The Orioles are at a crossroads this offseason. They have money available to improve their team, but they also have a lot of places where they need improvement. The simple fact is that paying market price to plug all of the holes is not a viable solution. Looming large over everything is the Chris Davis situation. Will they or won't they, and if they do, how much will he cost?
Last week, I challenged you to come up with an offseason plan as part of the Camden Chat offseason plan project. In the interest of fairness, today I am stepping up to subject my own plan to public scrutiny. Fair is fair, after all. If you still want to make your voice heard, it's not too late. Read the post to see the template and then submit your own FanPost here.
As part of the project, I have set a budget for the Orioles of $130 million, based on the payroll increasing by about $10 million per year since Dan Duquette has arrived in Baltimore. Last year's payroll was nearly $120 million.
Mark Brown's Offseason Plan
Arbitration-eligible players - tender vs. non-tender
The Orioles have eleven players who'll be eligible for arbitration at different levels this year, ranging from first-timer David Lough, who's qualified as a Super Two, to last-timer Brian Matusz, getting his third bite at the arbitration apple in his final year before free agency.
Of those 11 eligible players, I will be non-tendering two: Matusz and Paul Janish. This saves a combined $4 million. For Matusz, to me, it comes down to a choice between the devil you know and the devil you don't know, and in this case I'm going with the one I don't know. Janish is fine, but there seems to be no reason to give both he and Ryan Flaherty roster spots and money. Another minor-league deal for Janish seems like the way to go.
None of the rest seem like non-tender material to me. Chris Tillman and Miguel Gonzalez struggled this year, but neither one should be cast aside after one bad year. Gonzalez, in particular, seemed to not be at his best health. Nolan Reimold and Lough are low enough cost ($900k and $800k respectively) that there's little harm in keeping them in the fold. One will probably win a spot.
Pending free agents
Though I'm writing past the qualifying offer deadline, I hope you can take my word that I would have said the O's should extend QOs to Wei-Yin Chen, Chris Davis, and Matt Wieters, as they did. Some days when I looked at the numbers on Wieters, I thought the QO was a big risk, but in the end I was swayed, as I suspect were the Orioles, by the presence of Scott Boras and the overall lack of strength on the catching market. Wieters may well be the best free agent bet out there.
Various Orioles reporters have already telegraphed Steve Pearce as the most likely of the free agents to return. This prospect should excite no one other than Pearce, his family, and his agent. I do think Pearce is better than what he showed in 2015. His career arc and most recent performance will keep his contract modest. There's potential for value in excess of his salary. If he re-signs, it won't launch any "Orioles won the offseason" articles, but it could be a solid, low-cost move.
I am waving good-bye to Darren O'Day and Gerardo Parra, for different reasons. O'Day has been so good that someone will want to pay him more money than the Orioles can afford to offer a non-closer. I'm sad that's the case, but that's just the way of it. Parra was an acquisition that didn't work out in any way. Cut your losses and move on.
The free agent market
Although I believe the Orioles could have as much as $50 million to spend this offseason, I also think they'll be wary of tying up all of that money in multi-year commitments. Very little money comes off the payroll after 2016 as things stand right now, but there will be significant arbitration raises coming for Tillman and Gonzalez (if they bounce back and aren't non-tender bait) as well as Zach Britton and Manny Machado.
Signing Davis at $25 million/year, a starter at $12 million/year, and an outfielder at $10 million/year seems to be within the budget for this year, but it would create problems a year from now. Maybe they ought to go for it now and worry about next year when it gets here. That would be out of character for the O's, though. They're likely to go cheap somewhere to maintain flexibility next year and hope for the best. This can't go as poorly as it did this year... right?
For me, Davis is the must-sign player. I think he showed with his 2015 performance that 2014 was an aberration rather than a reflection of his talent. There are three reasons beyond just big dingers that I find compelling to pay up for Davis.
First, the disastrous outfield situation after Nelson Cruz and Nick Markakis were allowed to leave (both justifiable moves at the time) has shown the danger of assuming you can just plug in 70% of someone's production for less cost. Second, it's imperative that important O's of the present and future like Machado, Adam Jones, and Jonathan Schoop feel like the team is going somewhere positive, not back into loser territory. Third, fans and bandwagoners need to feel the same thing. If ticket sales fall, or people stop watching games on MASN, that's a real cost to the team.
Now, these three points aren't worth $25 million per year on their own. However, I think that they ought to be worth the difference between whatever the Orioles decide Davis is worth based on performance and what he actually gets from the market.
Whether or not the O's re-sign Davis, they will be bargain-hunting somewhere. I also asked readers to identify a player they think the Orioles will actually sign, beyond a big must-sign name. There are a number of starting pitchers who will be headed for one-year contracts this offseason. Some will have big-ish one-year commitments, but that will clear in a year and none will cost a draft pick.
Doug Fister and Mat Latos both are predicted to be in line for one-year contracts north of $10 million based on pre-2015 performance. Their 2015 numbers were not good. With them being reclamation projects, that puts them in the O's range. Either signing could very easily end up as a colossal waste of time and money. If the O's are going to raid the bargain bin, they might as well really go for a bargain, not a $10-12 million bet that still has high bust potential.
To that end, my will-sign cheap player is Rich Hill. Yes, that Hill. He returned like a phoenix in September of this year. MLB Trade Rumors predicts he'll get a one year contract for $5 million. That's a lot of money to pay for the four good starts he had, but I like that bet better than giving $10+ million to Fister and his 86mph fastball.
Though I do think it's important for the O's to re-sign Davis, it'll really hamper their ability to plug the holes from other departing free agents, let alone improve on holes the 2015 O's possessed. They need to find solutions who won't be on perpetual DFA watch at first base, corner outfield, and starting pitcher.
They have a large, but not unlimited amount of money available to do all of this. They should be careful not to flush away their own first round pick signing a QO player who's just going to be disappointing, but with up to three compensation picks headed their way, shouldn't be scared to give it up pick #15 to improve.
The big flaw with plowing so much money into Davis is that leaves the O's handcuffed in trying to sign a starter who's seen as a sure thing. They'll be relying on a lot of improvement from the remaining starting pitchers. Tillman and Gonzalez have track records showing they can be better, and Kevin Gausman has the pedigree that got him drafted #4 overall, but none were their best in 2015.
Maybe they can get a real starter but will have to hunt for a bargain outfield instead. That's a slightly more palatable option, if only because the starting rotation was somehow an even bigger problem for the team than the outfield in 2015. If they do resort to bargain hunting, hopefully it only costs them money, and not more starting pitching prospects.
If the O's keep Davis, there will almost certainly not be another offseason move that makes you sit up and pay attention. If they don't keep Davis, they'll probably still end up making a few $10-12 million/year signings that still leave you shrugging your shoulders and hoping for the best. It's a tough spot to be in either way. If building a baseball team was easy, anyone could do it. I'm happy to leave it to the professionals.