Since the end of the World Series late last month, baseball's biggest teams have been outlining their plans for the offseason in relation to the league's competitive balance tax.
The Chicago Cubs, in trading injured left-hander Drew Smyly to clear salary and allow themselves to pick up the option on left-hander Cole Hamels, were using language of a league with a hard cap, as if they couldn't do one without the other.
This week, the Los Angeles Dodgers, who got under the luxury tax threshold of $197 million in 2018 along with the New York Yankees and San Francisco Giants, made a plan for potential investors that said they'd be staying under it for years to come.
Across the league, the general aversion to crossing that tax line — which will be $207 million in payroll — will be part of a major focus in free agency this year if the market is suppressed the way it was last winter. But all that will do is give clearance to teams at the bottom end of the payroll spectrum to keep doing what they're doing,
A low payroll isn't exactly a white flag — of the four teams subject to a grievance from the players' association about their lack of spending revenue sharing money on payroll in the spring, the Tampa Bay Rays won 90 games and the Oakland Athletics snagged a wild-card spot. The Miami Marlins were a disaster, but the Pittsburgh Pirates finished over .500 at 82-79.
For both Miami and Pittsburgh, whose Opening Day payrolls were around $85 million, those figure are well above the projected $71.45 million the Orioles are set to pay their rostered players next Opening Day before factoring in free agency. Most of that will go to Chris Davis, Mark Trumbo, Alex Cobb and Andrew Cashner. The team has some holes to fill, but doesn't appear in the mix for any kind of major free-agent moves.
Even allowing for a little salary growth on the margins of the roster, it's liable to go in the other direction before it goes up, and the Orioles are not only reaping the rewards of the July 31 trades that shed $28.3 million in 2019 payroll, but smaller things like working the roster so that outfielder Joey Rickard comes up 14 days shy of the Super Two service time requirement to earn an extra year of salary arbitration. That one's on a smaller scale but is more the type of thing players notice than the large-scale salary shedding.
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Either way, the attention will mostly be on the big clubs, and which of the World Series contenders can fit in stars such as Manny Machado and Bryce Harper without paying a tax. But on the bottom end, the Orioles might find that the frustration for that high-end limitation gets taken out on the teams at the bottom end of it — no matter how good they believe their eventual plan for a rebuild might be.