For all of the monumental steps the Orioles took this season, there’s at least one black cloud looming over the franchise.
They are poised for a great run. At the helm are competent baseball people who have guided the club to a 101-win season, winning a division title and hopefully competing for a lot more. The youngest players are some of the brightest, and the farm system is loaded. A big postseason run in the next few years doesn’t just feel straightforward; it seems inevitable.
Then there are moments like the one Thursday morning, when the Orioles are strung up by the simplest possible question. General manager and Executive Vice President Mike Elias promised he’d be vague in his comments about the future of the team, but it was hard to imagine him being this vague.
The question: Should fans expect a higher payroll this offseason?
To decode that comment: Elias implied that the Orioles are still processing a successful regular season and postseason disappointment. There are plenty of things, he said throughout a half-hour session, that are to be determined.
I’ll spoil it for you. The actual answer to the payroll question is “Yes.” The arbitration process alone makes it all but certain the Orioles will spend more than the $71 million on their books this season, the third-lowest payroll in baseball. But Elias puzzlingly wouldn’t even affirm that.
This is the kind of tap-dancing that Orioles fans have come to expect and the kind they dread will continue into the team’s bright future.
There’s really only one on-the-record comment made in the last few months that has shaped perceptions about how the Orioles will spend money to maximize their competitive window: the one made by CEO John Angelos to The New York Times in August, when he was chilly on the idea of the franchise locking up its young stars on long-term deals.
“You will quickly see that when people talk about giving this player $200 million, that player $150 million, we would be so financially underwater that you’d have to raise the prices massively,” he told The Times.
There has been no pivot from the organization since. The world knows Baltimore’s approach as a cheapskate, or to generously use Angelos’ words, to “live within your means and within your market.”
Those sentiments echoed Thursday, as Elias was asked if Angelos’ evaluation was accurate and if he would operate under fiscal constraints. He covered for his boss. “I think sometimes, when you stand somewhere and talk to the media and try to say things and have them be interesting for 40 minutes, things don’t come out exactly the way you meant them.”
While he acknowledged the Orioles would like to have a few of their young players on longer-term deals than the six or so seasons of team control under MLB’s free agency system, he tellingly didn’t flesh out intentions to sign the kind of deals teams such as Seattle, Atlanta and even Tampa Bay have made to keep stars in their early 20s.
“Obviously, we have players here that we love, and you look at it right now and you go, ‘Boy, I wish we had those guys under contract for longer than they currently are,’” Elias said. “A big part of the calculus of keeping this franchise healthy is pursuing or examining opportunities to possibly keep some of these guys longer. So I’ve said it over and over: We quietly work on this in the background.”
It’s nearly impossible to know how much background work the Orioles are doing, but given the track record, you can’t believe these deals are forthcoming until there is pen to paper. The last multiyear contract the Orioles signed was Alex Cobb in 2018 (Jordan Lyles had a mutual option in 2022, but it wound up functioning as a one-year deal). Until this front office changes the narrative, Angelos’ words will fill in the blanks of how people think Baltimore operates.
Another problem is, even though Angelos was talking about long-term contracts, his attitude also resonates in other acquisitions.
Are the Orioles willing to take on a free agent who makes more than Kyle Gibson’s $10 million per year? Elias said they’ve pursued such players as free agents or trade targets, but nothing has panned out yet. “Those pursuits will be on the menu,” he said, but it’s hard to appreciate unseen work that never resulted in a deal.
Will the Orioles let players walk in arbitration because they’re making too much money, as they have in the past? Admittedly that’s a reasonable question for Elias to dodge more than a month out from making offers, but if the Orioles allow veterans to walk there’s going to be a widespread perception that it’s because they are cheap.
To be clear: Angelos put his front office in this bind. It’s a high-wire act to contradict what your boss has said on the record, even if you have a good feeling that you’ll be spending more money.
Contrast Elias’ comments to what Tampa Bay’s Erik Neander, another executive for a low-payroll team, said about the possibility of spending as much as $120 million to keep its core together: “Reasonably confident that if we think that’s the best path to winning a World Series, that that will be an option for us. We’ll see what the winter brings and how that all plays out. But we’ll have that freedom and flexibility if we think it’s best.”
That’s not a promise, of course, but it’s a good deal more forthcoming.
The Orioles’ prime position to build a dynasty is belied by this organizational obfuscation. They’re at a point where there can only be two outcomes: either they take big swings this offseason through free agency, trades and long-term deals, or they delay and allow the league and their fans to continue to believe they’re just penny-pinching. Historically, it’s worth noting, their major-market division rivals have been willing to spend.
The lowest remaining payroll in the postseason is the Arizona Diamondbacks, who are spending nearly $120 million, just shy of the top 20. They’ve also locked up 23-year-old outfielder Corbin Carroll on a long-term deal.
The Orioles might not reach that team payroll next year, but the ceiling to their success could be determined by their finances. They’ll have to be willing to shell out the resources to keep the team together and add competitive pieces.
The Orioles did a lot of good this season and, despite the abrupt end to the postseason, their performance on the field should be commemorated. As Elias put it: “I hope the city of Baltimore remembers this group kinda for reminding the world, ‘This is Baltimore and we do baseball here.’”
However, the organization still has to shift the perception about how Baltimore does the business of baseball. At this point, the words are falling short.