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Free-agent thoughts, concluded

Happy Sunday, everybody. As we get deeper into the free-agent signing period, it's time to close out my three-part look at some potential Orioles targets before any of the 12 players my colleague Dan Connolly identified come off the board. As always, these opinions are strictly my own and should not be taken an indication of the likelihood of any player's signing with the team. With that said, let's get into the final four (you can read my thoughts on the first four players on Dan's list here and the second four here.

Paul Maholm, LHP, Pittsburgh Pirates: Despite a 6-14 record, Maholm, 29, is coming off the most successful season of his career by several measures. His 3.66 ERA was a career best for a full season, as was his 3.78 FIP (a metric that estimates what a pitcher's ERA should've been while factoring in only things he is thought to be able to control). However, I can't shake the feeling that Maholm's 2011 was a bit fluky. Some of it is evident looking at the lefty's batted-ball statistics. Hitters had a .286 average on balls in play against Maholm — not far off the MLB standard in 2011, but the lowest for a full season of his career —despite the fact that Maholm also posted the lowest ground-ball rate (49.9 percent) of his career. It wasn't stellar defense behind him that helped turn all those batted balls into outs, as, statistically, the Pirates weren't impressive in 2011. That leaves us to conclude that a lot of Maholm's success in preventing hits was because of luck — balls hit right at Pirates fielders, for example. Add in the fact that Maholm wasn't the only Pirates starter to have a career year in 2011 (Charlie Morton and Jeff Karstens also posted their best ERAs and FIPs) and it's fair to wonder how much of Maholm's success is repeatable. He also landed on the disabled list last year with a shoulder strain in August. All this doesn't mean that Maholm wouldn't help the Orioles, of course. He has started at least 29 games and pitched at least 176 innings every year of his career except for 2011, and the DL trip last year was the first of his career. He has been very close to a league-average pitcher over his career, which you can't say about many of the Orioles starters over the past few years. He's also going to be significantly cheaper than the other pitchers on Dan's list. The Orioles, however, shouldn't expect him to maintain sub-4.00 ERAs and FIPs going forward, especially with his moving from the National League to the American League, and specifically the AL East.Mark Ellis, 2B, Colorado Rockies: Ellis is 34 years old and coming off easily the worst offensive season of his career. He struggled mightily in Oakland, batting .217 with a .253 on-base percentage and .290 slugging percentage, before being traded to Colorado at the end of June. With the Rockies, his numbers were more respectable — .274/.319/.392 — but still far from impressive, especially with his playing half of his games in a much more hitter-friendly park. Defensively, Ellis is an above-average second baseman. He might make some sense as an insurance policy at second base in case Brian Roberts misses significant time again in 2012, but there are better free-agent options for that role. And the Orioles would still have to depend on someone else to hit leadoff in Roberts' absence; I don't see Ellis getting on base at a high enough clip for the team to be able to count on him there. It's hard to see Ellis providing much value to the Orioles.

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Josh Willingham, LF, Oakland Athletics: Willingham could certainly help the Orioles with his bat. The 32-year-old has hit 21 or more homers in four of the past six seasons and never fewer than 15, including 29 last year. The question is where the Orioles would put him. If he's your everyday left fielder, he's displacing Nolan Reimold, who I feel had a strong enough finish to last season to warrant giving him a shot at the full-time job in 2012. You could have Willingham serve as your designated hitter — he DH'ed in 36 games in 2011 and isn't a particularly good fielder. However, Willingham might not be willing to sign with the Orioles just to bat four times a game. Most players prefer to play both sides of the ball, and hitters' production traditionally suffers when they go from playing in the field to being designated hitters. Also, there's the question of what to do with Luke Scott if the Orioles sign Willingham, though the club might be willing to part with Scott after he played in just 64 games last year. Those aren't reasons not to try to sign Willingham, who will be looking for a pay raise from the $6 million he made last season, but they are considerations.

Jason Kubel, OF, Minnesota Twins: Kubel's game is similar to Willingham's — and for that matter, Scott's — power at the plate, below-average defense in the outfield. The left-handed-hitting Kubel probably makes more sense for the Orioles than Willingham, though, as the team has been in search of more left-handed power for quite some time. You run into the same questions with Kubel as you do with Willingham, but those questions are more easily answered with Kubel. There's no reason to have both Kubel and Scott on the active roster — they play the same position and both hit left-handed, so a platoon wouldn't make sense. But at 29, Kubel is four years younger than Scott, so you'd have to think the Orioles would value him over Scott. Additionally, signing Kubel wouldn't necessarily mean kicking Reimold out of left field. Kubel has DH'ed 303 times in his career and might be more amenable to a role as the regular designated hitter. Going after him makes a lot of sense.

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What are your thoughts on those four players as they relate to the Orioles? Please share your comments below.

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