The Orioles are a beaten and beleaguered team these days. They’ve suffered through steroid scandals and disgruntled stars. With eight straight seasons under .500 and just one third place finish among a sea of fourth-place seasons since winning the American League in 1997, the Orioles are a team without much of a plan. No where is that more obvious than in the team’s recent decisions to go with Jeff Conine and Jeromy Burnitz for the 2006 season.
Last week, the Orioles and 39-year-old Conine came to terms on a one year deal. “It looks like he might get more playing time than he bargained for,” Orioles manager Sam Perlozzo said about the Conine. That’s quite a statement about a team struggling to retain any semblance of competitiveness in a division that features the Yankees, Red Sox, and a revamped Blue Jays team.
Conine, for a 39-year-old, isn’t awful. Last season for the Marlins, he hit .304/.374/.403 with just 3 home runs in nearly 400 plate appearances. He created 52 runs last year as a part-time player and shouldn’t be anything more than that. However, the Orioles, according to Perlozzo, seem to have greater plans for him.
As far as I can tell, Conine would probably play first base or maybe the outfield. In either case, his production would be far below league average for the position. In the American League, he would have been dead last among first baseman for home runs and second to Scott Podsednik among left fielders. While I admire his .374 on-base percentage, teams need a little more power out of the first base or left field slot.
Furthermore, with Conine hogging a position in the field, the Orioles would be denying Walter Young or Val Majewski a shot at a job. Young, 25, is being groomed to play first base for the Orioles. He had decent AAA numbers and showed that he could hit Major League pitching albeit in just 33 at-bats this season. Due to an injury, Majewski isn’t as close to the Majors as Young is, but he seems to have a higher ceiling. He’s hit well in the Minors and has shown marked improvement over the last few years.
The Orioles are a team that needs new blood. Why should they waste a starting position with a utility player turning 40 in June? I think the Orioles should use Conine as a bench player. He would be an excellent fourth outfielder/emergency first baseman for the team. But to give him a starting job or award him the DH slot now seems like a waste of an offensive position.
A week after signing Conine, the Orioles inked Jeromy Burnitz to a two-year, $12-million deal. In Burnitz, they are getting a 37-year-old strike out machine who plays sketchy defense. Since turning 30, Burnitz has seen his OBP drop from .402 in 1999 to .322 in 2005. Except for one year playing in Coors, he hasn’t hit above .258. But he has struck out 100 times or more every season since assuming a full-time role in 1997.
So now, the Orioles are stuck with an immobile outfielder who may very well be ready to retire at the end of this contract. Once again, the team is blocking a future outfielder – Majewski – and they are clogging up the offense.
Furthermore, looking at Burnitz’s comparables on Baseball-Reference, I get the sense that the Orioles may not get much production from their latest addition. His highest comparable (a similarity score developed by Bill James) is Jay Buhner who retired at 36. Next is Darryl Strawberry who had just over 40 at bats at age 37, and then Ron Gant who had a decent enough season at 37 but only played 102 games. The Orioles expect Burnitz to play ball at a $6-million-per-year level for two seasons when most players like him don’t last much beyond 36. This doesn’t seem like smart money to me.
The Orioles are in an unenviable position. They have faced on-field and off-field problems. In 2006, they’ll be playing three powerhouses – the Yankees, Red Sox, and Blue Jays – 57 times. They’ve seen a decline in attendance and a increase in Camden Yards boos. In fact, with the Yanks or Sox in town, it seems as though more fans are rooting for the visiting team.
While the Orioles have seemingly taken the “throw in the towel” approach toward competing in the American League East, they would do well to imitate the team they could finish below in the standings this year. The Tampa Bay Devil Rays have shed payroll and have developed a young core of exceptional players. The Orioles keep pursuing over-paid, over-the-hill guys on the edge of retirement. It just doesn’t work as a plan.