Despite surprising everyone by winning 93 games and qualifying for the postseason last year, the Orioles haven’t done much of anything this winter. Other than re-signing Nate McLouth, all of their moves have been small trades (Danny Valencia, Trayvon Robinson, Yamaico Navarro), minor league signings (Daniel Schlereth, Zach Braddock, Travis Ishikawa), or waiver claims (Luis Martinez, Alexi Casilla). Their most notable moves to date were extending GM Dan Duquette and manager Buck Showalter through 2018.
Baltimore continued their nondescript offseason yesterday by agreeing to sign right-hander Jair Jurrjens to a one-year contract worth $1.5 million that could reach $4 million through incentives. Jon Heyman of CBS Sports had the scoop. Jurrjens was just awful with the Braves last season, pitching to a 6.89 ERA and 5.64 FIP with nearly as many walks (18) as strikeouts (19) in 48.1 innings. They sent him to Triple-A not once but twice, where he managed a 4.98 ERA and 4.62 FIP in 72.1 innings. His season effectively ended in early-August due to a groin strain.
Matt Swartz projected Jurrjens to earn $5.5 million in his third of four trips through arbitration this winter, so it’s no surprise the Braves non-tendered him in November. He had been an All-Star for Atlanta as recently as 2011 — 2.96 ERA and 3.99 FIP in 152 innings — but this…
…means something is very wrong. Jurrjens has seen his average fastball velocity drop more than two miles an hour the over the last three years — you can see the decline starting in the second half of 2010 — from 91.1 mph in 2010 to 88.6 mph in 2012. His arm has been relatively healthy in recent years outside of a bout with minor shoulder tightness during early-Spring Training in 2010, but the rest of his body has been a mess. Jurrjens had right knee surgery in October 2010 to repair cartilage damage and the meniscus, and inflammation in the joint sent him to the DL twice the following season. He’s also missed time with oblique and groin strains the last two years.
When a pitcher loses that much velocity, everything just kinda goes in the tank. He was never a big-time strikeout pitcher to start with (career 16.3 K% prior to 2012), but last season he managed just an 8.4 K% in the big leagues (12.6% in Triple-A). Opponents tagged him for eight homers in those 48.1 innings, good for a 1.49 HR/9 and 11.0% HR/FB. Both righties (.412 wOBA) and lefties (.407 wOBA) put up Buster Posey-like production against him. Jurrjens was easily one of the worst starters in baseball last season despite spending most of the year either in the minors or hurt. He was that bad.
The good news is that the Orioles don’t need Jurrjens for anything, they basically signed him as some really deep depth. Jason Hammel, Wei-Yin Chen, Chris Tillman, Zach Britton, and Miguel Gonzalez are all ahead of him on the depth chart, and both Jake Arrieta and Steve Johnson probably are as well. Brian Matusz might even get another chance to crack the rotation before Jurrjens despite his stellar late-season relief work. Duquette bought a lottery ticket, a lottery ticket he can option to Triple-A and hope will somehow be worth as much as it was from 2008-2010. Jurrjens is still only 26 years old, so he does have that going for him. As an added bonus, he would remain under team control as an arbitration-eligible player in 2014 as well.
It’s tough to see Jurrjens ever getting things back on track without first finding out why his velocity disappeared. Maybe it’s all mechanical, maybe he’s hiding an injury, maybe it’s both or maybe it’s something else entirely. Whatever it is, it’s impacting his slider as well — the pitch isn’t breaking as much laterally (2.3 inches) or missing as many bats (10.1% whiffs) as it did just two seasons ago (3.2 inches and 18.0% whiffs). He also isn’t getting enough separation from his changeup with the diminished fastball. You can’t help but think Jurrjens wasn’t healthy in 2012 — maybe he can’t push-off properly with his surgically repaired knee? — but we just don’t know.
The Orioles took a low-risk and relatively inexpensive flier on a pitcher who was pretty solid just one year ago, plus they appear to have enough arms to keep Jurrjens down on the depth chart. The signing is fine in that regard, but on a macro level it’s just another very minor addition in an offseason full of minor additions for Baltimore. Given the moves made by some of their AL East rivals and the extreme unlikelihood of repeating that historic success in one-run (29-9!) and extra-inning (16-2!) games, it’s very fair to wonder just how competitive the Orioles will be in 2013 following their offseason inactivity.