For an Orioles team with so many non-baseball factors potentially influencing the on-field future of a young core that should allow the club to compete for championships through the rest of this decade, there are a lot of non-baseball factors that have a potential influence on that.

The protracted lease negotiations and their influence on the team’s finances is one of them. So, too, is the ownership situation, and the overhang of the MASN dispute over how much the network pays the Orioles and Nationals has existed for over a decade.

Within that context, the Orioles splashing $13 million with the potential for more on closer All-Star Craig Kimbrel as the winter meetings wrapped up this week is notable for several reasons. The deal was the largest free agent commitment the club has made under general manager and Executive Vice President Mike Elias, and it supplements a portion of their roster — the bullpen — where the Orioles have found countless All-Stars and contributors on the cheap.

There’s a chance, albeit not a great one, that this will be the first of many expenditures to give the Orioles a payroll more representative of a team with their aspirations. More likely, it’s at least an indicator of how much higher they can go.

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Consider this: The Orioles had around $26 million come off the books with Kyle Gibson ($10 million), Adam Frazier ($8 million), and Mychal Givens ($5 million) signed in the offseason, then presumably the remainder of Shintaro Fujinami and Jack Flaherty’s contracts after they were acquired at the deadline. (Fujinami was owed approximately $1.35 million at the time of his trade and Flaherty around $1.8 million. Aaron Hicks was making the league minimum, and Jorge Lopez had a high salary but wasn’t around long.

Kimbrel will be making half of that, meaning theoretically, half of the salary room the Orioles had to get back to last year’s level is already spoken for — and that’s before arbitration raises are factored in. The Orioles have signed three of their league-high 17 arbitration-eligible players, but that group is expected to make $24 million more than it did collectively a year ago, according to forecasts from MLBTradeRumors.com.

Those well-earned increases in salary would almost entirely fill that payroll gap left by the departed free agents, and you don’t have to squint to see a world where the Orioles would have kept payroll relatively flat while pointing to those raises as a reason.

Instead, they’re basically going to be responsible for getting the club back to where it was — with an estimated 2023 year-end payroll of $66 million according to FanGraphs’ RosterResource. That means Kimbrel and any other free agents will be additions on top of that. The site’s 2024 payroll projection is $85 million, based on current and projected obligations on the roster, with Kimbrel accounting for most of the elevation at this point.

With Eduardo Rodriguez signing with the Arizona Diamondbacks, there aren’t many free agent pitchers left on the market who would reasonably be considered the upgrade Elias is seeking for the rotation. Anyone who could is likely to command a salary north of $15 million, which would take the Orioles to a $100 million payroll. They certainly can absorb that, but it lends weight to the idea that a trade might be the more likely avenue for that addition.

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Corbin Burnes’ projected salary is $15.1 million, Dylan Cease’s is $8.8 million, and Shane Bieber’s is $12.2 million, according to MLBTradeRumors. They are far from the only options, but they are hardly cheap. If the Orioles aren’t equipped to take payroll much higher, they could look to move one of their more expensive arbitration-eligible players in a trade for a starting pitcher to lessen the prospect hit required in such a deal.

It shouldn’t have to come to that. We are talking about the potential for a $100 million payroll, which 22 of the 30 MLB teams had on Opening Day last season. Even if the financial realities of being in a market the size of Baltimore are as dire as the club will tell you, there are leaguewide revenue sources meant for this specific purpose to help clubs in their position spend.

Perhaps that’s why there’s so much attention on all those overhangs that are perceived to be limiting the team’s potential to spend. They’re already spending at a higher level than years past, albeit building off one of the lowest payrolls in the league. Kimbrel’s addition shouldn’t be overlooked on that front. But it accounts for a large increase in payroll as it stands — and it will be a while before we know just how much higher it will go.

Jon Meoli is the Baltimore Banner's Orioles columnist and head women's ice hockey coach at Loyola University Maryland. 

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