John Angelos' comments about the Orioles' payroll left more questions than they answered
The Orioles' CEO and chairman essentially said he has no role in setting major league payroll. But he sets the baseball operations budget, right?
Everything about the lease and the public-private partnership that Orioles chairman and CEO John Angelos hopes will come of it? Cutting room floor here. Same goes for the MASN talk and everything about the lawsuits.
After letting all the tweets and stories and reactions to his media session down in Florida wash over me Sunday, I wanted to go straight to the baseball part. After all, try as even the Orioles might to be other things, this is a baseball team, competing against 29 other baseball teams, and the goal is to win.
No one is questioning the work Angelos and his family empowered executive vice president Mike Elias and his staff to do in modernizing baseball operations, upgrading infrastructure, and elevating the amount of talent in the organization.
Now what? After a winter where liftoff was delayed, payroll remains low, and a series of avoidable comments and events put sizable scuff marks all over last year’s shiny and exciting winning season, no less than the man in charge of the entire organization has looked to the future and the team’s level of spending on the major league product and passed the buck to Elias and baseball operations.
“I don’t expect payroll to model any particular team,” Angelos told reporters when asked if his comparisons to the Tampa Bay Rays, Cleveland Guardians, and Milwaukee Brewers were payroll targets. “I was giving you guys a range of small, middle-market teams. Could payroll be double or triple what it is? Or could it be over $100 million? Yea. We’re not there yet. We have a very young team that’s overachieved and overperformed because of the great work of our baseball folks, but it's not my job to predict payroll.
“My job is to make sure that the community partnerships are sustained, and I think all that comes after that – first, I have to do the concerts. Then, we have to do the [public-private partnership]. We got the legislation passed initially, but there’s more to do there. And we’ve got to perform, as these guys are performing on the field – meaning Brandon [Hyde], and Mike and the team and the players. But it’s not for me to sit back and project payroll.”
Earlier in his comments, Angelos said regarding payroll that “there’s a range there that Mike and his team have to determine,” and ownership’s role was “really only to make sure that their recommendations are being properly funded.”
All that makes a lot of sense in the early stages of this rebuild, when I’m sure the amount of money Elias needed for major league payroll was of little concern because it was low on purpose, and even if the team was spending tens of millions of dollars on amateur signings and player development, they still came in well under whatever budget was set.
This makes it seem like there isn’t a budget now, though, which is impossible to believe. The whole predicting payroll part of a major league team seems like a pretty significant part of budgeting resources of a major league team, and to claim no vision or stake in that means it’s either disturbingly true or is an odd way of trying to obfuscate and deflect responsibility for the fact that payroll won’t meaningfully increase any time soon.
Let’s play out both scenarios. In case one, Elias and his baseball operations staff are operating with far more resources than they’ve allocated but choose not to spend them. One of those reasons could be that the short-term, low-risk contracts for the likes of Adam Frazier and Kyle Gibson are the least impactful long-term if they don’t work out. One could be that they have such faith in their ability to draft and develop players that they don’t think there’s a need for long-term signings. (To be fair, we do know they think highly of their aptitude in those spaces.)
Another could be that they’re simply keeping their powder dry to hand out a bunch of contract extensions soon.
The other scenario is that there is a budget, it’s not high for whatever reason, and the person who set it hot-potatoed it to baseball operations. In that case, the Orioles’ lack of long-term free agent signings was because they got outbid by teams who could pay more money for longer terms without the risk of blowing up their budget for years to come if it didn’t work out. In that scenario, a baseline of spending all the league’s shared revenue and money the Orioles get simply for existing and honoring it’s MLB schedule commitments has been established and only winning and drawing more fans will bring the revenue ownership will then pass on to the major league team.
This hypothetical scenario also honors Angelos’ stated vision of the Orioles joining the Rays, Guardians, and Brewers as “sustainably competitive and relevant teams.” They do this by not stretching themselves financially on major league payroll, but by producing consistently high levels of major league talent through their farm systems, by churning their roster to try and capture overlooked value from other teams, and by trading for players who are too expensive for their level of production (or just too expensive in general) for less-expensive players who are under control for longer.
All those examples from scenario two seem a lot more likely than the bucket of possibilities from the first one. So did the part of his comments where he focused on the parts of their recent investments into infrastructure and research and development–the kind of non-payroll things that are absolutely worth investing in. It’s also just easy to say you’ll keep doing them, because no one has any idea what they cost, yet there’s a perceived value connected to those actions.
What’s hard is to commit beyond the bare minimum to winning and maximizing a roster that, granted, may not need a lot if the Orioles’ best-case projections play out, but still has holes and deserves to be as complete as it can be for the sake of the following groups: the players and coaches who endured three losing seasons to get here; the players and coaches who have shouldered the pressure of having the entire organization’s success pinned on their shoulders in that time; and the fans, those who stuck it out and those who are waiting for another playoff team to reinvest their time and resources in this team.
How do we know it’s hard? Because, simply, it hasn’t happened yet. So many things in this rebuilding cycle have. We know how the Orioles will react to all kinds of situations because they’re consistent in them.
The part where they commit fully to winning remains a bit obscured, though maybe that obscurity is to blur a disappointing reality. Angelos, in his media session, had it readily available how many visitors the Camden Yards sports complex has brought to Baltimore in the last 30 years and the annual revenue that the club, city of Sarasota, and state of Florida claim their presence generates each year.
There are simple explanations for not wanting to predict the Orioles’ payroll with that kind of specificity – union considerations, public perception, further scrutiny among them. But to effectively wash one’s hands of the topic that can perhaps singularly determine whether the Orioles are OK with a ceiling of sustainable competitiveness and relevance or striving for more and pass it onto baseball operations is far more discouraging than any lack of a lease or lawsuit in these parts.
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