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Orioles’ off-season decisions are leading to a team payroll reduction

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Saving money on free agents and not extending contracts for arbitration-eligible players are significantly shrinking the team’s payroll for this year and beyond. 

Baltimore Orioles Photo Day Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

Early in the off-season, we could legitimately envision the Orioles spending big money on free agents in an attempt to rebound from a disappointing 2017 last-place finish. But after flirting with Alex Cobb and Jarrod Dyson, and going home with Andrew Cashner and Colby Rasmus, we can likely conclude that the Orioles don’t plan on paying for top performers.

Camden Chat’s George Battersby points out that the Orioles still have money to spend this year, given that their current estimated Opening Day payroll is just over $125 million. That would be a 24 percent drop compared to last year’s $164,326,172, according to Cot’s Baseball Contracts.

While the Orioles may indeed have the money to spend, it’s looking more like they have chosen not to do so. And their timing couldn’t be worse given the sluggish pace of free agent signings leading to prospective bargains.

During an unprecedented off-season when the vast majority of talented free agents have been slow to sign and are often settling for contracts below their expected value, the Orioles have decided to cut costs instead of taking advantage of relative bargains.

There are still many quality players looking for work and a lot of time before Opening Day, but if the Birds don’t add $39 million to their payroll by then it would be the first year since 2012 that they haven’t increased it.

This would represent a dramatic shift in budgetary decisions that had seen the Orioles payroll nearly double from 2012 to 2017. From 2015-2017, the Opening Day payroll increased each year by 10 percent, 24 percent, and 11 percent, respectively.

And this dwindling budget may not just be limited to this season. Looking ahead, there are currently just four Orioles under contract in 2019 – Chris Davis, Mark Trumbo, Darren O’Day and Cashner – owed a total of $47.5 million. There should be more, but the Orioles have shown little to no interest in signing arbitration-eligible players Manny Machado, Jonathan Schoop and Kevin Gausman to contracts that would extend into their free agent years.

They aren’t spending money on free agents, nor are they signing young stars to long-term contracts while arbitration eligible. Add to that, they haven’t extended expiring contracts beyond 2018 for the manager, general manager or team captain.

So, what’s their plan? Maybe it’s not to add any additional payroll obligations beyond this year, which begs the obvious question … is Peter Angelos considering selling the team?

Reducing expenses before peddling a franchise is a common business practice and would be attractive to new ownership, as would a clean administrative slate to easily allow for choosing fresh management personnel. A new owner could decide to rebuild by playing younger, cheaper players for a few years and recoup some of the financial layout rather quickly.

This theory brings us into the mysterious world of Peter Angelos, which often leads to more questions than answers. There are rarely clear indications about his intentions, so projecting his interest in possibly selling the team is a difficult task. He is still active in his law practice, but he will turn 89 years old this Independence Day and time eventually catches up with all of us.

August 1 will be the 25th anniversary of Angelos’ $173 million purchase of the team. It’s been an up-and-down quarter of a century that has included 14 straight losing seasons sandwiched by promising but turbulent early seasons and recent playoff appearances – but no World Series in Baltimore. And that looks like a pipe dream this year.

Maybe Angelos will remain the Orioles owner for several more years to pursue that ultimate prize. But taking a close look at what’s going on with the team payroll, other changes may be in store.