Orioles pitcher Miguel Gonzalez (50) throws off the mound during spring training at the Ed Smith Stadium complex on Feb. 23, 2016.
Orioles pitcher Miguel Gonzalez (50) throws off the mound during spring training at the Ed Smith Stadium complex on Feb. 23, 2016. (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun)

Miguel Gonzalez, who was placed on release waivers Wednesday, was a key fixture during the Orioles' playoff runs in 2012 and 2014. He was part of the group that brought winning baseball back to Baltimore, and was one of the most universally well-liked players to wear an Orioles uniform over the past four years.

Ultimately, Gonzalez didn't pitch well enough this spring to erase the club's concerns about his rocky 2015 season. And both Mike Wright and Tyler Wilson performed better than he did.

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But Gonzalez's release couldn't have sat well inside the Orioles' clubhouse, especially given the fact that Gonzalez had a minor league option.

Did the Orioles fear a Bud Norris-like regression from Gonzalez this season? Did they decide that it was time to go with youth? Or was it really about the money?

The Orioles haven't done themselves any favors this spring to give themselves the benefit of the doubt. Nothing has been easy. Their well-publicized failed attempt to sign Dexter Fowler was followed by Yovani Gallardo's restructured deal. More recently, the Orioles are attempting to talk South Korean outfielder Hyun Soo Kim into accepting an assignment to the minors.

I'm still trying to figure out how the Fowler thing happened, but the latter two messes were about the money.

As an arbitration-eligible player, Gonzalez is owed one-fifth of his $5.1 million in salary if he goes unclaimed. That's far less than the full amount he would have been due had he made the Opening Day roster.

The Orioles committed nearly $240 million in free agency this offseason. By cutting Gonzalez, they will save roughly $4 million if he goes unclaimed. They will be free of his salary if another team claims him.

Baseball is a business. Everyone inside the Orioles clubhouse realizes that because many of them have been on the short end of it at some point in their careers.

And Gonzalez knew he had to be better than last year. He spent the offseason training in Sarasota with Chris Tillman and Zach Britton, working out five days a week on the back fields of the Ed Smith Stadium complex. Gonzalez was determined to show that he was healthy after groin and arm ailments set him back last season.

"You can tell he has that fire," Britton said about Gonzalez back in February. "He's always had that fire, but I think last year a little bit, he wasn't really feeling right and that was really kind of where his focus was, trying to get healthy. It's hard to pitch effectively when you're worried [and thinking], 'Is my arm going to hurt here or there?' I've been there. I know how that feels."

And over the past several weeks – as Wright and Wilson surged and Gonzalez struggled early – it became evident that Gonzalez was going to have to pitch for his job.

Did he have a great spring? No. Should he have kept his rotation spot? Maybe not. But I think you're going to have a hard time finding too many players in the Orioles clubhouse who would think this was handled the right way.

The Orioles were going to have some tough decisions -- there are still a few to make before rosters have to be finalized Sunday -- and maybe we all thought they'd pull some magic roster-fixing rabbit out of a hat and make it all right, just like they did in 2014 in keeping Steve Pearce.

But ultimately, the fact that the Orioles never gave serious consideration to sending Gonzalez to the minor leagues instead of releasing him has to scare practically every player in that clubhouse.

Talk to any player and he will tell you that one of the highlights of his career is when he becomes arbitration eligible. After making near the league minimum for his first three years, by becoming arbitration-eligible, he earns the right to negotiate his salary based on his performance. More important for most is the fact that he has the opportunity to take care of his family.

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Every player who has been around the past four years saw Gonzalez go through that process, from an unknown minor leaguer to a player who could make $5.1 million in his second season of arbitration eligibility with the promise of more in free agency in two more years.

But with one conversation, that security can be gone and that has to resonate inside an Orioles clubhouse full of players who have bided their time to reach their paydays.

I don't doubt Gonzalez will land a major league job somewhere else. There are a few teams that could use him. An Atlanta Braves team that comes to Ed Smith for the Orioles' spring finale is an obvious one.

The Orioles should hope for that. Because one thing they don't want is to see Gonzalez pitching in Fenway Park or Yankee Stadium or the Rogers Centre or even Tropicana Field continuing his domination of American League East opponents -- he is 22-11 with a 3.22 ERA against division foes -- pitching against the Orioles instead of for them.

eencina@baltsun.com
twitter.com/EddieInTheYard

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