Orioles outfielder Joey Rickard talks about making his first major league team and the excitement of Opening Day at Camden Yards. (Kevin Richardson/Baltimore Sun video)
Like many Orioles fans disappointed by years of failed attempts to sign free-agent superstars, let alone keep their own, Timothy Morris prepared himself for Chris Davis to be gone this season.
The Butchers Hill resident certainly did not expect to walk into the Orioles' 25th home opener at Camden Yards on Monday and see the power-hitting Davis jog down the traditional orange carpet with reliever Darren O'Day and catcher Matt Wieters, also free agents last winter.
"Having Davis, Wieters and O'Day on the Opening Day orange carpet is great," said Morris, a season-ticket holder. "No one can really say the Orioles are afraid to spend money anymore."
The front office delivered a three-month storm of spending that vaulted the Orioles from 17th of 30 Major League Baseball teams in payroll in 2015 to a projected 11th at $142 million in 2016. To pay for that spending, the Orioles raised ticket prices.
Big contracts often create big expectations among fans, a dynamic that executive vice president Dan Duquette also experienced in his years as Boston Red Sox general manager.
"We spent more money in the offseason, and I hope the fans believe we spent it wisely," Duquette said as he packed up his spring training office in Sarasota. "We have a pretty good club. It's going to come down to the starting pitching, which it always does, doesn't it?"
Manager Buck Showalter downplayed any pressure the bigger payroll might bring.
"The expectation would have been the same," he said. "I want expectations. I want the bar to be high. The bar is never going to change. It wasn't there when I first got here — you know where the bar was. It was one thing we wanted to change."
Some fans are not impressed. Terry Cook of Parkville described the cognitive dissonance of watching the club spend big, as fans have long demanded, only to end up with the same strengths and weaknesses.
"All that money spent, and the Orioles didn't upgrade a single position," Cook said.
They'll try to improve in the standings with the same formula that won them some success in the past four years — lots of home runs, excellent relief pitching, sound defense and Showalter's game management.
Given the resolutely middle-class spending proclivities of owner Peter Angelos, many fans assumed they'd watch several stars depart this past offseason, just as Nick Markakis and Nelson Cruz had left the previous offseason. The players themselves spoke at the end of last season with an elegiac tone about the likely breakup of a core that had brought winning baseball back to Baltimore, going 62 games over .500 from 2012 to 2015.
Davis, Wieters and O'Day are all back, joined by two other threats to hit 30 home runs — Mark Trumbo and Pedro Alvarez. The one major free-agent loss was starter Wei-Yin Chen, but the Orioles spent $22 million to replace him with Yovani Gallardo, one of the more dependable starters in baseball over the past five years.
For all the activity, however, the wider baseball world does not seem impressed. Analysts from Sports Illustrated, CBS Sports and ESPN have all picked the Orioles to finish last in the American League East. Keith Law of ESPN rated Davis' club-record $161 million deal the worst signing of the offseason.
The Orioles might hit 250 home runs, the popular wisdom goes, but their starting pitching will let them down, just as it did in 2015.
"I'm not sure I saw the moves in the offseason that would make them a better team," said Jim Bowden, an ESPN analyst and former general manager for the Cincinnati Reds and Washington Nationals. "Yes, it's great to keep your players, but you can't kid yourself."
Of course, none of this naysaying comes as much surprise to a club that was far from a popular pick in 2012 or 2014, seasons that ended in the playoffs.
"The critics have not done a real good job predicting the performance of the Orioles the last few years," Duquette said. "So I don't spend a lot of time listening to the chatter out in the market."
Fans said they welcome the underwhelming prognostications.
"I almost take zero stock in their predictions, based on how far they are usually off," Morris said. "I think the O's may very well struggle, with starters getting roughed up early in games, but I also believe the team could just stun the baseball world with the frequency of home-run, power-laden comebacks. Further, let me predict a national humor story of our high scores and late, high-scoring nights."
Donning his own fortune teller's hat, he added: "The real story will be Baltimore slamming its way to the pennant."
National analysts, however, aren't the only ones with misgivings about the 2016 Orioles, who will open against the Minnesota Twins. Grateful though they are for Angelos' spending spree, ardent fans also see the club's flaws.
Said season-ticket holder Julie Saxenmeyer: "If you had told me after last season that the O's would spend the money they did to retain Davis and O'Day on long-term deals, and that even Wieters would be back, and that they'd sign a decent starter like Gallardo, and trade for Trumbo and bring in Alvarez, I would've said, 'Great offseason!' And yet it still feels like there are major holes in this team, namely in the starting rotation."
She sees a tough road ahead, given the mighty offense of the Toronto Blue Jays, the revamped roster of the Red Sox and the pitching jewels possessed by the New York Yankees and Tampa Bay Rays.
"I'm expecting a .500 season," she said of the Orioles. "Not as bad as some analysts have predicted, but not nearly good enough, either."
This ambivalence is familiar to longtime Orioles fans, who remember 1998, when the Orioles had the most expensive payroll in the game, inflated by a then-record $65-million deal for slugger Albert Belle. They went 79-83, the first of 14 straight losing seasons for the franchise.
The plan all along
The free-agent spree was a natural product of the club's long-term planning, Duquette said. The Orioles had operated conservatively for many years and entered the offseason with few long-term commitments. That left them room to bid liberally on players they wanted to keep.
The parade of unexpected returns began with Wieters' decision to accept a one-year, $15.8 million qualifying offer in November.
O'Day was next, and the Orioles warded off the competition by giving him $31 million over four years, one of the richest deals ever given to a relief pitcher.
That left Davis. With a league-best 159 home runs over the past four seasons, the popular Davis seemed exactly the sort of player who would soar beyond Angelos' usual spending. Fans had come to expect it, based on past flirtations with big-ticket free agents.
Instead, "Mr. Angelos took a personal interest in Chris," Duquette said. "He heard the consistent feedback from fans that they wanted us to re-sign him."
In late January, the Orioles announced Davis would be back with a deal that nearly doubled the previous largest in club history.
His contract helped push the payroll to a projected $142 million, up 29 percent from 2015. The Orioles announced increased ticket prices — an average of about $5 more per game for both season and single-game seats — less than three weeks after Davis signed.
Several fans said they weren't thrilled by the price bump. Saxenmeyer was "annoyed" but renewed her tickets nonetheless, saying that "we understood the reasoning."
Club spokesman Greg Bader said overall sales are similar to what they were at the same point in 2015, when the Orioles drew 29,374 per game, second-best since 2005.
Tally the additions and subtractions and a skeptic might say the Orioles are merely a more expensive version of the same team that fell short in 2015.
"I think the moves we've made have been very well received by the fans," Duquette said. "But the proof is in the pudding."