In all likelihood, the 2016 Orioles will look a lot different from the team we're watching right now. Eleven current Orioles will be free agents after the season, and there's a good chance that nearly all of them will end up on different teams. A lot of O's fans are thinking the team won't be very good next season, which is certainly a possibility. But for once, the Orioles will have a large amount of payroll flexibility for Dan Duquette (or whoever replaces him if he bolts) to play with.
In addition to the "big 3" of Chris Davis, Matt Wieters, and Wei-Yin Chen likely going elsewhere, there is a good bit of salary coming off the books in the form of Bud Norris, Tommy Hunter, and even "dead money" spent on guys like Alejandro de Aza, Delmon Young, and Wesley Wright. The result is that the O's have just over $40 million committed to three players for certain (Adam Jones, J.J. Hardy, and Ubaldo Jimenez), and a whole slew of arbitration eligible players who will probably be paid less than they're worth. With the exception of Brian Matusz in his 4th arbitration year, most of these players will be getting below their market value, and the savings on players like Zach Britton, Miguel Gonzalez, and Manny Machado can be spent to improve other areas. Caleb Joseph, Kevin Gausman, Jimmy Paredes and Jonathan Schoop aren't even at arbitration yet, and could all be providing positive production to the Orioles next year for essentially nothing.
We all know at this point that the Orioles aren't going to go out and sign David Price, and probably not even a player like Alex Gordon or Jason Heyward. But there's a recent example of a team that shed salary, made a bunch of low- to mid-tier signings, and succeeded: the 2013 Red Sox.
The 2012 Red Sox were horrible, and their salary was $173 million. The 2013 Red Sox won the damn World Series, and their salary was just over $150 million. How did they do it? Mainly by handing out a bunch of relatively short mid-level contracts to veterans, and having a lot of them work out. Among other moves, they signed Shane Victorino to a 3-year deal ($39m), Jonny Gomes to a 2-year deal ($10m), Mike Napoli to a 1-year deal ($5m), Koji Uehara to a 2-year deal ($9m), Stephen Drew to a 1-year deal ($9m), and David Ross to a cheap 2-year deal ($6m). They didn't break the bank for elite free agents, in fact they traded away a few of those types of players at the deadline the year before.
The Orioles won't have a $150 million payroll in 2016. But they do have plenty of money to spend, and they have two things going for them that should help them make similar moves to what Boston did three years ago:
1) The 2016 free agent class is a strong one, especially for pitchers, which should drive prices down on the non-elite players.
2) The Orioles have more arbitration or pre-arbitration players likely to provide surplus value than that Red Sox team did in 2013.
The 2016 Orioles will still have an infield featuring Manny Machado, J.J. Hardy, and Jonathan Schoop. They'll still have Adam Jones in centerfield. They'll still have Jimmy Paredes, essentially for free. They'll have a capable catching platoon on the roster for cheap, and money to improve at the position if they decide to. They'll have some good pieces in the bullpen starting with Zach Britton, and 4/5ths of the current starting rotation returning.
Of the free agents the O's have, only the "big 3" and Darren O`Day would significantly impact the team by leaving. If the Orioles can make effective, short-term, medium-salary signings like the kind Boston made in 2013, they could fill those roster holes without breaking the bank or crippling themselves with bad contracts 4-5 years down the line. If the front office can spend wisely, the window doesn't have to close when the likes of Davis, Wieters, or Chen walk out the door. The 2016 O's may look a lot different, but they could still be an AL East contender.