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The 2015 Orioles alternate reality: What if they kept Nelson Cruz and Nick Markakis after all?

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Even with a series win, the Orioles are still under .500, seven games out of first place in the AL East, and rapidly losing the time to make up either. However, the reality of the 2015 Orioles could have been much different.

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The Orioles scraped together four wins on a road trip they probably needed to win six to remain in true contention for the AL East. Most egregiously they were swept by the team in first, a cardinal sin for a team any time of year, but especially in late July. So, let's not talk about these Orioles. Let's instead rehash some old arguments

I was inspired by some tweets after the drubbing by the Yankees to see what this team would actually look like going forward in 2015 and beyond if the team had managed to re-sign Nick Markakis and Nelson Cruz. Before you boo loudly at your screen and throw your device out of the window, give me a chance. Another reason for this exercise is to show how much dead money the Orioles have on their 2015 roster and what signing 30+ year old players to four year deals does to the long term payroll.

Alright, first some assumptions. The Orioles could have signed both Markakis and Cruz to the exact same deals both of them received on the free agent market. Cruz signed for four years at $14.25 million per and Markakis signed for four years at $11 million per. This might not be a fair assumption, but I think it is reasonable to assume both would have stayed in Baltimore for the exact same money they left for. Also, the payroll can not exceed $120 million in 2015 and cannot exceed $125 million in 2016. You can complain about money grubbing Peter Angleos all you want, but a budget is a budget and the Orioles have a bottom ten market and the 14th highest payroll in baseball. I think those numbers are fair, 2016 may be a little higher, but I think the Orioles payroll is reaching a ceiling around $125 million.

So, here is a link to the 2015 Opening Day payroll. The Orioles started 2015 with a payroll of $118,975,833 a rise of a little over $11 million from 2014. Now, in 2015 Markakis and Cruz combined make $25.25 million a piece. So, in order to make room for them, you have to eliminate at least that much and really more in order to make up for the roster spots with the minimum salary players. Below is a table of the cuts I made in this alternate reality.

Player Salary(In Millions)
Bud Norris $8.80
Alejandro De Aza $5.00
Tommy Hunter $4.65
Brian Matusz $3.20
Everth Cabrera $2.40
Delmon Young $2.25
Travis Snider $2.10
Wesley Wright $1.70
Total $30.1

De Aza, Cabrera, Young, and Wright are cuts that have already been made, so those are easy. If the Orioles had signed Markakis and Cruz, they would have never traded for Snider so he's gone. Matusz and Hunter are too expensive to keep around for what they bring to the table in this scenario, I need the cash. Norris is the biggest ticket item and it's easy to say now that he has been demoted to the bullpen that moving on from him would be the easy move, but he was good in 2014. I made the cut, but I can see why the Orioles did not, even if they maybe should have at that salary.

So I saved $30.1 million and am able to fit in Markakis and Cruz. I filled out the rest of the roster mostly with people that have been on the team. Pearce and Cruz split time between left field and designated hitter. Markakis stays in right. The bench is Caleb Joseph, Ryan Flaherty, David Lough, and Jimmy Paredes. In this altenate reality, Paredes may not have even made the team. But, the team needed a bench bat and he was excellent in Spring Training so I gave him the spot. The bullpen keeps Ryan Webb this time, and also adds Mike Wright, Mychal Givens, and T.J. McFarland. Really I just chose three other names, it could have been any of a bevy of minor leauge relievers.

So, is that team any better? Well, the starting lineup certainly is. Cruz's 164 OPS+ would look great hitting fourth and Markakis' .370 OBP would look nice leading off. The starting rotation is basically the same. The bullpen is probably weaker. Tommy Hunter is a good reliever and while his 2015 salary is not exorbitant, the room had to be made. The bench is similar, but weaker. All of those pieces are good backups, but they might not be the sort that is able to provide much rest to the starters which could hurt the team down the stretch. Especially with a 31 year old Markakis and 35 year old Cruz. I'd say the overall offense would be better and more consistent in 2015, but the depth is greatly hurt.

However, if you're running a baseball team, 2015 cannot be your only concern. 2016 and beyond matters a great deal. The nature of those four year deals is that they keep going and the impending free agency of three everyday players and two starters makes it even harder for them to be replaced with an extra $25.25 million every year. For instance, in 2016. To illustrate this, I made a table below of this alternate reality and the salaries of the players likely to be kept around.

Player 2016 Salary(In Millons)
Adam Jones $16.33
Nelson Cruz $14.25
Ubaldo Jimenez $13.00
J.J. Hardy $12.50
Nick Markakis $11.00
Chris Tillman $7.00~
Miguel Gonzalez $6.00~
Zach Britton $6.00~
Manny Machado $5.00~
Ryan Flaherty $1.50~
Total $92.58

That is 10 players, five on guaranteed contracts, four of whom will be 32 or over in 2016 and five arbitration eligible players that I would want to keep around for 2016. I made basic guesses on their arbitration salaries, it's likely some of them could be even higher than what I guessed. If the max payroll for 2016 is $125 million, that would leave roughly $32 million to field the other 15 players or about $2.1 million per player. That is a tough task for 2016 and it would only get harder in 2017 as the salaries for Hardy and Jimenez keep escalating and the arbitration raises for those not on guaranteed contracts continue to rise.

The point of this exercise was to take my mind off of terrible baseball and not do work was to see if the team could even have afforded bringing back Markakis and Cruz. In 2015, the options were there. It would have meant some tight cuts, but it could have worked and the team would likely be better right now with productive corner outfield spots rather than bottomless pits of despair. However, going into 2016 and 2017 the payroll and roster would be greatly restricted and I don't know about you, but I want Manny Machado signed long term sooner rather than later. Re-signing Markakis and Cruz would have been better for the 2015 team. However, the team would have been hampered by their contracts in 2016 and 2017. The real error of the 2015 off season was not finding suitable replacements for their production.