There's not much fun to be had for baseball fans in sitting around talking about team payroll numbers. Fun or not, it's an important thing to figure out because there's a ceiling to what the Orioles payroll is going to be. They will have a finite number of dollars to address the needs that the team has, either through free agency or by taking on salary in a trade.
Whether or not the payroll ceiling is what it "should" be is a question for debate. Only ownership knows the answer to that. With the release of the 2018 arbitration salary estimates from MLB Trade Rumors, we can have a clearer picture of how much money the Orioles will commit just to keeping their remaining players.
The Orioles have seven players who will be arbitration-eligible next season. Generally speaking, that's players with three-to-five years of service time at the big league level. Subsequent years of arbitration pay more, even if the most recent season is underwhelming or not good at all. The more a guy plays and the better he plays, the more he gets.
MLBTR's model puts the following salary numbers for the O's arbitration players:
- Zach Britton - $12.2 million (up from $11.4 million)
- Brad Brach - $5.2 million (up from $3.05 million)
- Manny Machado - $17.3 million (up from $11.5 million)
- Jonathan Schoop - $9.1 million (up from $3.48 million)
- Kevin Gausman - $6.8 million (up from $3.45 million)
- Caleb Joseph - $1.4 million (up from $700k)
- Tim Beckham - $3.1 million (up from $885k)
These are just estimates and they aren't exact, but they're definitely close enough to get in the ballpark of how much the Orioles will be committed to spending to keep their guys.
If Britton only gets $12.2 million, that would be a bit of a surprise given his results prior to this season. The Machado number also seems like a surprise after his relatively pedestrian 2017 campaign - though, again, he's getting the raise for his elite 2015 and 2016 seasons more than what he did this past season.
Money coming off the books
A second important consideration is how much money is coming off of the Orioles payroll. Their free agents are Ubaldo Jimenez, Seth Smith, Chris Tillman, Ryan Flaherty, and Craig Gentry. Also, team options for J.J. Hardy and Wade Miley are almost certain to be declined, with Welington Castillo appearing to be unlikely to exercise his own player option.
The Orioles also made a revenue-neutral trade that brought in Jeremy Hellickson for Hyun Soo Kim, so we can subtract the $4.2 million Kim made in 2017.
Take all of that together and it adds up to to $66.32 million coming off the books compared to 2017's Opening Day payroll of about $164.32 million, according to Cot's Contracts. This is ignoring any deferred money to keep things a tiny bit simpler.
Money staying on the books
Above, we have accounted for $20.635 million in arbitration raises. This is significant for the 2018 Orioles because it's only slightly less than a third of the salary the free agents were making. The past several years worth of articles like this have all essentially concluded, "Well, arbitration raises are chewing up all of the money that was paid to the players who are leaving." That's not the case this year.
We should probably also account for the $2 million buyout of Hardy's option and the $500k buyout for Miley's option. Additionally, three of the four Orioles with already-guaranteed 2018 salaries are getting small raises. Darren O'Day gets another $2 million, while Mark Trumbo and Adam Jones get another $1 million apiece. That's another $6.5 million.
Add that to the estimated arbitration raises and we've got $27.135 million of the available money spoken for, leaving an apparent $39.185 million to be spent on players from outside the organization. I've put enough decimal points into one post, so let's just bump that up to $40 million and leave it at that.
This could potentially be supplemented if payroll increases, which it has done by at least $8 million per year every year since 2012. That's a lot of money! Although a lot of the names on the available free agent list are uninspiring, if the Orioles are able and willing to throw $20 million/year at two different pitchers who are reasonably seeking a salary at that level, they might actually get somewhere in improving a league-worst rotation.
Now, will the Orioles able to do a better job of judging who is a good pitcher to sign than they did when they signed Jimenez and Yovani Gallardo or traded for Miley or Hellickson? Ay, there's the rub. That's another question for another day.
Depending on whether the Orioles choose to put Chance Sisco or Austin Hays on the Opening Day roster, they could need to add a catcher and an outfielder. They'll also need to find a utility infielder. I won't be surprised if it's just Flaherty again. These don't figure to be major expenses, but you never know.
Show us the money
Assuming that the Orioles front office was paying attention to the horrible starting rotation it fielded this season, this all adds up to a situation where they must address the rotation and they will have some money available to do so.
Or at least, that's what it looks like to me. A Roch Kubatko post over the weekend suggested that the Orioles are "more likely to go after a bunch of middle-to-back-end guys for the rotation." This is not an inspiring thing to read and I'm not reassured by Kubatko insisting it's "not as bad as it sounds."
If the failure of the middle-to-back-end guys they just threw at the rotation in 2016 and 2017 doesn't show them that's not an ideal plan in an offseason where they should have some significant money to throw around, then there's really no hope.
A year from now, the core players from the 2012-16 success will be nearly all gone. The time is now to make something happen. That doesn't mean they should just go out and overpay any starting pitcher in order to say they signed somebody, but it does mean they should be able to identify who's good and do what needs to be done to make them an Oriole.