Thursday’s midnight announcement that Major League Baseball has locked out the players upon the expiration of their collective bargaining agreement halted what was a surprisingly active offseason across the game.
That’s true where the Orioles are concerned as well, as they agreed to major league deals with infielder Rougned Odor and right-hander Jordan Lyles before the lockout hit.
It’s a small step considering that their projected Opening Day payroll for 2022 remains below $40 million, but represents a little bit of a shift in how they’ve done business.
In the context of how the next agreement between the league and the players might change the competitive landscape, that’s particularly noteworthy.
For most of this Orioles rebuild, which began in theory during the 2018 midseason teardown under former general manager Dan Duquette and in practice when executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias took over that November, the current CBA has been a shield that protects the viability of what the team is trying to do.
The Orioles had the No. 1 pick in the draft when Elias took over by virtue of a 115-loss season in 2018, but have cut payroll in each of the ensuing three seasons and not fielded a competitive team as a result.
When top performers have been due raises through the salary arbitration process, the Orioles have either released them or traded them so as to avoid those raises being on their books. In the case of infielder Hanser Alberto last winter, Elias noted that the CBA and the arbitration structure was behind that decision.
And to the extent they have spent money on free agents, it’s been with the dual purpose of improving the team in the short-term and trading those players for prospects who can help in the long-term. Shortstops José Iglesias and Freddy Galvis are examples of that, with the latter smartly getting a trade bonus in his deal so as to increase his pay in 2021 when the Orioles dealt him to the Philadelphia Phillies.
Lyles’ deal, which guarantees him $6 million for 2022 and has a $1 million buyout on an $11 million team option for 2023, has all the markings of that. If he pitches well next summer, the Orioles will flip him to a contender. And even if they decide to hang onto him, they can activate his option and still trade him in the offseason, with the possibility they retain some of that 2023 salary to improve the caliber of prospect they get back.
Ulterior motives aside, the Orioles spending money to improve the major league team is something observers have longed for. The team was never going to be at the top of the market for pitchers, but at least Lyles isn’t in on a minor league deal. His $7 million guaranteed for 2022 is 16th-highest out of the 22 free-agent starters signed this winter, and while his overall stats might be underwhelming, the Orioles are likely paying a premium for his durability and to entice a pitcher who allowed more home runs (38) than anyone in baseball in 2021 to come pitch at a hitter-friendly Camden Yards in the loaded American League East.
And that’s just the last part of their offseason, though everything seems to be a piece toward the idea that the Orioles aren’t ready to flip their competitive switch yet but are ensuring they’re ready to do so soon, especially if the new CBA requires it.
Odor’s signing is more low-risk depth than anything else, but coming on the heels of the team tendering contracts to or otherwise signing all of its arbitration-eligible players — Trey Mancini, John Means, Anthony Santander, Jorge López, Paul Fry and Tanner Scott — they accomplished the bare-minimum of not making the 2022 team worse for financial reasons, at least for the time being.
The installation of co-hitting coaches Ryan Fuller and Matt Borgschulte as replacements for departed hitting coach Don Long sets the major league infrastructure up for continuity with the minor league program that produced impressive results on the farm.
Several top prospects, including Adley Rutschman, Grayson Rodriguez and DL Hall, could be arriving at Camden Yards in 2022. At the very least, the Orioles are maintaining the strengths of what they have in place and trying to welcome that group into a team that, if not progressing, isn’t going backwards.
It’s unclear whether that means the Orioles are ready to continue to embrace the parameters of a new CBA should it, as the players desire, force teams to spend and be more competitive on an annual basis.
What the Orioles did in this portion of the offseason, however, seemed different from how they’ve operated in the past. Perhaps if change is forced on them when the game resumes, they’ll be ready.