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Only Guarantee In Birdland Is Cost Of Business Going Up

November 15, 2016
Usually, when I sit down and write, I know from the outset what the middle and end of the story will look like. I guess when your main point is rather obvious and simple -- "the Orioles' cost of business is soaring" -- readers can go, "Duh?" at just about any time.

However, that doesn't change the fact that this column's recited numbers are pretty staggering.

In November 2011, executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette took over an Orioles team that, throughout a number of regimes overseen by majority owner Peter Angelos, had just endured its 14th consecutive season of sub-.500 baseball. Rightfully so, the now-president of baseball operations of the Philadelphia Phillies, Andy MacPhail, deserves some credit for positioning the club's roster to be ready for some smart tweaking by Duquette, some brilliant managing by Buck Showalter and some winning.

Starting with Duquette's 2012 team and going through the recently concluded 2016 season, the home team in Baltimore has won 444 regular-season games, which is an average of 88.8 per season. During this five-year run, the Orioles made the postseason three times (2012, 2014 and 2016).

So with improved play, you'd expect a solid upswing in attendance, right? Using any index, the Orioles have certainly been received significantly better by the fanbase since Duquette (and the winning) started. The 2006-2010 seasons saw the Orioles average 1.9 million in attendance per year. From Duquette's first season through 2016, the Orioles have drawn 11.3 million fans, which comes out to an average of 2.2 million per season, or 360,856 more fans on a yearly basis.

Where this gets really interesting is when you judge that fan increase of 360,856 against the increase in player compensation throughout that time period and try to project where this is all headed.

In 2011, the Orioles payroll was $86,942,583. The two highest-paid Orioles that season were right fielder Nick Markakis ($10.6 million) and second baseman Brian Roberts ($10 million). In fact, these two players were the only two with eight figures in their yearly compensation.

Fast forward to 2016, and the Orioles had five players earning eight figures -- first baseman Chris Davis ($21.1 million), center fielder Adam Jones ($16 million), catcher Matt Wieters ($15.8 million), starter Ubaldo Jimenez ($13 million) and shortstop J.J. Hardy ($12.5 million). Two others -- outfielder/designated hitter Mark Trumbo and right-hander Yovani Gallardo -- topped $9 million, as the club's payroll soared well above $145 million.

So while some fans are surprised or upset about the club's refusal to extend the $17.2 million qualifying offer to Wieters, it's really no surprise when viewed in the context of a near-runaway escalation of the Orioles' payroll.

Don't think that describes it accurately? Then let's look at the way 2017 is shaping up, shall we?

As we stand now, the Orioles have eight players under contract for next season, and an additional nine players (seven if you ignore utility man Ryan Flaherty's $1.5 million and reliever T.J. McFarland's $700,000) are arbitration eligible. Since the top seven arbitration-eligible players are key players, let's tally those two groups and see where we are (with nine players still left to sign).

Under Contract for 2017
Chris Davis -- $21,118,782
Adam Jones -- $16 million
J.J. Hardy -- $14 millionn
Ubaldo Jimenez -- $13.5 million
Yovani Gallardo -- $11 million
Wade Miley -- $8.75 million
Darren O'Day -- $7 million
Hyun-Soo-Kim -- $4.2 million
Total Committed: $95,568,782 

Key Arbitration-Eligible Players for 2017
(from MLBTradeRumors.com's arbitration projection model)
Zach Britton -- $11.4 million
Manny Machado -- $11.2 million
Chris Tillman -- $10.6 million
Kevin Gausman -- $3.9 million
Jonathan Schoop -- $3.4 million
Brad Brach -- $2.9 million
Caleb Joseph -- $1 million
Total Arbitration Commitment: $44.4 million

As you can see, combining those two totals, with nine players still left to add to the Opening Day roster, the Orioles are sitting at almost $140 million. That is only about $7 million behind a year ago. Of those nine players left to add, four of them are starter Dylan Bundy, relievers Mychal Givens and Donnie Hart and outfielder Joey Rickard, who will probably combine to add about $3 million more. 

With those players added, you see the Orioles' payroll at roughly $142 million while needing six more players.

Who will those five players wind up being? Well, that's where you hope ownership is motivated enough to invest well in-excess of their 2016 compensation. That brings us back to the bump in attendance between 2011 and now. Angelos knows full well the heady days of 1996-2001 are gone. 

That was a six-year period where he remained the only game in both Washington, D.C., and Baltimore. Those were the days when Oriole Park at Camden Yards was still a fascination across the nation, the club was highly competitive during the 1996 and 1997 seasons, and you had Cal Ripken Jr. still helping to draw fans. During that six-season span, the Orioles drew a total of 20.8 million fans. That's an average of 3.4 million per season.

Now, the Washington Nationals are firmly entrenched just 45 miles from Camden Yards, and the Orioles were noncompetitive for the first decade of the 21st century. The club has more modest designs when it comes to attendance. Nobody from the front office would ever state this publicly, but if attendance could get back into the 2.5-2.7 million range, that would suit them just fine.

Who those last five players are will largely determine whether the Orioles can seriously contend in 2017. They may just be chosen based upon how confident ownership is in their ability to help attract those extra 350,000-450,000 fans.

One thing is for certain, and the owner will of course take this into consideration too, failing to contend just might tip the scales toward another downward attendance trend. 

If you are a betting man, it seems Angelos still has to wager on the upswing Duquette and Showalter started in 2012. That could translate into a payroll somewhere around $160 million.

Issue 227: November 2016