Orioles' Success May Lead To Costly Player Contracts
By Stan "The Fan" Charles
As of May 13, the Orioles were pretty close to flying high at 23-15, one of the best records in Major League Baseball.
The Orioles have gone 116-84 from the start of the 2012 season until May 13, 2013. Although things can certainly go downhill quickly with injuries, sudden performance changes and some occasional bad luck, I'll be bold in saying this team is not about to revert to the stumbling and bumbling sort of club it was for most of this century's first decade.
But just how good can this team be? The Orioles built their squads of 1996 and '97, both of which made the playoffs, in good part by acquiring free agents. That would seem to indicate that club owner Peter Angelos, when given the opportunity to go for it, is much like any other owner worth his salt.
He gave a big thumbs up during those days to then-general manager Pat Gillick, and had a team that was on the doorstep of greatness. But all parties seemed to recede because of a disagreement between Angelos and then-manager Davey Johnson.
If we look back to those days, it seemed Johnson was gone as soon as he tried to force Angelos into a corner. With Johnson's departure, the team lost the energy needed to take it one step higher to greatness and a World Series championship.
As told ad nauseam, the Orioles ended up in baseball's wilderness, but were a surprise success in 2012. That brings us to 2013 and how the cost of doing business today is different from what it was for those teams in '96 and '97.
Baltimore's 2013 payroll is rounded off at $90 million, which ranks 15th of 30 teams in MLB. In '97, the Orioles, long perceived as penny-pinchers, had a payroll that was the second highest in the league at $64 million. Given that it's been 16 years since then, and forgetting that the teams in between were pretty bad, a $26 million increase doesn't sound so god-awful, even if you are the owner.
Here is where the job gets tougher for Dan Duquette, Baltimore's current executive vice president of baseball operations, and the decisions he makes begin to become more fraught with real long-term consequences. For the past decade, the important contractual decisions were about extending guys who were already on the team.
In May 2006, Melvin Mora got a nice three-year, $25 million deal. The Orioles signed Brian Roberts to a four-year, $40 million extension at the start of spring training in 2009. Also in 2009, Nick Markakis signed a contract that ends after the 2014 season, which was for six years and $66 million. In 2012, Adam Jones signed a six-year, $85 million extension, which will run through 2018.
This current roster, though, is a different story. After the 2012 season, Duquette pointed out that the team had about 12-13 arbitration-eligible players coming into 2013. Although no one person's salary jumped up significantly, in order to come to terms with those players, the team added more than $15 million in payroll.
But the 2013 raises will soon seem like chump change compared with the winds of change about to hit Angelos' piggybank. Look at the players who are arbitration eligible or impending free agents.
Jason Hammel is a starting pitcher Baltimore fans love, and he currently makes $6.75 million annually. He is a No. 3 starter dressed up like a No. 1 for the Orioles. On the market this offseason, he could get a three-year contract for $27 million to $30 million.
Then there is the case of Mr. Reliable at the back end of the bullpen, Jim Johnson. Johnson currently makes $6.5 million per year and is eligible for arbitration this offseason, with full-blown free agency looming going into the 2015 season.
As an example, two years ago, closer Joe Nathan was making $11.25 million per season with the Twins. An injury forced him to miss most of the 2011 season, but the Rangers still signed him to a two-year, $14.5 million deal for 2012 and 2013.
Because Johnson has both health and age on his side right now, it's not hard to imagine him warranting a multi-year deal, making $11 million to $12 million per year. But it is hard to imagine the Orioles using that much money to lock down a closer, albeit a lock-down one.
For the sake of this exercise, let's go down the road that Johnson inks a one-year deal for 2014 at $12 million.
With those two players alone, let's say the O's signed each one to the proposed one-year deals for 2014. The payroll would rise from $90 million to $97.75 million, with Hammel getting a raise from $6.75 million to $9 million and Johnson making $12 million instead of $6.5 million.
That gets us to Matt Wieters, Chris Davis and Nate McLouth. The good news about Wieters is the Orioles drafted him, and if the O's are fair with him, he is capable of muscling his agent, Scott Boras, to not go after every single dollar available.
Wieters is making $5.5 million this year and has two years of arbitration eligibility left in 2014 and 2015. Let's say the Orioles sign Wieters to only a one-year deal in 2014. That could be for almost $10 million.
Chris Davis is making $3.3 million this season, and he also has two arbitration-eligible seasons in front of him. If he got $7.5 million on a one-year deal for 2014, he and Wieters would bring the Baltimore payroll to more than $106 million.
Is it really necessary to go player by player to catch my drift? No, but Duquette won't be able to stop just after the four players I tallied up. He'll have harder and harder decisions to make with his roster building through the life of his contract, which now has him in Baltimore through 2018.
Although some parts of this high-brow financial- and salary-projection game can get fans a bit weary and disconcerted, it sure beats the types of decision making that occurred while the team was in the wilderness.
Issue 185: May 2013