SARASOTA, Fla. — A few years down the line, when the fresh faces of Adley Rutschman and Gunnar Henderson and Grayson Rodriguez become ever-so-slightly matured, there will come a time when the core that the Orioles have pinned so much of their future on is at a crossroads.
Right now, Rutschman, Henderson, Rodriguez and others are relatively cheap stars. They’re the kind of high-upside players to rebuild around, and it’s upon their shoulders that any vision for future winning seasons in Baltimore rest. The dreams and aspirations from fans and those within the clubhouse are warranted. The Orioles have built what appears to be a winner — and not for one year, for several years.
But eventually that crossroad will arrive.
And then, in one fell swoop, those relatively cheap stars will warrant contracts that make them the high-priced stars this franchise has shied away from since executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias began overseeing this rebuild.
The Orioles couldn’t keep Manny Machado. Will they be able to keep the next generation of talent?
On Sunday, in an impromptu session with the media, Orioles chairman and CEO John Angelos offered broad assurances about the future of the club, saying it is not for sale and will not move out of Baltimore.
He also said something about the on-field product that many fans will take heart in: “We’re aiming for sustained success.”
After the lows of recent years, with three 100-loss seasons between 2018 and 2021, sustained success is an attractive prospect. Orioles fans have yearned for it; the team has been to the playoffs just five times since its last World Series victory, in 1983.
Angelos was quick to constrain his definition of success, though, pointing to the Tampa Bay Rays, Cleveland Guardians and Milwaukee Brewers as examples of small- and middle-tier market teams finding ways to be “sustainably competitive and relevant” — although none of those teams have won a World Series since 1948.
Using those three teams as an example for Baltimore’s aspirations also does little to answer the most pressing question: Will the Orioles pay up to keep their home-grown stars, and also be able to spend to surround them with talent? Or will they follow a model that involves trading some of the soon-to-be highest earners to keep payroll low?
If Milwaukee, Tampa Bay and Cleveland are the examples, think of closer Josh Hader, All-Star infielder Joey Wendle and superstar shortstop Francisco Lindor. Those three — traded away from the Brewers, Rays and Guardians, respectively, in recent years ahead of contract decisions — epitomize the philosophy of those organizations.
There are more, including right-hander Corey Kluber leaving the Guardians and the Brewers parting ways with Carlos Gomez. And for the Rays, it’s perhaps easier to list stars they’ve actually kept: third baseman Evan Longoria.
“I don’t expect payroll to model any particular team,” Angelos said. “I was giving you guys a range of small and middle market teams. So could payroll be double or triple what it is? Or could it be over 100 million? Yeah. But 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.”
Angelos then noted how “it’s not my job to predict payroll,” as he says he is more focused on community partnerships. But in reality, it is, presumably, Angelos’ job to approve payroll — and therefore also to plot a road map for his organization to continue building.
There’s no denying that Elias’ rebuild has delivered impressive results so far, but even the most successful iterations of low-spending teams have taken more roster risks than the Orioles have so far, a recent Baltimore Banner analysis showed.
At some point, the Orioles will need to take risks, including trading prospects for established players.
And they will need to pay for talent — the players they need to keep, and those who will complement them.
Just up the Western Florida coast in Clearwater, Philadelphia Phillies owner John Middleton struck a different cord than what Angelos said days later.
“Nobody cares about whether I make money or not,” Middleton told The Philadelphia Inquirer. “If my legacy is that I didn’t lose any money owning a baseball team on an annual operating basis, that’s a pretty sad legacy. It’s about putting trophies in the cases.”
Middleton means it, too. The Phillies spent $330 million on a 13-year deal for Bryce Harper. They signed Trea Turner to an 11-year, $300 million deal. They’re projected to open the season with the fourth-highest payroll at $238.4 million (or, in another light, $173.5 million more than what the Orioles are projected to spend, per Cot’s Baseball Contracts).
And then there’s Angelos, who said Sunday he would “be disappointed if we’re not the next Tampa,” because it would mean the Orioles are “being sustainably competitive and relevant.” And while Angelos said “we absolutely have the resources, and we plan to keep moving the payroll up,” those words are belied by evidence since Elias’ arrival, including this winter.
The Orioles opted to not chase a high-level free agent starting pitcher because they were priced out of the market, both in years and dollar value. They are preparing to enter opening day with the 29th-highest payroll in the majors. And the teams Angelos pointed to as comparisons haven’t had a payroll in the top half of the league since Cleveland ranked 15th in 2018.
“We are not only where we are today, but over the next five or eight years,” Angelos said. “We can keep this going. And I think we can keep it going. Not just a five-year cycle, hopefully a self-sustaining, more than five years, eight, 10. That’s the goal.”
On one hand, the possibility of prolonged competitive baseball in Baltimore is enticing. But what happens when Rutschman, Henderson and Rodriguez are due for their first major contract?
The Orioles have been here before with Manny Machado. Will they be there again with the next crop of stars?
It’s all too soon to know. But the stated aspirations of the man in charge of the organization leave room for fans to worry that the players they’re so excited about now will ultimately head elsewhere when it’s time for them to get paid.