To make an understatement, the Baltimore Orioles are in trouble. It has been nearly four years and two months since Andy MacPhail was hired as the de facto General Manager of a franchise that was staring at its tenth straight losing season. MacPhail promised to finally rebuild the organization starting with its foundations. Four years and two months later and the franchise is staring at its fourteenth straight losing season and MacPhail is reportedly walking away from the team at season's end.
One of the questions I have been trying hard to answer over the past few weeks is "What do I want to see in the Orioles's next GM?". The answer I've settled on is that I want the new GM to look at the current situation in Baltimore and recognize the totality of its problems. Which of course is what Andy MacPhail promised. But I digress.
The hard reality is that the Orioles are easily last in major league talent and last in minor league talent in their division. Does that incite hopelessness in you? It doesn't in me, because at this point more than merely wanting the Orioles to win, I want the Orioles to recognize and accept this simple truth. I want the Orioles to realize that, for all the respect Andy MacPhail deserves, if he leaves next month, he leaves having failed. He came here and built a foundation for a winning franchise, but he built it out of sand.
As it happens, the tool that most vividly illustrates this fact is an eight year old book by Michael Lewis by the name of Moneyball.Moneyball, as you know by now, is the story of the financially-challenged 2002 Oakland Athletics. The A's won a lot of games despite having one of the lowest payrolls in baseball and despite losing their best player, Jason Giambi, to free agency. They won so many games despite their handicap by taking a unique look at baseball rosters. No, I'm not talking about advanced statistics. The A's knew that the most important statistic of any given player was not his on-base percentage or anything else produced between the lines. A player's most important stat is – like it says right in the book's title – his salary.
Oakland GM Billy Beane's entire philosophy revolved around using undervalued – that is, underpaid – players. In today's saturated Information Age, where a bored fan can open a player's entire pitch-by-pitch season on a whim, finding these "Moneyball players" is difficult. The last true source of Moneyball players are young players who have their salaries suppressed by virtue of being ineligible for free agency. In Boston, amidst all of the superstars with huge contracts, the Red Sox's best player is Jacoby Ellsbury. Ellsbury is making just $2.4 million dollars this season, less than every other Opening Day starter in Boston except Jarrod Saltalamacchia. All of the excess value the Red Sox pick up from having Ellsbury be both great and cheap is a big advantage for them.
It isn't just Boston, either. The Tampa Bay Rays are almost entirely reliant on their good youngsters: Evan Longoria, David Price, Matt Joyce, Ben Zobrist, and James Shields. Even the money-drunk New York Yankees have Brett Gardner, Nick Swisher, and MVP candidate Curtis Granderson on team-friendly, pre-free agency contracts. Toronto, too, has a strong core collection of young, cheap, good talent like Ricky Romero, Yunel Escobar, and Brandon Morrow. And they all have strong farm systems, too.
Meanwhile, who do the Orioles have who you can really call a Moneyball player? To begin with, the O's don't have nearly as many good, core players as their rivals. The good parts of the pitching staff are largely unproven youngsters, with only one established veteran starter in Jeremy Guthrie. Positionally, the Orioles have just four players that can both hit and field their positions well: J.J. Hardy, Adam Jones, Nick Markakis, and Matt Wieters. Combined with Guthrie, the Orioles have just five players comprising their core right now. And not all of them are truly Moneyball players.
Jeremy Guthrie is making $5.75 million this season and is due for a substantial raise this winter. He is also due for free agency after the 2012 season. Guthrie's a good pitcher, but not a great one, and his excess value is dwindling. He's also 32 years old, not exactly the young gun a team rebuilds around.
Nick Markakis is making $10.6 million this season as the team's most expensive player and he will also get a raise this winter. Among right fielders, Markakis ranks 19th in hitting but 6th in salary. When the Orioles signed him to his current contract, which runs from 2009 through 2014, they were betting on Markakis to sustain or build on his 2008 production, when he was 2nd in hitting among right fielders. The Orioles have seemingly lost that bet, and Markakis is now the worst kind of problem: an overpaid player on a bad team.
That leaves Hardy, Jones, and Wieters as the team's only legitimate Moneyball players, and, perhaps coincidentally, also the only players with strong claim to the title "Best Baltimore Oriole". But that's it for the Orioles. No other team in the division has as few proven core pieces as the Orioles's three. Worse, two of these players will see their salaries rise, and their excess value diminish, substantially in the coming years.
Adam Jones is up for his second round of arbitration this winter and will be eligible for free agency after the 2013 season. Wieters has his first arbitration date looming after the 2012 season. As their salaries rise, the excess value they provide dwindles. Fortunately, J.J. Hardy is locked into a below-market contract for the next three seasons, so the O's only need worry about his production falling off. Which of course it will, sooner or later; every Moneyball player has an expiration date.
This is a team that is not poised to take the next step. It is obvious that in the Moneyball War of the AL East the Orioles are Switzerland; not even involved. That isn't a statement made in anger or in despair. It is, plainly and simply, what is. And that is what I want so badly to see the Orioles recognize.