Orioles surely can afford to improve this club

Team hasn't made a big free agent signing, but they should have the money

The countdown to spring training continues and, with each passing day, it appears less and less likely that the Orioles are going to make a dynamic acquisition to upgrade their pitching staff or add some real on-base potential to their power-packed lineup.

There still are some suitable players out there, and the franchise doesn't seem to lack the financial wherewithall to do what's necessary to build on back-to-back winning seasons, but the clock keeps ticking and the fans keep wondering if all they rate from this ownership are minor league hand-me-downs and small-market excuses.

Time will tell. It always does ... and sometimes, the truth hurts.

Orioles executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette certainly has earned a degree of patience during the two years he has presided over the team's return to respectability, but this offseason has evoked too many memories of the bad old days to engender great confidence that the Orioles still are moving in the right direction.

There is every indication that the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees are refocused on maintaining their economic hegemony over the American League East and plenty of evidence — including recent comments about the club's market position by Orioles managing partner Peter Angelos — that the club has given up on competing with them for top talent.

Maybe that's just good business, but there's something to be said for sending a message to your public that you're willling to do all you can reasonably do to be competitive in one of baseball's strongest divisions. It'll be very hard to make that case if the Orioles open the 2014 season with the $82 million payroll that's projected if they do not make a major late-winter pitching acquistion.

That would be a significant decrease from last year. The Orioles traded away Jim Johnson and have shed several other high-priced players, most notably $10 million second baseman Brian Roberts.

They used some of those savings to give Chris Davis a $7 million raise and will soon jack up Matt Wieters' salary by a couple million, but there is nothing stopping them from adding one of the decent veteran starting pitchers left in the market.

Well, that's not entirely true. The Orioles have always approached free agent pitching with an over-abundance of caution, which is why the Grant Balfour deal fell through and why they have never given more than a three-year guarantee to a free agent pitcher.

The limit on the contract length makes it almost impossible to compete for a No. 1 or No. 2 starter.

No doubt, Duquette and manager Buck Showalter are hoping that new pitching coach Dave Wallace and new bullpen coach Dom Chiti will be able to fashion a solid rotation from the candidates already on the major league roster, but nothing has happened over the past three months to reduce the need for one more veteran starter.

The front office said at the outset that would be a priority and got no argument from the media, the stands or the clubhouse. Now, the fans are getting understandably restless, and they are not alone.

Even Davis, who isn't known for poking his nose into front office business, told The Sun's Dan Connolly last week that the Orioles still need a veteran presence in the rotation.

"Starting pitching obviously is going to be the issue again for us,'' Davis said. "We have some young guys who can still improve this year, but we still lack that really experienced starter, a guy that has gone through the fire and really knows what to expect, because he's been around for a while."

That kind of guy generally costs a lot of money and requires a long-term contract, which the Orioles obviously could afford if they are willing to match a 2013 payroll that started out at about $92 million and increased by about $4 million with the in-season acquisitions of Scott Feldman, Bud Norris and Mike Morse.

It might be overly simplistic to make a direct correlation between the size of payroll and a team's commitment to providing the best possible product to its customers, but the club's insistence that its spending is commensurate with its revenues and market standing rings a bit hollow when you consider that the O's spent about as much on payroll in 1999 as it is projected to this year, barring a significant acquistion in the next few weeks.

It was the great British prime minister Benjamin Disraeli who carved out a place in "Bartlett's Familiar Quotations" when he pointed out that it is possible to prove almost anything through the manipulation of statistics, and that's basically what the Orioles have done for the past few seasons to justify their modest payrolls.

If you compare the ranking of the Baltimore market with the ranking of last year's Orioles payroll, it appears that the club is actually spending more than the revenue potential of the area would recommend. But that doesn't take into account the fact that national television revenue is shared equally and the club gets an outsized portion of the profits from the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network it owns in partnership with the Washington Nationals.

So, the Orioles can try to convince the public that they are a bottom-third market with a middle-of-the-pack payroll, but the revenue picture is much brighter than that, and they just got a $25 million annual bump in the national TV payment they receive from Major League Baseball's central fund.

Certainly, there's enough money parked somewhere to sign more than this week's best available fourth outfielder.

Guess we'll find out soon enough.

peter.schmuck@baltsun.com

twitter.com/SchmuckStop

Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here" at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog and listen when he co-hosts "The Week in Review" on Friday mornings at 9 on WBAL (1090 AM) and at wbal.com.

 

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