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The Orioles are $100 million off the league-average payroll. What would closing that gap have looked like this winter?
Replacing Chris Davis' salary with contributors last year was fun enough. How about blowing up the Orioles' payroll to get them into the middle of the pack this offseason?
No need to float into this one – it’s going to be long enough on its own.
Remember last year’s dumb exercise in trying to spend what the Orioles had committed to Chris Davis for 2021 to improve the team? Kid stuff. What if we just got them to league-average payroll this year?
It would take $100 million or so, no matter how we’re calculating, and is so far-fetched that it almost doesn’t even warrant the thought the exercise takes. But, even as the Orioles have added around barely $9 million in 2022 guaranteed salary to their payroll through free agency and are still near the bottom of the league, it’s clear there’s appetite for more.
This much more? I’m not exactly sure anyone realistically clamors for that—but perhaps it’s instructive to see just how much it would take to get the Orioles to a station of widespread acceptance when it comes to their roster.
First things first: it’s pretty hard to figure out the right payroll number to use. The $30 million figure floating around via Spotrac doesn’t include whatever Trey Mancini and John Means will get in salary arbitration (between $10 and $11 million, combined), while FanGraphs’ $64 million figure factors that in as well as Chris Davis’ $23 million commitment in the final scheduled year of his now-restructured contract.
The Baby Bear — just right — seems to be the Cots Contracts salary page at Baseball Prospectus, with the Orioles at $40.6 million for their Opening Day payroll. By their numbers, the league-average is $140.58 million. It’s almost too tidy. So, let’s spend $100 million to get the Orioles to that level.
How much better would the Orioles, projected by FanGraphs to go 67-95 and Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA platform to be 61-100, if they got this year’s payroll to even league-average? As I type this, I don’t know the answer. I assume much better. Let’s find out.
How we’ll do it
Absent the ability to access some of these projection systems and adjust team’s win totals by taking these free agents away from the teams they signed with and adding them to the Orioles, it’s going to be calculated roughly, and by hand, and by a writer – which is to say do not expect the same outcomes with any other math. I know there’s not a direct correlation between WAR and team wins in this sense, but it’s just a thought exercise. And again, please do not try to replicate this.
Also, it doesn’t matter that some of these players probably took the deal they did because of the team they were signing it with, or otherwise wouldn’t want to play for the Orioles. All that’s disregarded as well. For salaries, we will use the actual 2022 figure, even if the average annual value is higher due to backloading.
For the sake of convenience, I’ll use FanGraphs’ standings, and the Depth Charts calculation of a player’s wins above replacement (WAR) to add the difference of that individual’s contribution and whichever current player’s spot he’ll be displacing. Here goes.
The most obvious entry point
Shortstop Carlos Correa (2022 salary: $35.1 million. 2022 fWAR: 5.3)
As if there’s anywhere else to start? Correa’s somewhat surprising three-year, $105.3 million deal with the Minnesota Twins earlier this month dashed the hopes of the online minority of Orioles fans, but I’m here to restore them. Correa would give the Orioles a clear-cut leader and star on the infield dirt. It cuts into a third of the budget for this exercise, but it’s worth it.
Calculating the improvement is a little tricky, though, because it’s not like the Orioles’ infield is settled and there’s a full-time shortstop on the books. It’s probably smartest to just shift the projected 1.7 fWAR for the Orioles’ shortstops (Ramón Urias and Jorge Mateo) to other positions, and because that will eat into what Rougned Odor and Kelvin Gutiérrez are able to produce, take .5 fWAR away from that. So, Correa would make the Orioles four wins better from the jump.
Why stop there?
Infielder Chris Taylor (2022 salary: $15 million. 2022 fWAR: 2.3)
Correa would create at least one odd-man out in the current infield set-up, but adding an actual do-it-all utility player would bump another one of those bench players back to his destined role. Taylor seems set to play at second base for the Dodgers this year, the first of a four-year, $60 million deal that kept him in Los Angeles.
That would be welcome for the Orioles, though he’d probably be fine at third base if Odor gets his stated wish of playing at second base. Adding him would mean a third-base only option like Gutiérrez might be the odd-man out, but we’ve already eroded much of Gutiérrez’s projected fWAR, so let’s give them the full 2.3 fWAR benefit for signing Taylor.
Pay for pitching
The most significant impediment to the Orioles being any good, as presently constructed, is their starting rotation. Behind John Means and Jordan Lyles, who will themselves represent a quarter of the Orioles’ payroll for 2022, there are plenty of options with varying levels of intrigue but not much track record. How does around $40 million to change that sound?
There are a few different ways to do that, but the most fun centers around two old friends.
Right-hander Kevin Gausman (2022 salary: $21 million. 2022 fWAR: 3.4)
Left-hander Eduardo Rodríguez (2022 salary: $14 million. 2022 fWAR: 3.9)
Right-hander Corey Kluber (2022 salary: $8 million. 2022 fWAR: 1.7)
Gausman, a former Orioles top pick who found his best form recently with the San Francisco Giants, comes home in this scenario instead of signing with the rival Blue Jays. Rodríguez, a former top Orioles pitching prospect who was dealt to Boston in the worth-it Andrew Miller trade, returns as well. Add in Kluber, who signed with the Rays on a one-year deal, and there are three pitchers with division experience who make the Orioles’ rotation a whole different animal for the low, low price of $42 million. (Gausman’s overall deal is five years for $110 million, Rodríguez’s for five years and $77 million. Each obviously required a substantial long-term commitment to lock in that 2022 salary).
They replace the question mark portion of the Orioles’ rotation, and do so formidably. Depth Charts has them pitching over 500 innings to produce their combined 9 fWAR for their clubs. Means and Lyles contribute 3 fWAR to the Orioles’ rotation projection, and the entire rest of the group has 4.4 fWAR combined. We’ll halve that considering the limited opportunities for impact out of the bullpen, and give a net of 6.8 fWAR on these rotation upgrades.
There’s no forgetting the pending arrivals of Grayson Rodriguez and DL Hall, though, but they’re only an injury away from an opportunity in this scenario — provided they jump the players these signings replaced.
A different Adley Rutschman companion
Catcher Roberto Pérez (2022 salary: $5 million. 2022 fWAR: 1.8)
The Orioles probably got a bargain in signing Robinson Chirinos for less than a million dollars to be their Opening Day catcher and eventually give way to Adley Rutschman, but bargains aren’t part of this equation. It was a light catching market this offseason, but fellow Rust Belt rebuilders the Pittsburgh Pirates signed him for $5 million coming off a pair of injury-hit seasons to end his time in Cleveland.
Pérez is projected for 1.8 fWAR in over twice as many plate appearances (435) as Chirinos is forecast to have (0.3 fWAR in 179 plate appearances), so to give Rutschman the bulk of the playing time when he’s ready we’ll simply halve his number and net out .6 fWAR for the Orioles on this roughly $4 million upgrade.
So, where are we now?
Six free agent signings later, and with a couple thousand keystrokes, I’ve increased the Orioles’ 2022 payroll by nearly $95 million (to say nothing of the $365 million in total salary commitments required for that short-term benefit). That alone betrays how farcical it is to have even venture this deep into the idea, and I didn’t even get to $100 million. (To do that, let’s allocate the last $5 million to the grown-up reliever everyone has longed for since this rebuild began. It will be great for morale.)
Still, adding these players would have made them better— a lot better. Depth Charts currently has the Orioles’ hitters amassing 17.4 fWAR this season, with 9.9 fWAR projected to come from the pitchers. These signings bump that up 6.9 fWAR on the hitting side to 24.3, and 6.8 for the pitchers, bringing that total to 17.7 for a grand sum of 41. How ridiculous a notion is that? The nearest team whose Depth Charts total is in that range is the San Diego Padres — putting the Orioles right in the mix with this year’s playoff aspirants.
There’s a world of possibility between the active-for-their-standards-but-insignificant-by-any-other offseason the Orioles had and one where they blow up their payroll by $100 million to turn the team into an instant contender. Only one happened, and it wasn’t this one. Perhaps by gaming it out, it’s easier to see why.
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