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Contract tender week is always rough for the Orioles. The looming lockout doesn’t help. | ANALYSIS

Where the rebuilding Orioles are concerned, declaring one game or loss or offseason week to be the worst seems ripe for second-guessing. They’ve lost two out of every three games over the past three seasons and picked in the top five of the draft in all three of them, yet if there’s one time on the calendar that’s perhaps more difficult than any to stomach, it’s been this week.

With a lockout all but assured to begin Thursday at midnight, Major League Baseball moved the annual deadline to tender arbitration-eligible players contracts to Tuesday night so that business could be finalized before the work stoppage, which could begin Thursday.

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Dating back to the beginning of the Mike Elias era, this time of year has been one in which Orioles fans have seen their team move on from players they grew to enjoy watching. Many played on teams that had few major league-caliber players for myriad reasons, chief among them financial.

In 2018, shortly after Elias took over as executive vice president and general manager, stalwart catcher Caleb Joseph and infielder Tim Beckham weren’t tendered contracts. After a 2019 season in which Jonathan Villar played all 162 games and was worth a team-high 3.9 wins above replacement (WAR), according to FanGraphs, he was dealt to the Miami Marlins for a low-level pitching prospect. The Orioles avoided the possibility of paying Villar an arbitration salary that was estimated to be over $10 million at the time, though he ultimately made $8.2 million that year.

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Just after the tender deadline, right-hander Dylan Bundy — who was tendered a contract — was traded to the Los Angeles Angels for four pitching prospects. Bundy had two years of club control left and was estimated to make $5.7 million in 2020.

The shortened 2020 season brought a surprising replacement for Villar at shortstop in veteran José Iglesias, who had a career year offensively with the Orioles that made it easy for them to pick up his $3 million contract option for 2021 after the season ended.

He was traded on the night of the arbitration deadline last December in another deal for two minor league pitchers with the Angels, and his absence meant the entire starting infield from 2020 was gone within a span of hours. Shortly before the trade, the Orioles declined to tender a contract to popular infielder Hanser Alberto, who was due what would have been a modest raise from his prorated $1.6 million salary from 2020.

A couple weeks before that, they released slugger Renato Núñez ahead of his own arbitration raise.

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This year’s arbitration-eligible class was culled some already when catcher Pedro Severino and infielder Pat Valaika were outrighted and became free agents, but features such high-profile names as Trey Mancini ($7.9 million projected salary in 2022, according to MLBTradeRumors.com), Anthony Santander ($3.7 million), John Means ($3.1 million), Jorge López ($1.5 million), Paul Fry ($1.1 million) and Tanner Scott ($1 million).

Orioles starter John Means pitches against the Toronto Blue Jays on Oct. 2. Means is one of Baltimore's arbitration-eligible players, which means his future with the team is no sure thing.
Orioles starter John Means pitches against the Toronto Blue Jays on Oct. 2. Means is one of Baltimore's arbitration-eligible players, which means his future with the team is no sure thing. (Jon Blacker/AP)

Mancini was already the face of the team and one of their most popular players before he completed a full season in 2021 less than a year out from colon cancer treatment. Means is the team’s best pitcher by a wide margin and threw a no-hitter in May. Santander remains an asset even after a down year in which he was never healthy. And even though each had their struggles, López, Scott and Fry are all far better than whoever would be replacing them in the Orioles bullpen.

Moving on from any of them would be yet another sign that the Orioles rebuild is nowhere close to coming to fruition. Mancini has one year remaining before hitting free agency next offseason, but the rest have at least three seasons of club control remaining. They’re worth more in trades because of that, but also worth something to a team that needs to start trying to win soon.

Elias has been explicit over the past three years that he will listen on any player in a trade, which makes the furor over the idea that teams were asking about Means and All-Star Cedric Mullins puzzling. The Orioles come into trade talks with high asks, and they’re rarely met, as the lack of movement on Fry and Scott in July indicated.

The Orioles stretched out Chris Davis’ salary when he retired, so saving on payroll when the team is already so inexpensive shouldn’t be a priority. Still, economics and finding value are behind so much of what drives today’s game.

When discussing letting Alberto go last year, Elias faulted the fundamentals of baseball’s competition system, saying “part of our job is to operate within the economic framework of the collective bargaining agreement.” In this case, the rigid comparison structure that informs how much similar present-day players get paid meant someone like Alberto would, at a minimum, be making more than the Orioles thought he was worth. So, they moved on.

That collective bargaining agreement has just days left before it expires at midnight Thursday, and the expected owners lockout will end a quarter-century without any work stoppages in MLB.

As a result, this has been a frenetic stretch of free agency and trades as teams prepare for rosters to freeze and no transactions to be permitted or discussed during the lockout. Some players and teams are opting for certainty now, and massive free-agent deals have landed Kevin Gausman with the Toronto Blue Jays, Starling Marte with the New York Mets and Marcus Semien with the Texas Rangers.

Many top free agents are said to be aiming to sign before the lockout, which could make for a condensed hot stove season before the sport shuts down. The Orioles won’t be taking part in such fun. Instead, the best the Orioles can hope for is status quo.

History shows, however, that won’t be how this week goes for the Orioles. But to those hoping they’re nearing the time they’ll start pushing for the playoffs again, simply tendering their players contracts and not trading them before Thursday’s expected lockout might be a sign they’re actually seeing contention on the horizon.

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