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The O’s have already won the battle of the payrolls

Whatever happens down the stretch, this team has extracted maximum productivity from its players and proven itself to be much more than the sum of its parts.

Toronto Blue Jays v Baltimore Orioles
Two role players the Orioles found for next to nothing.
Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

As we head into the final stretch of the season, let’s crunch some numbers. Not W-L, OPS+, wRC+, or WAR. I mean moolah. Dollars and cents. Team payroll.

You probably know this if you’ve been anywhere near CamdenChat this season, but the 2022 Orioles, picked by everyone to finish last in the AL East, have grossly outperformed expectations. Pre-season, the only interesting question, FanGraphs offered, was whether they’d be “at least an interesting cellar dweller.” Right now, the Birds’ playoff chances are up in the air, but at 72-64, they’re outperforming the season predictions by about 20 wins, and have a better record than eighteen other clubs.

Besides the gap between expectations and performance, what makes the Orioles’ performance impressive is that they are doing this with the lowest payroll in baseball.

Consider the table below. There are lots of high-performing teams with big payrolls. There are bad teams with low payrolls. There aren’t many in between.

MLB Team Payrolls and Wins

Rank Team 2022 Total Payroll Win-Loss Record Win Percentage
Rank Team 2022 Total Payroll Win-Loss Record Win Percentage
1 Los Angeles Dodgers $265,634,322 94-42 .691
2 New York Mets $262,719,430 87-51 .630
3 New York Yankees $253,198,281 82-54 .603
4 Philadelphia Phillies $243,033,703 75-61 .551
5 San Diego Padres $219,542,053 75-62 .547
6 Boston Red Sox $208,103,101 67-71 .486
7 Chicago White Sox $196,645,437 69-68 .504
8 Houston Astros $183,504,022 87-49 .640
9 Atlanta Braves $181,780,482 86-51 .628
10 Los Angeles Angels $180,354,738 60-77 .438
11 Toronto Blue Jays $174,146,454 76-60 .559
12 St. Louis Cardinals $161,965,849 80-56 .588
13 San Francisco Giants $156,817,128 65-70 .481
14 Chicago Cubs $151,348,941 57-79 .419
League Average
15 Texas Rangers $146,322,414 59-76 .437
16 Minnesota Twins $144,379,288 68-66 .507
17 Colorado Rockies $139,821,564 59-79 .428
18 Detroit Tigers $135,564,508 52-85 .380
19 Milwaukee Brewers $130,022,698 71-65 .522
20 Washington Nationals $122,951,847 48-88 .353
21 Cincinnati Reds $115,717,545 54-80 .403
22 Seattle Mariners $114,931,108 77-60 .562
23 Kansas City Royals $92,761,607 55-82 .401
24 Tampa Bay Rays $91,034,574 77-58 .570
25 Miami Marlins $83,414,747 55-80 .407
26 Arizona Diamondbacks $82,976,564 65-70 .481
27 Cleveland Guardians $66,550,631 70-64 .522
28 Pittsburgh Pirates $66,092,842 50-86 .386
29 Oakland Athletics $48,278,514 50-87 .365
30 Baltimore Orioles $43,877,048 72-65 .547

The mighty Dodgers have the highest payroll ($265.6 million) and the best record (94-42) in the majors. Per win, they’re paying a cool $2.82 million. The Mariners ($114.9 million, 77-60 record) are having a great year. Each Seattle win costs $1.49 million. The colossally disappointing Angels are top of the class in overpaying per win, at about $3 million each.

Consider those numbers, and then consider the Orioles. With a $43.8 million payroll and 72 wins, the Orioles are paying $608,833 per win, which is the lowest figure in the Majors.

We can put that in perspective by comparing the Orioles to their AL East competition. As good as the AL East has been, some big spenders aren’t getting much bang for their buck. The underperforming Red Sox, with a $207 million payroll and just 67 wins, are spending $3.1 million per win. The Blue Jays, $2.2 million. The Yankees, $3.1 million (note, in light of Boston, just how comparatively inflated that makes the Yankee payroll). The Rays—the gold standard in stretching dollars—$1.18 million.

All of this makes the Orioles look pretty clever, and the achievements of their personnel particularly impressive how much better paid their counterparts are. Compare the Orioles and the Blue Jays rotations. Orioles starters make a combined $8.6 million, and Jordan Lyles is taking home $6 million of that. Toronto, meanwhile, spent $73 million on their rotation, includiung the injured Hyun-Jin Ryu (and $52 million if you don’t). Toronto starters’ ERA: 4.06. Orioles starters: 4.33. Not a massive difference.

All year, Baltimore has gotten contributions from unlikely sources. Out of their Top 5 players in WAR, there’s not a millionaire among them (unless you count Adley Rutschman’s $8.1 million signing bonus, which you totally can). Rutschman (4.6 WAR) is making $526,902 in his pre-arbitration salary. Cedric Mullins (3.5 WAR), Ramón Urías (3.3 WAR), Félix Bautista, and Jorge Mateo (2.8 WAR) all make around the league minimum of $700,000.

Of course, bargain-hunting can go too far. People aren’t clothing, or dishwashers, or cars. The Orioles front office might be high fiving each other for their thrifty, overperforming ways, and they deserve the kudos. But at some point, the team will need to start paying its players. The Orioles don’t want to be known as the best darn cheapskates in the Major Leagues. And they will need to pony up for pitching and key free agents. At the risk of pouring salt on the wound, this was probably the lesson of the Toronto series.

But back to the glass half-full perspective. MLB recently ran a piece under the headline, “One thing we got wrong for each team in 2022.” Their Orioles-related answer was: “Everything.” The Orioles are the most surprising team in baseball right now, both because their turnaround since 2021 is historic, and because they’re drastically outperforming the limits of their own payroll. The Orioles team reboot depends on trying to beat the Tampa Bay Rays at their own game. For now, signs are good that they’re learning the important lessons.