Keith Law, the lead baseball writer for ESPN's Scouts Inc., has been critical of the Orioles' offseason moves, so I thought my readers might want to see what he had to say about the additions of Vladimir Guerrero and J.J. Hardy, the Matt Wieters debate and where the Orioles stand in the American League East.
The last of my spring training Q&As with national baseball writers, here is my lengthy interview with Law, who previously worked with the Blue Jays as a special assistant to the general manager for more than four years:
MV: You have criticized the Orioles for bringing in veteran players such as Vladimir Guerrero and Derrek Lee in the offseason. Are these just cosmetic moves meant to excite the fan base and that's it?
KL: I don't have inside information on what the front office was thinking. My criticism was that this is a franchise that has been trying to build from within, which is the only way they're going to be competitive in the American League East. And it's as if they suddenly decided, 'We're done waiting. We need to try to be competitive or make it look like we're going to be competitive in the short term.' And they decided to spend some money, but they stayed in the shallow end of the free-agent pool. And if you look at the players they brought in, that's just nowhere near enough to get them to contending status in the best division in baseball. You might be able to fake it in, say, the NL Central or the NL West, which are weaker up and down the standings. But in the American League East, the standard is extremely high. Their best chance to contend still resides with the young players on the roster and a couple of guys coming up through the system. I feel like they shifted philosophy here, and I don't know why.
I have speculated -- and it's pure speculation on my part just having been in an organization that went through some of this -- that the business side, whether it's ownership or marketing or finance, said, 'Enough. We need to do something to win more games this year.' … They decided to shift toward bringing in names. Ken Weinman, your radio host down there [for 105.7 The Fan], has mentioned fans getting very excited over Vlad Guerrero because he is a name. He is a name. He's also not very good anymore, and he's injury-prone. You might get a short boost in attention -- maybe that's a very quick revenue hit -- but when Vlad Guerrero goes out and hits like the player he is today, as opposed to the player he was five years ago, that revenue boost isn't going to last, and it's not going to translate into wins.
MV: Looking at the long-term picture, what would have been a better way for the Orioles to spend the money they used to sign those players, like putting it back into the farm system or scouting?
KL: We don't know that they're diverting money away from the farm system. I have pointed out many times this offseason that they do very little internationally. They got outbid on Miguel Sano, for example, the top prospect for the Twins now. They were in on it. They saw him. They liked him. And they decided to low-ball him relative to what the Pirates and the Twins were offering him. If you're going to be involved internationally, you're probably not going to have a lot of success if you're constantly coming in third or fourth on the top prospects. There's a couple of guys every year who are going to get a million dollars or more. You've got to be winning to pony up and take the risk.
It's extremely risky. I'm not trying to downplay that aspect. But to play seriously on the international front, it might take five million dollars. Do they no longer have the five million dollars available to put in the Dominican, Venezuela, East Asia? I don't know that. Again, I'm just speculating, but I don't like seeing the shift in commitment. ... I don't know exactly how much money they have left for other areas, but to see them suddenly give this money to veterans who are not going to work out, it's not going to return a ton of value. This team is not going to win 85 games this year. This makes me worry that their philosophical commitment to building through the draft, through international scouting, through trading veterans for young players, may have waned, and that they won't be willing to commit the same money to acquiring young talent.
MV: What can the Orioles expect from Mark Reynolds in his first season in the AL East?
KL: He's going to strike out a ton, and I think there's going to be a lot of emphasis on that. To me, that doesn't make him a bad player. You can strike out 200 times a year and still be a good player. Adam Dunn has been a very good player with those kinds of strikeout totals. ... You can see that over the last couple years of Reynolds' career, he's been very up-and-down. He has struggled very badly against decent breaking balls, especially sliders.
He is a not a good defensive third baseman. He has worked very hard to get better at third, but he's still not good there. And I think that the combination of below-average defense, a lot of swings and misses and the bad at-bats -- when, as a fan, you see a player strike out repeatedly but you know they're throwing the slider over the outer half and he's going to swing at it anyway and he's going to miss, I'm getting very frustrated with players like that, even when the player is still producing value. And it's not that Reynolds is worthless. He's far from it. But I don't really think he's going to play up to his salary, and he's the type of player who can really drive the fan base insane.
MV: What about the acquisition of J.J. Hardy? How much of an upgrade is he over Cesar Izturis?
KL: He's definitely an upgrade offensively because I would be an upgrade offensively over Cesar Izturis. Izturis is a good defensive shortstop and I think better than Hardy. Hardy has been good, but he's not a star defensively, and you might argue that it's going to be a push because Izturis is probably not as good as he once was anyway. Hardy, though, like Reynolds, I have seen him struggle badly against quality off-speed stuff, even in the National League. He's a while removed from good offensive performance. It's not that he wasn't a player worth taking a flyer on. They gave up very little to get him, too, and it's certainly not a move I objected to. But again, just try to keep expectations realistic. He is a player with flaws. He has a very mixed track record in the performance department. He's a stopgap, and a perfectly-fine stopgap. He's not a star.
None of the veteran players they brought in are stars. And I'm sort of hearing this reaction, 'Oh, we're contending now. Oh, it's one of the best lineups in the American League.' It's not. It's still pretty average and that's fine as long as the underlying philosophy of trying to build that farm system stays intact. My worry all along -- and I know I'm going on a tangent here -- is that if they get to the middle of June and the team isn't performing and Chris Tillman has a 4.80 ERA, are they going to stick with Tillman and let him get another 100 innings the rest of the season to try to continue to develop him as a big-league starter? Or will that emphasis on short-term performance cause them to treat their young players differently?
MV: Another young player, Matt Wieters has been a hot topic in Baltimore since Baseball Prospectus labeled him as one of the biggest busts in baseball history. Where do you weigh in on Wieters?
KL: I mean, do I have to talk about the insanity of calling a player a bust, what, two years out of the draft when he's already in the big leagues? That's crazy, and inappropriate. It would be fair to talk about a player, five, six years out. … I think you have to give some of these guys time. They don't all develop on our schedule. Each player is an individual, and he develops on his own schedule. And you saw it for a good maybe two, two and a half months in the middle of last summer, Wieters started to hit like the player we all thought he was going to be. Then I think he tired badly down the stretch from the long season.
I'm hopeful that he's going to take a step forward this year. Maybe he's not going to turn into the all-world star right away that we thought he was going to be, at least in the way that he torched the minors. I saw him in Double-A. I saw him in the [Arizona] Fall League. And he had nothing left to learn in the minor leagues at that point. There's no criticism in the way the Orioles handled him. They did everything right. But that jump from Double-A and Triple-A to the majors can be a huge one, particularly to the American League East. He's not just jumping to the big leagues. He's going to what I would argue strenuously is the best division in baseball. And you're seeing a lot of adjustments, some physical adjustments.
He's going to have to continue to strengthen himself so he can handle 145 games behind the plate over the course of six-plus months, and that's a huge task. Young catchers struggle with the length of the season. That's a lot of wear and tear on the body. If Wieters is playing another position, and I'm speculating here, my opinion is that he would have finished more strongly and continued that hot streak through the summer and that the conversation around him this winter would have been different.
MV: The Orioles' philosophy under Andy MacPhail has been "buy the bats, grow the arms." We saw Brian Matusz, Jake Arrieta and Brad Bergesen take steps forward under Buck Showalter. Do you think that was just a nice, little run for those guys, or do you think it is a sign of things to come?
KL: You've got a lot of different things working there. Buck helped. There's no question, and I think you've seen young players develop under his tenure with other organizations. His issue has always been getting his team over that last hump and into the playoffs. But he has done a good job historically of turning talented and somewhat underachieving teams into better performers.
I think Matusz is the star of the whole group. Matusz, Tillman, Britton -- he's not there yet, but he will be this year -- those are the guys I have been most excited about. I think Arrieta and Bergesen are pieces for the back end of the rotation. They don't have that same kind of upside, or in Matusz's case, star potential. I thought Matusz had a legitimate case to win [AL] Rookie of the Year last year. Now, I knew he wasn't going to do it, but once you start looking at the competition he had to face, he deserved a lot more consideration than he got. I think the way he finished last year, whether it's Buck or whether it was just good fortune, at the end of the day, that's what we all thought he was going to be when he was coming out of college.
MV: What's your evaluation of Tillman?
KL: I didn't see him last year. I had seen him before plenty of times. I saw a guy who projected to have an above-average fastball and above-average curveball -- that's a pretty good combination. I thought he would miss a lot of bats with the breaking ball. He needed to work on the changeup and the fastball's command. There's a lot of moving parts in his delivery. … There is no reason that he can't ultimately harness the delivery and repeat it well enough to throw quality strikes. What went wrong with him last year? I'm sorry, but I couldn't tell you because I didn't see him pitch.
MV: I know it isn't going to be pretty, but what's your season outlook for the Orioles, and would the Orioles be capable of winning another division like the NL Central or the NL West?
KL: They would be competitive in another division. There isn't a division in baseball that I would predict them to win given the talent they have on the roster. Now if they were in the NL West, they might have gone harder after one of the top-end free agents because they would have been closer to winning the division. You look at that NL West, it's basically the Giants and everybody else right now. That might have been in reach.
But the American League East, it's just out of their reach. It's going to take a long time to fill that major-league roster with enough talent to be contenders. They're clearly the worst team in the division this year, and it's very hard for me to see them winning 81 games as the worst team in the division. Not only would they have to exceed my expectations -- and it's going to be the young guys who would have to put them over the top -- and as much as I like these young players, I don't think it's all going to come together this season to put them over that hump, especially given that you have three legitimate playoff contenders in the Yankees, Red Sox and the Rays. And Toronto, for all the changes that they made, they have really good players already on the roster and ready to step in from the minors. They're not contenders, but to me, on paper at least, they're clearly better than the Orioles.
All those things point to the Orioles winning, maybe, [a number of games] in the upper 70s. That's the best-case scenario, with them beating up on competition outside the division. But within that AL East, it's really tough. Teams better than the Orioles would struggle to get to .500 playing those other four opponents in the American League East.