The question of just how much money the Orioles will be able to spend in free agency is not one to which we have an answer. One thing that can be said for sure is this: The more money the Orioles have to spend to hold on to their existing set of players, the less money they'll have to spend on potentially retaining the departing free agents, or, in a wholly radical move, signing a free agent from elsewhere who actually matters.
A big problem for the 2015 Orioles was the fact that they were practically obligated to keep a number of players who were entering their final year of arbitration. Those players were thus as expensive as you can get for team-controlled players and a lot of them did not earn their keep. Expense lines like $8.8 million for Bud Norris, $5 million for Alejandro De Aza, and $4.65 million for Tommy Hunter ended up soaking up a good chunk of payroll. If there's good news to be had, it's that there is a lot of payroll clearing up for next year.
Right now, the Orioles have about $42 million committed for 2016. On Tuesday afternoon, MLB Trade Rumors released their arbitration projections for 2016, giving an idea of what it will cost to retain various Orioles. They have nine arbitration-eligible players this time around. Note that the projections, while not 100% accurate, have proven over time to be very, very good at getting very close for the vast majority of players.
Projected 2016 salaries for O's arbitration-eligible players
Brian Matusz - $3.4 million
Nolan Reimold - $1 million
Paul Janish - $700,000
Chris Tillman - $6.2 million
Miguel Gonzalez - $4.9 million
Ryan Flaherty - $1.5 million
Zach Britton - $6.9 million
Brad Brach - $1.1 million
Manny Machado - $5.9 million
That adds up to $34.3 million if they keep all nine of those players. It seems unlikely that they will do so, if only because why would a team go into a season with guaranteed salaries in place, no matter how modest, for both Janish and Flaherty? At $3.4 million, Matusz is a bit more of an expense and the O's might finally deem him expendable, although his salary, by this estimate, is barely increasing from this year's $3.2 million.
Just for the sake of simplicity, keeping all of those players would leave the O's spending about $85 million on next year's payroll before adding free agents. That counts pre-arbitration players near the MLB minimum. The team has increased payroll by about $10 million per season over each of the last three offseasons. If that proves to be the case again this year, they would end up with a payroll next year of about $130 million, giving them $45 million to spend on free agents.
We should all accept right now that if Chris Davis is going to return to the Orioles, half or more of that available money is going to him. With Wei-Yin Chen departing in free agency, they probably need to sink some money on a free agent starting pitcher, and with corner outfield being a miserable failure this year, they probably need to sink some money into one of them, too. $45 million sounds like a lot of money until you realize how little it actually buys.
Thinking about 2017 and beyond
None of these arbitration-eligible players are in the territory of outlandish expenditures for 2016, but you can see several where there are going to be problems after about one more season. Britton, at about $7 million, is probably going to be a $10+ million expense in 2017 if he keeps doing what he's been doing the past two seasons. The O's balked at paying that kind of money to Jim Johnson, but Britton is a lot better than Johnson. It'll be worth keeping an eye on, but is not worth worrying about for next season.
Two other players who could find their Orioles tenure running out before they reach free agency are Tillman and Gonzalez. Both of them have a track record of multiple seasons of success in an Orioles uniform, so I suspect the team will gladly fork over the arbitration raises for the upcoming season in hopes that they return to form. If they disappoint again, however, in a year's time the O's will face a much tougher choice about whether to retain them.
Tillman, in particular, would probably be in line for a Norris-like $9 million in 2017. That's fine if he is going to be a 200+ IP guy with a mid-3s ERA, as he was the two seasons before this. Not so fine for a guy who stumbles to a just below 5.00 ERA.
It could turn out that if Tillman and Gonzalez's struggles continue, that will be about $11 million of next year's payroll going to nothing. That would be a problem, though the Orioles would have plenty of problems regardless of how much money those players cost if once again at least 2/5 of the starting rotation is doing nothing but struggling.
The O's, as you've probably noticed, aren't exactly flush with starting pitching options right now. They'll stick with those guys because that's the devil they know. The other options they might have envisioned by now have either gotten hurt, failed to develop, or have been traded away.
The team has about a month to make the decisions on who to keep for around these prices and who to let fly away like a kite in the wind. Don't be surprised if nearly all of them are back for at least one more season. The team will not be handcuffed so much by arbitration expenses this year, and that's a good thing.