As the end of the 2021 season approaches, the Orioles are in another compelling race for worst record in the league. They are neck and neck with Arizona for the privilege of the #1 pick. It has been another abysmal year in Baltimore but things are actually looking up.
The O’s have a very good farm system that is headed up by two of the best prospects in the sport, Adley Rutschman and Grayson Rodriguez. They also have several talented position prospects, and several players on the MLB team that could actually be part of a contending team. We have even gotten some good news on Heston Kjerstad resuming baseball activities. If you have the capability to look past the record of the big league team, you can have some optimism.
When a team goes through the rebuilding process, one of the things that it accomplishes is that you obtain long term payroll flexibility. That is obviously important for many reasons. The Orioles have very little money on the books after this season and the impending free agency status of Trey Mancini, if they don’t keep him long term, takes off even more money after 2022.
According to COTS, the Orioles’ opening day payroll in 2012 was $84 million. That number rose as high as $164 million in 2014 and we saw five straight years of at least $107 million from 2014 through 2018. After the 2018 purge, the payroll went to $80 million in 2019 and it is $57 million this year.
Based on what we think we know (I say this because ownership is very quiet about things), Peter Angelos was the acting owner until 2018 when it seems like his sons, John and Lou, started to take things over. We really first heard about this around the trade deadline that year. Those 2018 deadline deals have certainly not panned out that much so far. We still have time on those trades but it’s not looking good. Of course, that doesn’t mean the deals weren’t good at the time. Rental players are only going to be worth so much and you just have to hope you can develop guys.
However, one of the reasons those deals weren’t as good as we hope is because the Orioles valued money over return. They packaged Darren O’Day with Kevin Gausman and got very little back. They didn’t want to pay any of Manny Machado’s salary. We have seen that be a constant in many trades like the Jonathan Schoop or Jonathan Villar deals. The value of saving money has trumped return, that much is obvious.
On the other hand, we have also seen the brothers (again, assuming they are calling the shots now) not cheap out in International spending. They have started the academy in the DR, have spent on player development unlike before, brought in the latest technology, etc….all of that was needed and a great sign.
We know a lot of things about 2022. We know what Orioles GM Mike Elias is trying to do. We know what Brandon Hyde brings us. We know the players like it here. We know we have a great ballpark, a loyal (albeit frustrated) fan base. We know the farm system is about to dump a lot of talent on the MLB team.
What we don’t know is what kind of commitment do we have from ownership in terms of the MLB team? Are they ready to spend money? Will the brothers continue to operate differently from their dad and bring in real talent from the outside? Will they spend big money on free agents? Their dad spent modest money on free agents but focused more on keeping his own. What will the sons do?
It’s easy to look at what the Orioles have in front of them and say, “we can’t win in this division any time soon.” Well, I bet that’s what most thought prior to 2012. 2010 saw four teams in the division win 85 or more games. 2011 saw three teams win 90 or more games and another be .500. The Orioles failed to win 70 games in both of those seasons and yet they won 93 games in 2012 and made the playoffs. Things can change very quickly in sports. If Adley Rutschman come up and is an 4+ WAR catcher from the get go and Rodriguez is a mid-rotation starter and you spend real money on free agents and bring in some high end stars, this team can get good very quickly.
The question is, does ownership believe that? It’s easy to spend money on international free agents, a new facility in DR, etc…that money is relatively nothing compared to spending eight to nine figures in free agents. Can Elias sell them on this? Can he show that they have next to no money on the books long term and that it is time to start winning? Or will this version of the ownership continue to cheap out on the major league product while hiding behind the “unknown” of the MASN ruling. Do they need to see the team be much better before spending money or are they good with putting the cart before the horse?
We just don’t know and that is the biggest mystery surrounding this organization right now.
Without the proper commitment from ownership, this ship is likely to remain rudderless for quite some time.