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The Angeloses are not cheap

They’ve just spent their money unwisely. That’s primarily what the new analytics regime is here to fix.

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MLB: New York Yankees at Baltimore Orioles
The Angelos brothers, Louis and John.
Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

There is an old, hard-to-dispel canard that hangs around the Baltimore Orioles like a ghost in the attic: the Angeloses are penny-pinching meddlers who just can’t stay out of the team’s way long enough to let them win.

There are good reasons why the cheapness myth persists. Baltimore is, famously, a “small market” team. Our neighbor forty miles to the south outspent us by about $90 million last season en route to winning the World Series. Some of the big signings or contract extensions this team didn’t make still sting the fanbase: Adam Jones, Nelson Cruz, Nick Markakis, Andrew Miller, and of course, Mike Mussina.

This kind of thinking has been around a long time, but as a point of fact, however, it’s wrong. Start with payroll.

Over the last decade, the Orioles have always been solidly middle-of-the-pack in spending, not back-of-the-class. And that’s in ways that largely outpredict their annual revenue and worth as an asset.

Orioles Yearly Payroll (25-man roster)

Year Payroll MLB Rank
Year Payroll MLB Rank
2011 $85.30M 18
2012 $ 81.42M 19
2013 $90.99M 15
2014 $107.41M 15
2015 $110.15M 17
2016 $115.59M 15
2017 $142.07M 10
2018 $143.09M 14
2019 $61.12 M 28

The other part of the myth—that the Orioles don’t make big signings—is flat-out ridiculous. Of course, they’re not playing in the big-tier marquee ace sandbox, but they’ve made big deals for players the ownership thought added long-term value.

The trouble is, they’ve often been bad ones.

Remember four years, $50 million (Ubaldo Jiménez, in 2014)? Four years, $40 million (in 2009, to a declining Brian Roberts)? Five years, $65 million (Albert Belle in 1998)? Three years, $32 million (before he got arrested for assaulting a judge, to Sidney Ponson in 2004)? And of course, that’s without mentioning the team’s current seven-year, $161 million albatross, the largest deal this team ever signed, and one of the worst in the history of sports.

On Wednesday, Dan Connolly stirred the pot, and set off a fresh wave of chatter, when he wrote his column for The Athletic on one winter meetings trade that didn’t happen for the Orioles. (It was a lot like Sherlock Holmes’ dog that didn’t bark, but with more Monday morning quarterbacking.)

Here’s a sampling from the message boards. (There’s more when this came from.)

[W]hat’s happening with the team right now isn’t primarily about baseball. I’m all for finding more billionaire partners so we aren’t asked to swallow crap like “rebuilding” .

It’s nice to see you’re finally coming around on the Angelos family grift. I’ve been saying it constantly, only to be shut down by people who believe the Angelos boys and their useful idiot Elias actually have the O’s best interest in mind. The only things the sons care about is stuffing their pockets with as much cash as possible.

The first thing you do with a bad team that’s about to be sold (and moved) is slash payroll to the bone. Given that MLB wants ALL of the MASN revenues to go to the Nationals, if I was the Angelos boys, I don’t think I’d be spending money either. NashVegas, here we come!

What happened was this. During the winter meetings, the San Francisco Giants picked up aging infielder Zack Cozart, along with a 2019 first-round pick, middle infielder Will Wilson, from the Angels for cash considerations. The trick was that the Giants were essentially agreeing to pick up a big tab for the 34-year-old Cozart ($12.67 million for 2020), a player who may not even appear for them, in exchange for a highly-touted prospect.

Why didn’t the Orioles, with their desperate needs up-the-middle, make this move?, asked Connolly. GM Mike Elias has been “too consistent in his message about leaving no talented stone unturned to ignore that boulder.” The conclusion Connolly, and many fans, came to, was that the Angelos brothers are—as usual—tying their GM’s hands.

The trouble with this revamped version of the cheapness myth is that it’s so much more a product of the deep-seated suspicions of a certain sector of the fanbase than a realistic take on what the franchise is doing now.

First, that the Orioles were in the market for Wilson and Cozart in the first place can’t be assumed. They recently spent $500,000 to sign 18-year-old shortstop Gunnar Henderson at the beginning of the second round, and after letting Jonathan Villar’s $10-million price tag and 4.0 WAR walk just over a week ago, the idea of dropping $12 million for -0.9 worth of WAR and a prospect valued at around $3 million sounds like two steps back to go one forward, or just bad business.

Second—here’s the bigger issue—the cynics among Orioles fans assume Elias’s statements about the team’s current approach and interests cannot be taken at face value. Asked whether he had a green light from ownership to take on a bad contract/prospect combo like the Cozart/Wilson one, the Orioles’ GM answered, “It would have to be something that we would take to (ownership). But it’s not something that I would say we’re actively out there chasing down.”

There is no reason to think that the Orioles are not “actively chasing down” overpaid veterans because they are, and will always, be cheap, when the obvious answer is that Elias is operating very much according to the plan he laid out when took the GM job in November 2018. Spending $12 million on a prospect was not in the plan; investing in infrastructure, analytics, international scouting, player development, and so forth, was. There has been already major growth in these areas.

Remember, too, that the spending model Elias helped refine during his Houston years is lean, lean, lean. After peaking in 2009 at $104 million, the Astros’ payroll dropped to $26 million in 2013, the heart of the rebuild, or about a third of the average MLB payroll. Even last year, it stood at $160 million, only about 25% higher than the average MLB team.

I understand that there is a lot of team money tied up elsewhere. If the Orioles’ 2020 payroll stays at about $60 million, as it’s largely predicted to, then Chris Davis’ contract will take up a mind-boggling one-third of it. The still-roiling dispute over MASN television revenues could leave the Orioles on the hook to the Nationals for the sum of $100 million.

But to conclude, as many fans are doing, that the Angeloses are now “scarred from the Chris Davis debacle,” or “doing what they’ve been doing for years,” is alarmist and misleading.

I’m not saying every time some player signing goes sideways, we intone, in the flat, zombie-like voices of the Progressive Insurance “Children of the Corn” commercial, “Trust in the rebuild.” There is room for disagreement with ownership, and Baltimore fans and beat reporters will continue to give their hot takes.

I’m just saying that, for now, there’s no reason to conclude that Elias’s hands are tied when things are playing out exactly as they’ve been scripted to. Besides, for the past decade, it’s been the innovation cycle that predicts winning baseball, and not sheer spending. Money is still correlated to success, but not as much as it used to, and there is no permanent second tier of teams. If the Orioles are going to compete in the next decade, it’ll be by building a mean and lean farm system—not by mortgaging the future to below-par players right now.