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Orioles Must Increase Value Of Starting Staff

November 15, 2013

Although an awful lot of baseball's new statistics are too complicated for this C student of mathematics, I still like to find my own way of communicating what certain numbers mean as they relate to players' performance and value. As one of my early musical idols, Bob Dylan, wrote in "Subterranean Homesick Blues," "You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows."

And so it is with the Baltimore Orioles and their get-what-you-pay-for starting rotation. I have gone hunting to several teams' lists of player salaries to try to prove my point, which is that unless something of substance changes with the immediate investment in major league pitchers, don't look for the Orioles to be serious contenders. It won't matter how many runs they score or how well Buck Showalter manages. 

I have added the full-season salaries of starters the Orioles and other teams acquired, and I looked into financial commitments made to starters. If you look at the Orioles' top six starters -- Chris Tillman, Jason Hammel, Wei-Yin Chen, Miguel Gonzalez, Bud Norris and Scott Feldman, the last two acquired via trade -- the total compensation for 2013 rounds out to about $20 million.

Orioles 2013: Scott Feldman
Photo Credit: Mitch Stringer/PressBox

In the American League East, it's almost pointless to look at the Tampa Bay Rays, because they trade off starters who are about to make substantial financial gains (see Matt Garza and James Shields). That's why many people predict the team will part ways with the uber-talented David Price this offseason. To the Rays' credit, they have had their own pipeline (starters they have developed or prospects acquired as part of these deals) going in order to stay on top of their own combination of talent/fiscal survival.

Let's look at what the Orioles' other competitors in the AL East spent on starting pitching in 2013. 

The Toronto Blue Jays, who finished in last place after acquiring Mark Buehrle, Josh Johnson and R.A. Dickey before the season, had a payroll for starting pitching that soared to more than $40 million.

The New York Yankees, who are supposedly in a battle to spend less than the luxury tax salary cap of $189 million, spent almost $60 million on starters, with CC Sabathia leading the way at $23 million. 

The Boston Red Sox brought their total up to about $64 million -- even after shedding Josh Beckett a year ago, adding Ryan Dempster during the offseason and acquiring Jake Peavy at midseason. But you can check the 2013 Sox off as a team that has a World Series win to show for its lofty expenditures.

Without going into minute details here, let's look at the San Francisco Giants and St. Louis Cardinals -- two teams that have also been to the promised land recently (San Francisco in 2010 and 2012, St. Louis in 2006 and 2011).

The Giants' starting pitching payroll for 2013 was $69 million. That number should fall for 2014, because off the books will come $20 million for Barry Zito, and $5 million for Tim Lincecum, whose new contract will drop him to $17 million, down from $22 million.

The Cardinals, even with phenomenal young starters on their roster, earmarked more than $30 million for Adam Wainwright, Chris Carpenter and Jake Westbrook. Youngsters Michael Wacha, Lance Lynn, Shelby Miller and Joe Kelly combined to make less than $2 million.

Then there are the suddenly all-in Los Angeles Dodgers, who are about to try to sign Clayton Kershaw to a record deal of $27 million to $30 million per year, while at the same time talking about either acquiring Price from the Rays just before needing to pay him nuclear dollars or paying a posting fee of $75 million to $100 million for Japanese phenom Masahiro Tanaka. 

Although the posting fee would not count as salary, the $13 million to $15 million per year Tanaka would get for 5-6 years certainly would. The 2013 Dodgers committed close to $90 million to their starters, and three of them included in that number -- Ted Lilly, Josh Beckett and Chad Billingsley -- earned $38.75 million combined for throwing 82 innings.

The investments teams are making in big league arms signal a departure from college professor and author Kevin Kerrane's treatise about scouting from the early 1990s, Dollar Sign on the Muscle: The World of Baseball Scouting. The money used to go into developing home run hitters. 

But the beauty of the mantra to "buy the bats, grow the arms," which was the philosophy of former Orioles president of baseball operations Andy MacPhail, is how nicely it dovetailed with an owner such as the Orioles' Peter Angelos, who is all too familiar with medical records from a lifetime of understanding the actuarial nature of things. Angelos famously said during an interview with Steve Melewski, then with WBAL Radio, that $70 million would be more than enough for then-Orioles pitcher Mike Mussina.

Well, it wasn't, and the Orioles hit rock bottom in the succeeding years. There was talent in the cavalry that came through the organization from 2008-11: Brad Bergesen, Jake Arrieta, Zach Britton, Brandon Erbe, Brian Matusz and Tillman. And there is hope on the way, with Kevin Gausman, Dylan Bundy, Mike Wright and Eduardo Rodriguez. The signing of Dave Wallace as the new pitching coach signals that the Orioles are looking to better develop the arms while they are cheaper. 

Let me ask you this -- who is the all-time highest-paid starter in Orioles history? I'll bet none of you would guess that Sidney Ponson's $8.5 million salary in 2005 tops any one-season salary number for an Orioles starter. 

I am not suggesting the Orioles sign someone for crazy money. But if the club is to sincerely compete in 2014, a two- to three-year investment in Feldman at $9 million per is a good starting place. A one-year, $10 million offer to Bartolo Colon, with an option for 2015, would be the next logical step.

Those moves, coupled with what is in place and the assumed growth of Tillman, would bridge the gap between now and the next cavalry charge.

Issue 191: November 2013