The Baltimore Orioles (69-93) finished in last place in 2011 for the 4th year in a row, and finished with a sub-.500 record for the 14th consecutive year (the last winning season they had was in ’97). This is especially sad for a team that has had some all-time greats wear their uniform (Brooks Robinson, Cal Ripken, Jr.) and has had some historically great teams (were AL champs 4 of 6 years from ’66-’71). So, what has happened in Baltimore?
I know the cry of the average Orioles fan is going to be that they simply can’t compete in the division they’re in, because everyone else has a decided financial advantage. And, that’s half-true. Playing in the same division as New York, Boston, Tampa Bay, and Toronto (the largest TV market in all of Canada, and a population double that of Baltimore), is going to be tough for a team playing in just the 26th largest TV market in the US – only 4 teams in all of baseball are in smaller markets.
However, this cannot be the excuse in Baltimore for three reasons: 1. The Orioles had the 18th highest payroll in baseball in 2011 ($85 million), so they certainly aren’t hesitant to spend a reasonable amount of money; 2. The Rays have made the playoffs 3 of the last 4 seasons, with a payroll smaller than Baltimore’s every time; and 3. Of the 4 teams that are in smaller markets than Baltimore (San Diego, Kansas City, Cincinnati & Milwaukee), 3 have made the playoffs at least once in the last 7 years, and 2 have been twice. I’m sorry, Baltimore, but you can’t use the “same division as New York and Boston” argument anymore. Better player development and wiser spending on free agents could bring the Orioles back to the postseason.
Since Baltimore can obviously afford it, let’s go on the assumption that $85 million is about where the ceiling is for their 2012 payroll. If they could get away with less, I’m sure they would like to try, but we’ll keep that number in mind as a limit to their spending potential. Based on contracts they already have guaranteed for 2012, they only have 5 players on the roster, accounting for $42.3 million (Markakis, Roberts, Hardy, Reynolds, and Gregg). So, essentially, you’ve got 20 spots to fill for around $40 million. My main suggestion with the guys Baltimore has is to trade Kevin Gregg. Gregg is a spotty closer at best (4.37 ERA, and 1.64 WHIP in 2010), and Jim Johnson took over the closer role late in the year for Baltimore, and converted 7 of 7 saves in September with a 2.76 ERA, and 0.98 WHIP. And, resigning Johnson will cost less than half what Gregg is expected to make in 2012. Trade Gregg for whatever prospects you can get (even if they’re just A or AA guys), and lose that dead weight from your payroll. So, let’s say that works, and you now have Johnson in place of Gregg, and you now have about $45 million to work with to sign your 20 remaining spots.
So, let’s talk offense. In 2011, Baltimore was above average offensively, and ranked in the top 10 in all of baseball in hits, home runs, and slugging. So, I don’t think a lot of changes to the offense are necessary. Markakis is set in RF, and resigning Adam Jones in CF makes sense at about $3-5 million per year. Nolan Reimold took over in LF for Luke Scott for about half the year. And, even though Reimold is eligible for arbitration, he’s going to be a good bit cheaper than the $6.4 million Scott cost in 2011. Reimold only made $400K in 2011, so I wouldn’t expect his salary to jump to much more than about $2 million – not bad for a guy that looks to be a 25 hr, 85 rbi type. So, for the price Luke Scott cost in 2011, you’ve paid both your CF and LF.
The infield is almost set with Roberts at 2B, Hardy at SS, and Reynolds at 3B. Reynolds is a terrible defensive player, whether he’s at first or third. But, it’s hard not to want his power in the lineup. My suggestion would be to put Reynolds in the DH spot, and solidify your defense with a better third baseman. There aren’t a lot of great options in the free agent market at 3B, but picking up a guy like Wes Helms for $750K-$1 million is a much better option in the field, and is a decent option in the #8 or #9 spot in the lineup. This leaves Baltimore with finding a first baseman and catcher. Weiters has to be the top choice in Baltimore at catcher. His production has been excellent the last couple years, but it’s now time to pay him. $20-25 million for a 5 or 6 year deal makes sense. First base is the one position where Baltimore has young prospects that are likely going to be ready for 2012. In fact, they have two – Joe Mahoney (a power-hitting, left-handed first baseman) and Brandon Snyder (a little more refined first baseman who might be ready sooner than Mahoney). Having the two of them battle it out in spring training would be perfectly fine.
By my calculations, this all leaves Baltimore with about $35 million to spend on the pitching staff and bench. For the sake of time and space, let’s assume they will spend around $5 million on 5 or 6 bench/utility players – leaving them with $30 million to spend on a 5-man rotation, and 4 or 5 relievers. This is the area that needs the most help in Baltimore, as they had the worst team ERA in all of baseball in 2011 (4.89), and the worst starters’ ERA in baseball by more than half a run (5.39)! Since the closer role is pretty much taken care of, the remaining reliever spots need to be high value, low cost relievers, so that the majority of the remaining payroll can be spent on the starters. Joel Peralta fits that bill perfectly – he’s had two excellent years in Washington and Tampa, and hasn’t made over $1 million in his career. So, signing him for $1.5-2 million is very reasonable, and he’ll make a great 7th or 8th inning reliever. Also, Baltimore has Wynn Pelzer in their minor league system, who spent 2011 in AAA, and put up good numbers as a reliever. So, that’s 2 down. Tim Byrdak, Randy Flores, and definitely Javier Lopez are all worth considering to fill the lefty roles in the bullpen. Lopez would cost the most, but possibly no more than $3-3.5 million. The other two wouldn’t be more than around $1 million each. So, for 4 or 5 relievers (in addition to your closer), let’s say Baltimore spends $5-8 million.
Finally, we’re left with about $22-25 million for a 5-man rotation. Rookie Zach Britton (LHP), and second-year pitcher Jake Arrieta (RHP) were the best Baltimore had in 2011. Unfortunately, they both belong more in the #3 & #4 spot in a rotation, rather than at the front end. That being said, they are worth re-signing to fill those spots – especially since they wouldn’t consume more than $2-4 million of the payroll between the two of them. That leaves around $20 million for 3 starters. C.J. Wilson, Edwin Jackson, Paul Maholm, and Hiroki Kuroda are all worth considering for the top 2 spots in the rotation. And, with $20 million to spend, you can definitely afford 2 of these guys. Then, you go fill in that #5 spot with someone like Rodrigo Lopez or Chris Young or Bruce Chen, who are decent value for $1-2 million, and could also step in to relieve when they weren’t going to be needed in their #5 spot as a starter.
The offense wouldn’t change much, but the pitching staff needs a major overhaul. The good news for Orioles fans is that it can be done with an $85 million payroll.