Against all odds, the Orioles managed not to finish last in the American League East this year, the first time that’s happened since Baltimore went to the 2016 wild-card game as an 89-win team.
Granted, the 2020 season was shortened to 60 games by coronavirus, and the Orioles only finished one game ahead of the colostomatic Red Sox, but they had legitimate signs of life. Baltimore was outscored by 20 runs for the 60-game season, just 0.33 per game, compared to a 255-run deficit (1.57 per game) in 2019, and a 270-run shortfall (1.67 per game) the year before.
The Orioles’ great leap from Gigli bad to ordinary Ben Affleck movie bad came without a single game played by their best player, Trey Mancini, who spent the year recovering from cancer. With Mancini looking forward to playing again in 2021, maybe now is the time for the Orioles to try to push their way into contention.
“There will come a time when we flip the switch to maximizing wins in the upcoming season, but we’re not there yet,” Baltimore GM Mike Elias said Wednesday, as quoted by Joe Trezza, the Orioles beat writer for MLB.com. “This isn’t fun.”
Elias was speaking specifically about the Orioles’ decision not to tender a contract offer to arbitration-eligible infielder Hanser Alberto, who hit .299/.322/.413 with 15 homers in 193 games for Baltimore after being claimed off waivers from San Francisco before the 2019 season.
Alberto, who made a prorated portion of his $1.65 million salary in 2020, likely could have been retained for less than $4 million. Instead, he’s now a free agent, one of nearly five dozen players to hit the open market after Wednesday night’s tender deadline.
What if the Orioles did want to “flip the switch to maximizing wins in the upcoming season,” as barf-worthy as that bit of McKinseyese comes across? And what if they wanted to do it while staying under $100 million in payroll? They could do it, and they would start with a player like Alberto.
With Wednesday’s trade of Jose Iglesias to the Angels, the Orioles’ current salary commitments for 2021 stand at somewhere in the neighborhood of $43 million for Chris Davis, Alex Cobb, Yolmer Sanchez, Pedro Severino, Shawn Armstrong, and Pat Valaika. The reason it’s fuzzy is that the financial terms for new deals for Armstrong and Valaika aren’t public yet, but both would figure to be somewhere in the $1million range.
Mancini is the only arbitration-eligible Orioles player without a contract locked in for next season. For the sake of easy math, let’s say he gets $7 million, which is more than he actually figures to make, but that gets us to $50 million for seven players, leaving our fictional Orioles with $50 million to spend on the remaining 19 roster spots.
Further, say that each of those 19 roster spots filled by pre-arbitration players gets $1 million, bringing these “actually trying to win Orioles” to a nice $69 million figure for their full roster. Again, it’ll actually be less than that, because a lot of these slots will be filled for the league minimum, but let’s say that anyway for the sake of ease in calculation and keeping these pretend Orioles under the $100 million.
We’re now left with $31 million to spend on upgrades to a team with a few veterans under contract already and that’s on the rise in large part because of the blossoming of pre-arbitration guys like Ryan Mountcastle, Anthony Santander, and John Means. Let’s say that each player who was non-tendered can be signed for the low end of their MLB Trade Rumors arbitration estimates. Again, this is generous — the Orioles are trying to bring back Alberto, for instance, at less than what he would have made in arbitration. That’s the whole deal with the non-tenders, that these players aren’t getting what they would in arbitration. But let’s say there’s a premium to get them to come to Baltimore, which is paying them that low-end arbitration figure.
Start with Alberto himself at $2.3 million, then concentrate on the biggest need, starting pitching, adding Carlos Rodon ($4.5 million), Jose Ureña ($3.8 million), and Tyler Anderson ($2.4 million). In the bullpen, add Archie Bradley ($4.3 million), John Brebbia ($800,000), and Kenyan Middleton ($1 million), plus lefty Chasen Shreve ($800,000).
Adding Kyle Schwarber as a $7.01 million designated hitter eats up more than half of the remaining pretend budget, but that’s OK because all Schwarber has to do is pepper Eutaw Street with dingers and not worry about that pesky “field” aspect of the game. Maybe he’ll play some first base to give Mancini some time at DH. Fine. None of that outfield business, though, and he’s not needed there with Mountcastle, Santander, and Cedric Mullins on board anyway.
Except, we’ve still got money to spend here, and as a fourth outfielder, here comes Delino DeShields Jr. at $2 million. The infield has Valaika, Sanchez, Alberto, and Mancini/Schwarber, so let’s add a catcher to pair with Severino, even though Chance Sisco does already exist. Welcome to Baltimore for $1.9 million, and we’re done.
That’s 11 players added to the Orioles for $30.81 million, bringing in the whole roster just under the fictional budget. Is it a World Series team? Probably not, but adding this group of players to what the Orioles already have, Baltimore would figure to be in the playoff picture, and if you can get yourself on the field in October, you’ve got a shot at it.
There are a couple of other benefits, too. One is that by showing that they were actually trying, the Orioles might be able to generate interest in what they’re doing, instead of actively suppressing it with declarations that they’re not ready to “flip the switch to maximizing wins.” They’d still be building around a young core and not hindering anyone’s development. And it would be fun to try, which sure beats not having fun by not trying.
The Orioles aren’t alone in this exercise, which could apply to any number of bottom-feeding teams who aren’t planning to try in 2021, preferring instead to optimize asset management while shifting paradigms for expected marginal gains. And there are other good players now on the market, too, like David Dahl, Adam Duvall, Eddie Rosario, and some players who weren’t even non-tendered, but straight-up released before Wednesday even rolled around, like 2020 Orioles home run leader Renato Nuñez and a guy that god forbid the Rays would have paid a reasonable salary – Hunter Renfroe.
It’s not a matter of any of these teams not being able to try to put together a winning team. It’s that they don’t want to. And that’s why there are now so many players available to teams who do — get this — want to get better in 2021.