: “The worries about the bullpen are overstated, but there would have been a significant drop-off in play even if they had brought everybody back.  Last year, when you look at what the lost relievers did, they essentially combined for a Felix Hernandez season with an extra half King Felix year on the side.  They were bound to decline from that no matter what, but they did add some interesting castoffs.  I don’t think it’ll be a team strength, though.

    The starters will be good though – Tampa produces more starting pitchers than Uwe Boll produces bad movies.”

    Orioles Hangout: “Due to the dollars required and compensatory ramifications, the Yankees contract to Soriano was panned by many. Personally, I like the deal for New York. The Yankees are never going to suffer from an inability to add external talent to their organization. Rivera will have less wear and tear on him during the year, and the Yankees can make nearly every game a 7 inning affair. Did you like the signing?”

    Dan Szymborski: “If you have an unlimited budget it’s a great deal. Soriano’s an extremely valuable pitcher, probably the 3rd-or-4th best closer in the league.  He’ll be worth it to New York, but I can’t really suggest anyone else spend $12 million a year on any reliever – it’s the easiest place on a team to cobble together something.  Finding the next Rafael Soriano is the better idea.”

    Orioles Hangout: “Lastly, you have graciously agreed to answer some questions from Orioles Hangout on a monthly basis. As this will be a regular feature, I do not want the questions to always be from us to you. As the 2011 season starts, what is something you would want to ask Orioles fans, or think they should be considering?”

    Dan Szymborski:  “One thing I wonder a lot about O’s fans as a group is just how much the fan-base is willing to take at the moment.  Is the desire to get the win total back into the 80s strong enough that people would take it even if it didn’t come with a long-term blueprint?  While I’m an Oriole fan who has lived most of his life in the Baltimore area, I tend to cover things in a more general manner and I may be underestimating just how much O’s fans want wins right now.”

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Michael Williams

Lifelong. Down by the river.