One thing the Orioles have not had in the three winning seasons under Buck Showalter and Dan Duquette is a lot of drama in the media. That's all changed in this offseason as drama seems to have caught up to the team. It started with the strange saga of Duquette's interest in the Blue Jays CEO job and has continued on to some comments made by a couple of Orioles players.
Adam Jones was the first, with his mystery tweet and later explanation of his meaning. Another such comment came out on Monday evening with this headline on an article by Peter Schmuck in the Baltimore Sun: "Chris Davis wants to see Orioles commit to the future before he does"
It's more of the same that we haven't seen in the winning years. There was not any griping. There was none of this stuff in the media, just players showing up and winning games. They won a lot of games, which is apparently not enough to count as a commitment to the future. It is certainly the case that there's about to be some roster turnover, as the O's have 11 pending free agents and probably won't re-sign more than a couple.
What was once thought of as the Borapocalypse, the free agency of both Davis and Matt Wieters, still looms. Its potential negative effects on the team are not as certain.
"I'm not going to play for a team that has no shot at competing every year," Davis said, according to Schmuck, who noted Davis' "even tone" and that "he didn't appear mad at anybody." Davis went on, "The next contract I sign I would like it to be my last one, and I have no desire to play for a loser every year."
The fact that Davis is saying all of this, though he was surely prompted by one reporter or a pack of them, is a bit worrisome. Not that Orioles Magic was ever a tangible thing that we could quantify, but to the extent that it ever existed, surely some part of it was everyone on the team believing in what was going on.
If the Orioles struggle out of the gate, this is the kind of stuff people will be writing about and needling the players about on a daily basis. If they start winning again, it will all go away, or at least it'll be discussed in a different context, something like, "The players know this could be their last run with this group and they want to make the most of it."
This is the general tone of coverage in articles written about the Orioles' skulduggerous southern neighbors, who also have several key players facing free agency after this season. Of course, those same neighbors managed to squeeze in "sign Max Scherzer" to their offseason plan, whereas the O's just decided to stick with most all of the same guys who just won 96 games and made it to the ALCS last year.
Whether or not Davis is right about the Orioles' commitment to the future is almost a secondary concern to its dramatic potential. It seems that Davis equates a commitment to the future with spending money, based on this quote: "To compete in this division you're not going to be able to (get bargains like Nelson Cruz) year in and year out. ... The Red Sox, the Yankees, even the Blue Jays are spending money to get guys. That's what it's going to take."
A team like the Orioles with so many players where they are on the arbitration curve is actually spending money just to keep guys. The team's payroll figures to be $11 million higher than it was last season, and that despite the departure of players like Nick Markakis and Cruz, who combined for about $23 million in salary last year. For all that freed up money, even though they didn't make a splash in free agency, they're still paying a lot more.
Davis is a prime example. The Orioles spent $12 million to keep him even though he hit .198 last year and had an on-base percentage right on the Belanger Line (.300). They probably didn't come very close to non-tendering Davis. You can't just let a guy who hit 53 home runs only two seasons ago out of your clutches when you can control him in the short-term. When it comes to committing to the future, though, maybe the best way to do that is actually not to commit to Davis.
By the time Davis starts on his next contract, he will be 30 years old. Davis indicated a desire to have his next contract be his last contract, which seems to give the impression that he's going to hit the market looking for probably a minimum of five years. Whether he gets it is another story, but it won't be surprising if someone takes a chance. You might have heard a little something about a power outage in baseball lately, and here's Davis, a guy who has 112 home runs in the last three seasons. That is a potentially-scarce commodity.
Is he going to keep performing at that level so that it's worth giving him that contract? Now that's the tricky part. To some extent, he already has stopped performing at that level. He would have to get back to that level again. Last year was a mess. Davis says it's because of an oblique injury that couldn't heal until the offseason, and he might be right. He might be wrong, making him a very risky player to wager on.
Yet franchises must make tough decisions about this kind of thing regularly. The O's made one such tough decision in not outbidding the Braves for the services of longtime Oriole Markakis. A franchise that has its eye on the future must make its judgment about when a player will get too expensive for the salary they command on the open market. That's even more true when there are health questions, as there were with Markakis. Cruz's production will be tougher to replace, but as he is now signed through his age 37 season, that makes him a risk on a long-term contract as well.
Sometimes the best thing to do is let someone else take the chance on a risky player, especially if you believe you can replace Markakis' production for less, which the O's seem to believe they can do with a buffet of outfielders. They also seem to think that the loss of Cruz can be compensated by the return of Wieters and Manny Machado from injuries, or from Davis returning to form. They've made the determination that they can do better in the long run with other options.
That's probably what the O's will end up doing with Davis, and with Wieters, too, though it will be a lot harder for Christian Walker and Caleb Joseph to fill those shoes.
In its own way, letting either or both of Davis and Wieters go is a commitment to the future. Not signing these players means they won't have big payroll expenditures on free agents on the wrong side of 30, and each will likely receive a qualifying offer, meaning the O's get a draft pick if they go elsewhere.
That's more chances to draft and develop the next Hunter Harvey-type player whose stock soars once they hit the professional ranks. Signing big names often means giving up a pick along with the big money, as the O's did when they added Ubaldo Jimenez. As of yet, that one has not yet worked out so well. That's not an excuse to never spend money, but it is a reason to be more sure about spending it before you spend it, especially if it's going to cost a draft pick.
The future is about more than just the fate of the 2016 Orioles on the field, although O's fans certainly hope that works out well, and that 2015 will be a good year too. Here's hoping the drama never boils beyond its current simmer.