C’mon, Orioles, Do Something | FanGraphs Baseball

C’mon, Orioles, Do Something | FanGraphs Baseball

Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

I’m a biased observer. I watch the offseason hoping something will happen, and not just because I’m rooting for one particular team to get better. My job is to write about baseball, and it’s a lot easier to write about things changing than things staying the same. “This just in: Yankees roster same as yesterday” is not a story that I’d be very excited to write, and it’s also probably not a story that many people would be excited to read. Change is imperative for content, especially in the offseason.

With that intro in mind, I have a bone to pick with the Baltimore Orioles – a bone that, coincidentally enough, Meg and Other Ben discussed on today’s Effectively Wild. The Orioles won the AL East last year and finished with 101 wins, second-most in baseball. They seemingly ran out of gas in the playoffs; they didn’t hit or pitch particularly well in their ALDS loss to the Rangers. They followed that up by doing – well, a whole lot of nothing. It’s not just that they’re making my job harder. They’re making their own job harder, and doing so while the clock is ticking on their young, cost-controlled team core.

The AL East is always a competitive division, and it’s gone exactly according to type so far this winter. The Yankees went out and got a star – Juan Soto, not Alex Verdugo, if you’re keeping score at home. The Rays traded six nickels, two dimes, and two pennies for a quarter, three dimes, and a nickel. The Blue Jays shored up their infield depth, though they still need to find a replacement for Matt Chapman. (The current leader in the clubhouse for that position? Matt Chapman.) The Red Sox – well, the Red Sox are certainly making moves, even if I can’t quite figure out the end goal.

Those transactions have accomplished just what you’d expect: They’ve made the division a powerhouse again. Three out of the top 10 teams in baseball in terms of projected WAR play in the AL East – and the Orioles aren’t one of them. Maybe we’re selling them short – our odds have been known to do that – but they’ve stood still while everyone else around them adds, so it’s safe to say that their standing in the division has gotten worse since 2023.

That’s a really strange place to be for a team built like the Orioles. Baltimore is the envy of many front offices across the league. They executed the old Astros tear-down-and-refocus plan to perfection, coming out the other side with a handful of franchise cornerstones. Adley Rutschman and Gunnar Henderson have already arrived; Jackson Holliday looks like the next man up. The rest of the offense is built around that core of generational talents. Anthony Santander and Cedric Mullins are solid starters. Ryan O’Hearn, Ryan Mountcastle, Jorge Mateo, and Austin Hays are all good veteran role players. Jordan Westburg, Coby Mayo, Joey Ortiz, Heston Kjerstad, and Colton Cowser are waiting in the wings. Our Depth Charts projections have the O’s as the fifth-best offense in baseball, and there’s upside for more than that; this team is no joke, and it should have a strong baseline to build from for years to come.

Quite reasonably, then, the Orioles haven’t done anything to improve their offense. At this point, the best thing they could do on that side of the ball is signing one of their young stars to an extension, but that generally happens after players have reported to spring training. My point here is that I didn’t expect the O’s to add many bats, because they already seem to have more players than spots.

That actually lined up very well with the 2023-24 offseason. This winter’s free agent class was shockingly light on hitters, but it was awash with good pitching options. The trade market only had one obvious hitting star in Soto, but plenty of good pitchers were available. Even after Tyler Glasnow went to Los Angeles, Dylan Cease is still available, and there’s at least some chance that Corbin Burnes gets moved, though that looks increasingly unlikely to me.

Regardless of how they wanted to add pitchers, the Orioles had a bevy of good choices and plenty of available spots in the rotation. Let’s take the rosiest possible view of the various pitchers on the roster. That means Kyle Bradish is a good top-of-rotation starter, Grayson Rodriguez isn’t far behind, and John Means will return as an innings-eater after totaling only 31.2 innings over the last two years thanks to Tommy John surgery and then a back injury. Dean Kremer? Let’s call him a reasonable fifth starter, maybe a no. 4 in the upside case.

That’s if everything goes well. You can easily imagine things panning out worse here or there, though. If Bradish is more no. 2 starter than no. 1, if Rodriguez looks more like his first half than his second half, if Means or Kremer looks cooked, this could be one of the worst rotations among all playoff contenders. And if you’ll notice, that’s only four pitchers. We’ve slotted in Cole Irvin as the fifth starter, but he’s about as replacement level as it gets at this point.

The rotation is absolutely begging for an upgrade. Instead, the Orioles have signed only one pitcher of note this offseason, reliever Craig Kimbrel. Kimbrel makes sense as a bridge replacement for Félix Bautista, as Michael Baumann noted at the time. He’s not the best closer in baseball by any means, but he still looks like an above-average reliever, and Baltimore got him at a fair rate, $13 million for one year. A dominant bullpen feels like part of the Orioles’ DNA at this point, and if they can keep conjuring good relievers like Yennier Cano out of trade throw-ins, that part of the roster will still look good even without its best player.

Kimbrel’s $13 million guarantee – $12 million plus a $1 million buyout on a 2025 club option – makes him the highest-paid player on the Orioles. That’s absolutely wild. Their one-year fill-in reliever, an addition that’s nice but not essential, is the biggest fish in the pond. The second-biggest salary belongs to Santander, the only other Oriole to make eight figures (excluding James McCann, whose $12 million salary is mostly being covered by the Mets). We’re projecting the Orioles for the third-lowest payroll in the game on the whole.

That’s largely on purpose. If you look at their future payroll commitments, you’ll notice a pattern: there aren’t any. The team only has two contractual obligations for 2025 – that $1 million buyout of Kimbrel and $1 million for Bautista, who signed a two-year extension knowing he’d miss most or all of 2024. You don’t end up with so few commitments on accident; this Orioles team is built for payroll flexibility. Their payroll looks light in 2024; it could look truly barren in 2025 and beyond.

That’s by design, and it gives the O’s plenty of room to sign two or even all three of their would-be franchise cornerstones to long extensions. But really, they have significantly more room than that. Every team is making roughly $60 million annually via national TV deals. The local RSN, which the O’s own a majority share of, just struck a deal to retroactively determine local TV revenues from 2017-2021 at $60 million per year. That’s likely going up in future years, but let’s just call it $60 million, and ignore the benefits that Orioles ownership gets from owning the RSN.

Total MLB gate receipts totaled roughly $3 billion in 2022, the most recent year I could find data for. Thanks to local revenue sharing provisions, 48% of that revenue is split evenly among all teams, so let’s say the Orioles are making $80 million there; less than the average thanks to their smaller market, but not a negligible sum. We’re already at $200 million in revenue before adding in any other sources. Even if you assume their gate is meaningfully smaller than that, their own receipts plus revenue sharing give them a strong revenue back stop. Additionally, their new lease extension takes some uncertainty off the table and provides for more than half a billion dollars of stadium improvements paid for by the State of Maryland. My point is that the Orioles don’t need to be this austere. No team really does, but they especially don’t.

Does that mean that they need to go out and sign three top pitchers? Absolutely not. You don’t strip your payroll down this low without plans for how to spend it in the future, and in three years, all of their young stars will be more expensive. The payroll will naturally increase over time, which is what happens when you have a bunch of good young players making artificially low salaries.

My issue with their team building isn’t that the O’s aren’t trying to build up to a huge payroll right this minute and blast off to the moon in future years; it’s that they’re undervaluing the present in search of nebulous cost-efficiency gains. The Orioles have rightly been focused on building for the future for quite a while, and it has paid off (though the path to get there also made a good chunk of their fanbase justifiably angry). When you’re winning 60 or 70 games a year, punting present value for future considerations makes sense, whether we’re talking about saving money on salary or focusing on development over current players. But now that the O’s are competing for a division title, taking away from the present makes a lot less sense.

Looking back at the past few decades of roster construction strategies, there are a few favored ways to build teams around young players. Broadly speaking, you’ve got the way the Rays, Astros, Cubs, and Royals did things, all different approaches to assembling competitive rosters. (Here, I’m obviously excluding the Dodgers, Yankees, Braves, Cardinals, et al; I’m trying to think of teams that either operate with minuscule budgets or use tanking as part of their strategy.)

If the Orioles want to follow the Rays, I mean, good luck. The Rays get by without making any huge signings in free agency, but they draft and develop like no other team in baseball, and they’re not shy about trading to fill holes in their roster. If the Rays had a squad that looked like Baltimore’s, they’d be swapping players left and right trying to acquire pitching. (They’d also probably just have developed a couple of starters somehow, or drafted a few who’d already worked out, but that’s neither here nor there.) The point is, the Rays are always trying to move in a direction that balances present and future, and that’s clearly not the Orioles, whose maneuvers remain squarely future-focused even with a competitive team on the field now.

What about the Astros, the organization where Baltimiore’s front office got its start? They started the same way the O’s did, by tearing the major league team down to ground level and building around hitting prospects. They diverged from the current Oriole plan in a few ways after that, though. First, they started trading for top-end pitchers like Gerrit Cole and Justin Verlander. Then, they dished out extensions and free agent contracts that have taken them to the upper third of the league in salary and kept them there. In other words, they used their rebuild to accumulate good players and perhaps save some money, but when the team got good, they unwound all of that and started acting like a big-market team. I think it’s fair to say that nothing in the Orioles’ recent history implies they’re headed this way.

The Cubs might be a better comparison. Like the Orioles, their Theo Epstein-led rebuild focused on young hitting talent. They drafted and traded plenty of interesting hitters while mostly shying away from pitchers, though they looked for reclamation projects like Jake Arrieta when they did grab pitching. That matches what the Orioles have done in recent years almost to a tee. But when the Cubs had a strong season like this past year’s Baltimore result, they had already started adding pitching, and they kept going. Jon Lester signed for six years and $155 million before the team’s breakthrough 2015, and Jon Lackey joined the next offseason to shore up the rotation.

That wasn’t all; they also signed Jason Heyward in that 2015-16 offseason to fill a hole in the lineup. In other words, the Cubs started off like the Orioles, with a spectacular group of cheap, team-controlled hitters. Then they leaned into free agency (and win-now trades like Gleyber Torres for Aroldis Chapman) to pair the cost savings of the young players with some expensive but excellent veterans, producing a great team at a reasonable budget. They eventually tore that team down and rebuilt again; they’re coming out of that cycle this offseason, in fact. This feels like something the O’s could do – only, they haven’t done the “add currently great players at market rates” part of it at all.

I’m sure that Orioles fans won’t enjoy being compared to the Royals, but even they give a possible blueprint. They didn’t quite build the same way as the Cubs; their drafting and development group seemed to be all over the place in the early 2010s. But like Chicago, when they hit upon a competitive core, they built around it. Consider this: in 2012, the Royals ran a payroll of $70 million, 25th in baseball. By 2015, when they won the World Series, that was up to $127 million. Their payroll peaked right around $150 million in 2017, more than double the number they’d run only five years previously. Then they pulled wayyyyyyy back; they were below $100 million in 2023.

The Orioles aren’t doing any of these things! They’re standing stock still, as though they’re afraid that any roster movement will let a T Rex spot them. The reason that I don’t have any good recent comparisons for their path is that teams don’t do this. Teams that traditionally run small budgets reasonably stretch them out during boom times; adding $15 million to your payroll is a lot more appealing when it’s increasing your odds of a playoff berth and a World Series title than when it’s moving you from 75 to 78 wins. Big-budget teams spend elsewhere on the roster when they have young cost-controlled players because they want to build great teams. Either way, a core of Rutschman, Henderson, and Holliday is the kind of thing that almost everyone wants to build around.

Not the Orioles, apparently. Maybe they aren’t completely out on the offseason. Maybe they’ll come out of nowhere to sign Jordan Montgomery and then trade for Cease. Maybe a Burnes trade isn’t completely off the table. But as things stand, we’ve gotten pretty far into the offseason without much movement. This is the last year where the O’s three best players will all be making roughly the league minimum; in pretty much any model of team building I can come up with, this is a year to add talent to make the cost savings of those young standouts really sing.

Last offseason, I understood why the Orioles stood pat. They felt like they were a year away from assembling a roster that looked, on day one, like a playoff favorite. They ended up exceeding that expectation handily, and by midseason, I thought they should have been looking to make additions to their roster to solidify the move from upstart to favorite. They didn’t do much at the trade deadline, though, and I somewhat understood it. It can be difficult to change the way you think of yourself; the Orioles thought of themselves as building for tomorrow because today wasn’t quite there yet for so long that it’s hardly surprising that they kept that mindset even when the present caught up to their visions of the future.

The front office has to change lanes, has to start either spending money or cashing in prospects to focus on taking advantage of the wonderful array of talented players on the major league roster right now. I’m sure that there have been plenty of internal discussions about which path is best, but if I were running things in Baltimore, I’d be banging the table for more money to spend, and I might even be willing to commit to lowering my payroll down the road, Cubs-style, if that got ownership to buy in. Ideally a parade or two might persuade them that investing in the roster is worthwhile, but I wouldn’t be devastated if the O’s went boom/bust — it’s better than not spending even when you’re good. But all they’re doing right now is banking money. The Orioles might only get six years of Rutschman, and we’re on year three. It’s time to get him some help from the outside, one way or another.

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