The Orioles have examples of how to effectively increase their payroll on both sides of this year's World Series
This year's Fall Classic features two clubs who have spent to win and are on the cusp of making that happen, albeit in different ways.
The discourse around the Yankees’ emphatic sweep out of the playoffs at the hands of the Houston Astros being how they need to spend more and better to win championships seems pretty rich considering the realities.
The Yankees have spent plenty of money, as they always do, and their spending complements what’s always a productive farm system that not only produces major leaguers but ample ammunition for trades to improve the club in that form.
We can have a lot of fun at the Yankees’ expense, and I hope everyone has. That doesn’t change the reality that the World Series that starts this week between the Astros and Phillies is, in fact, in part defined by clubs being willing to spend money on veterans to make their clubs better and get them over the top.
Clubs like the Orioles should take note.
There is going to be plenty of Astros-related analysis where it comes to the Orioles this week, and comparisons to the core Mike Elias’ drafts, the data-driven decision-making, and progressive player development practices that came over with him and Sig Mejdal.
They also have committed tens of millions of dollars to keeping their core together, including re-signing players like Justin Verlander and Ryan Pressly who they traded for, and are pushing $180 million on their payroll this year as a result.
That’s possible to do in part because of the starting pitchers they have who haven’t yet reached arbitration and the next wave of young stars like Jeremy Peña who are all underpaid for their production. Their commitment to spending to win after bottoming out and rebuilding the way the Orioles did was undoubtedly aided by the fact that their rebuild worked and produced a World Series, but sustaining it isn’t a simple thing to do nor is it a given considering the current landscape of the game.
Houston’s player development practices were the envy of the league and have been replicated in plenty of places. Teams like them and the Dodgers having player development machines and massive payrolls means they have all the more opportunity to win, yet still more teams who are invested in their own proverbial elite talent pipelines seem too fixated on the value portion of that to move on from it.
Another Astros-inspired front office in Milwaukee has a payroll of $137 million this year, but is still inclined to churn its roster and seek value without pushing perhaps beyond what’s reasonable in order to earn the ultimate reward. Front offices like Cleveland and Tampa Bay, which Elias has name-checked in the past for their “transactional” nature of sustaining winners, are more extreme examples.
These clubs will pay some of their own players, but are largely spectators for the higher-tier and even mid-tier free agents each winter. Unfortunately, more clubs are than aren’t. That leaves a number of talented players who can help clubs win with few landing spots each winter and allows them to land in a place like Philadelphia to help fill out a roster built to win now.
Bryce Harper, J.T. Realmuto, and Zach Wheeler are big-ticket players who don’t fit into this, to be sure. And it was easy to joke about signing Nick Castellanos (five years, $100 million) and Kyle Schwarber (four years, $79 million) this offseason and wonder where they were going to play. Castellanos didn’t have a good season, but has helped them get to the World Series.
Are they going to win? Probably not, but they’re there. Are the Phillies a paragon of roster building? Definitely not, but they’re in the World Series. Will pursuing it and falling short with what seems like an inevitable cliff for a roster of over-30 sluggers in their future lead to some dark days? Absolutely, and Dave Dombrowski’s involvement makes that more assured.
No one in Baltimore’s front office is going to sign up for any of those possibilities. The whole point of what they had to do since taking over was to eliminate the desire to try and win that way and its very real downside.
This matchup, though, should be instructive as the Orioles embark on presumably spending money, whether it’s on their own players or other teams’ in the coming months. There’s a lot of value to a club for paying below market value for young players before free agency. There’s also, it seems, a ceiling to it. And the more teams try to test that ceiling without reinforcing the way Houston has or spending on competent major leaguers like Philadelphia did, the more opportunity there will be to secure the value the Orioles seem to seek by paying good players to play alongside young ones.
The guiding principle of this space is that the Orioles have done well to quite well at everything they’ve actually set out to do over these last nearly four years. They haven’t set out to win, and as such haven’t sought to spend money. There are plenty of ways to do it, some good and some bad. The World Series is, once again, an example of what can happen when it works out.
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