Orioles face difficult decisions with looming nontender deadline

Orioles face difficult decisions with looming non-tender deadline.

One of the Orioles’ most pressing priorities this week will be making decisions on tendering contracts for next season to their 10 arbitration-eligible players by Friday’s midnight deadline.

This is more than a rubber-stamp process, especially this season with several players projected to get significant raises through the arbitration process. If the team’s 10 arbitration players are tendered, they’re projected to make just over $50 million, according to MLBTradeRumors.com. The Orioles owe eight players already signed to guaranteed contracts about $95 million, so with that, the team’s payroll would approach the $150 million mark before even addressing its offseason needs.

So while figures aren’t exchanged until January and most cases don’t go to arbitration until February, this is still a pivotal part of assembling a team’s payroll. Teams can agree to terms with players in advance of the tender deadline – Nolan Reimold and Vance Worley did that last season – and even if a player is tendered a contract, he can still be traded to another team. Teams and players can negotiate up until the hearings, but most are resolved before then. 

First of all, we have to emphasize that the MLBTradeRumors.com salary projections are a guideline. They’re good, and they’re usually close, but the algorithm used to project those salaries isn’t failsafe.

Still, those numbers say that three Orioles cornerstone players – right-hander Chris Tillman ($10.6 million), third baseman Manny Machado ($11.2 million) and closer Zach Britton ($11.4 million) – will make eight-figure salaries through arbitration.  

It was not that long ago that the Orioles traded closer Jim Johnson to the Oakland A’s just prior to the tender deadline because he was projected to make an eight-figure salary through the arbitration process.

That’s not to say the Orioles will attempt to move any of those three players, at least not yet. They’re all important pieces to the team’s success and still making less than they’d be worth in the free-agent market. Tillman is in his final year before becoming a free agent and Machado and Britton are two years away from free agency, so the club values having them under team control. But it is fair to say the Orioles are navigating uncharted territory in terms of hefty arbitration raises. It’s both the cost of doing business and also the price of winning.

Still, it seems that the Orioles will not tender contracts to some of their arbitration-eligible players. Last year should serve as a lesson of money hastily spent on players the club ended up not valuing as much as they were paid.

This time last year, the Orioles tendered both right-hander Miguel Gonzalez and left-handed reliever Brian Matusz at the deadline. Gonzalez eventually avoided arbitration by signing a $5.1 million deal, but after he struggled in spring training, the Orioles released him in their final days of spring, and the timing allowed the Orioles to avoid having to pay about 75 percent of Gonzalez’s full salary. In the end, it was about money.

But the Orioles’ concerns about Gonzalez – who landed with the White Sox and posted a respectable 3.73 ERA in 24 appearances (23 starts) with Chicago – weren’t born in spring training. He ended the previous season with arm problems, and while his stuff wasn’t crisp during spring training, that’s the case with many veterans. Gonzalez also owned a valuable minor league option, so he could have provided the Orioles with valuable rotation depth they lacked throughout the season.  And yes, $5.1 million is a lot to pay a player on the Triple-A Norfolk shuttle, but Gonzalez had a remarkably short rope in spring training.

Matusz’s case was slightly different. In his final year of arbitration-eligibility, he agreed to $3.9 million, which seemed to be a lot for a situational lefty reliever, but the Orioles had few other options for that role other than Matusz. Case in point, when Matusz went on the disabled list in spring training, the team immediately dealt for previously designated lefty Zach Phillips, who never pitched for the major league team in 2016.

Matusz opened the season on the DL, but once he returned he simply couldn’t get left-handed hitters out. Ten of the 16 left-handers Matusz faced reached base, with five hits and five walks.

The Orioles found a bailout partner in the Atlanta Braves, who assumed the remainder of Matusz’s salary for an international bonus slot the Orioles weren’t going to use. The Orioles received two minor leaguers, but the crux of the move was getting out from under Matusz’s salary.

When those two difficult situations played out, the decisions to tender the players seemed far removed, but the decision to offer both players contracts were miscues the Orioles obviously regretted.

Now, the Orioles will weigh whether they should tender contracts to players like utility man Ryan Flaherty, long reliever T.J. McFarland and swingman Vance Worley. All played important roles for the Orioles. Utility men are valuable – especially ones who can play all around the diamond like Flaherty, who is projected to make $1.7 million next season. McFarland’s stock as a long-reliever has dropped, but he’s still seen as a promising lefty arm. He’s projected to make $700,000. A team can never have too many arms like Worley, who can both start and be a bullpen piece, but he could make $3.3 million.  

Those aren’t salaries that will break the Orioles’ payroll, but when the team tendered Gonzalez and Matusz last year, they didn’t seem to be either, and the team ended up struggling to get out from under those contracts.

eencina@baltsun.com
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