Orioles All-Stars Manny Machado, Zach Britton and Chris Tillman receive big raises for 2017. (Baltimore Sun video)
The Orioles were able to avoid arbitration with their top three eligible players Friday, delivering them handsome salary raises for the upcoming season. But at the same time, the window of opportunity for the team to keep third baseman Manny Machado, closer Zach Britton and Chris Tillman long term is continuing to close.
That's especially the case with Tillman, who becomes a free agent at the end of the 2017 season. At this point, it's a matter of running out of time to negotiate – combined with the fact that there has been little negotiation to this point.
The arbitration season is the best time to make extension talk progress, but by employing their new "file-and-trial" approach – in which the club is determined to go to a hearing without further negotiating with players whose contracts aren't settled by the time salary figures are exchanged -- the Orioles essentially cut their opportunity to negotiate for an extension. With Tillman's salary for 2017 now settled, the Orioles missed out on the opportunity to buy up any of his arbitration-eligible seasons.
Over the past four seasons, Tillman has posted a 3.91 ERA while averaging 14 wins, 32 starts and 190 innings pitched. Next year's free-agent pitching class is a good one, with former teammate Jake Arrieta of the Chicago Cubs, Tampa Bay Rays right-hander Alex Cobb, Kansas City Royals left-hander Danny Duffy and New York Yankees right-hander Michael Pineda headlining that class. Yankees right-hander Masahiro Tanaka could also become a free agent after next season if he exercises an opt-out in his contract.
But the only players who come close to Tillman's average numbers over the past four years are Arrieta and Tanaka. Arrieta has obviously trended up over the past three years. He won 40 games over the past two seasons and has a National League Cy Young Award on his resume, but in 2013 he won just five games and pitched just 75 1/3 big league innings between the Orioles and Cubs. Tanaka has been in the majors for just three years.
So considering where Tillman could slot in the free-agent market hierarchy next season as potentially one of the top three starting pitchers available, there's little reason for him to consider an extension once the season begins. And the Orioles aren't a team that typically engages in in-season extension talk anyway.
As for Machado and Britton, they are under club control for the next two seasons, but you have to legitimately wonder whether the Orioles can keep both on the 2018 club. With them making $11.5 million and $11.4 million, respectively, this season, they will both smash the club record for a salary given to an arbitration-eligible player next winter, their final one before free agency. Chris Davis made $12 million in 2015, his final year of arbitration eligibility.
Based on similar situations, to think Machado and Britton will make salaries in the $16-18 million range isn't a stretch if they continue to play well in their final year of arbitration eligibility. The question is whether the Orioles can afford that, also knowing in the back of their minds that dealing one could net a handsome reward of prospects for the future.
The Orioles will have significant money coming off the books after the 2017 season. Ubaldo Jimenez's $13.5 million for next year will be gone. As mentioned above, this could be the final year for Tillman (making $10.05 million in 2017) while shortstop J.J. Hardy, who makes $14 million this season, will have a difficult time reaching a plate-appearance-based vesting option for 2018.
Still, it's unclear whether that money frees up enough to keep both Britton and Machado, especially since you also have to replace the players you're losing. They also must decide cornerstone Adam Jones' future with the club. He becomes a free agent after the 2018 season along with Machado and Britton.
Also, there has been no significant extension talk with Machado, even in advance of this week's salary exchange. And the 24-year-old star isn't getting any cheaper by the day.
So even though the Orioles should be rewarded for settling cases with Machado, Britton and Tillman – and not taking them to arbitration – they face several difficult decisions in regards to the three moving forward. The main one will be how much they want all of them – or any of them – to remain Orioles long term. The likelihood all three will be in different uniforms come 2019 is becoming more real by the day, especially after Friday.