When Orioles executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias was asked on the final weekend of the season what kind of impact a 2020 campaign without fans and the general uncertainty caused by the coronavirus pandemic could have on the club’s finances, his answer seemed like it had a much wider scope than the club’s Opening Day payroll.
“We do a lot of planning in business in general outside of baseball, I just mean businesses in general do a lot of planning, budgeting,” he said. “Baseball teams do a lot of planning, looking ahead, and all of that is totally out the window because of this event that came in and turned the world upside down. So, we don’t know — we can’t estimate our revenue, our attendance. We can’t estimate various things that we look at when we look into a player or a roster budget.”
The Orioles' offseason so far, on and off the field, has reflected that. They moved on from pitching coach Doug Brocail and third base coach José Flores shortly after the season ended. And Wednesday’s news of dozens of layoffs and furloughs across the business side of the organization seems to be another instance that leads one to believe that the on-field product in 2021 won’t get much more money invested in it than has already been committed.
Now, the question is whether the product will be diminished.
Since the Orioles hired Elias and went about the business of not only changing the course of their proverbial cruise ship but modernizing the cabins, there’s been an understanding that the on-field product at Camden Yards wouldn’t be the focus for several years.
Resources have been poured into their scouting and player development departments, and assistant general manager for analytics Sig Mejdal got to build out and hire a full analytics department. The flipside has been trades designed to cut major league payroll and build the minor league talent base, and both in baseball operations and on the business side, significant staff reductions.
Both began in 2019 and have continued as the 2020 season came to an end, though the organization did pay all its full- and part-time employees through this week.
Until they prove otherwise when it comes to baseball decisions, though, all this should make clear that adding payroll simply isn’t on the agenda this winter. Clubs across the league might not create a robust free-agent market anyway, and even though the team improved some in 2020, the Orioles weren’t going to be spending top dollar anyway.
Truthfully, save for the infield, there aren’t many spots on the roster that it would be worth throwing money at a free agent.
But on that infield, the looming thought of this belt-tightening offseason is hard to ignore. There’s nothing unreasonable about a $3.5 million club option for a strong defensive shortstop coming off a career offensive year the way José Iglesias is, but the club’s finances could mean manager Brandon Hyde (and the pitching staff) will be forced to live with a lesser player there at a lesser price.
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Then, there are the arbitration-eligible players. MLBTradeRumors.com released a set of projections for different players' arbitration salaries based on several different forecasts, including the 60-game season with no adjustments, those 60-game statistics extrapolated to 162 games, and 37% of the raise second- and third-year eligible players would be expected to get in a full season.
The team’s highest-paid player in salary arbitration last year was Trey Mancini, who didn’t play in 2020 because of a spring training colon cancer diagnosis. He’s projected to stay at last year’s $4.8 million salary, and even the thought that he could be subject to arbitration machinations is unseemly.
Next is Hanser Alberto, who under the scenario of a raise based on his 60-game performance is estimated to receive $2.3 million. Renato Núñez ($2.1 million), Anthony Santander ($1.7 million), Pedro Severino ($1.4 million), and Shawn Armstrong ($800,000) are all due raises as well.
Those estimates are likely on the low-end of what those players would have earned with a full 2020 season. It’s also likely that teams who even tender contracts to these players are going to aim low with their salaries, positing that even a smaller raise than normal will still be better than accepting a minor league contract with a spring training invite that the depressed market will also provide.
That, too, could be an area in which an Orioles team that still owes over $30 million in 2020 salary to Chris Davis and Alex Cobb looks to save money on the major league team.
Were it not for those two big deals, with Davis' expiring in two years and Cobb entering the final year of his, the Orioles' payroll might be half of what it ends up being come Opening Day 2021. There might need to be more reductions to it if the team is going to present its financial position the way their moves this month have.
If things have to continue getting worse before they get better in what will be Year 3 of this rebuild, the results could end up harming a lot of the goodwill this project has built.