Sports columnist Peter Schmuck talks about the Orioles’ decision to invest more than $240 million in free agency and the potential ramifications of that decision. (Baltimore Sun video)
During an offseason that was expected to feature a futile attempt to retain a long list of expensive free agents, the Orioles unexpectedly embarked on an unprecedented spending spree that delivers them into the 2016 season with a record payroll and greatly enhanced expectations.
No matter what happens, no one will be able to say that the front office took a halfhearted approach to keeping the franchise competitive the way it did a year earlier. Ownership removed any financial constraints this past winter and the Orioles ranked among the biggest-spending teams in all of baseball.
It isn't difficult to divine what that means for 2016. If everyone remains healthy, the Orioles should be one of the sport's most explosive and exciting teams, with premier sluggers all through their lineup. If the starting rotation comes together — which is a very big if — they should be right in the hunt for the American League East title, despite what you might be hearing from the people who have made a habit of predicting their demise at this time of year.
More difficult to predict is what this sudden change in economic direction means for the long-term future of the franchise, which still faces the revenue-affecting uncertainty of the ongoing MASN rights dispute and the prospect of more giant expenditures to retain its most talented players.
Nothing is really knowable at this point, but it's fair to wonder whether this season represents the proverbial fork in the road for the Orioles, the outcome determining whether the franchise finally embraces the industry's runaway salary structure or recoils from it the way it did in the early 2000s.
In other words, is it now or never, or now and forever?
There's no question that ownership has displayed a sense of urgency for the upcoming season that has not been seen since the Orioles built the star-studded teams that reached the American League Championship Series in 1996 and 1997. That might come as a surprise to some fans, but owner Peter Angelos is a highly competitive guy who has enjoyed his team's recent renaissance and wants to see it continue.
Last year's .500 finish and the potential last fall for a huge free-agent exodus put that in serious danger, so the Orioles made their move — retaining Matt Wieters with a huge qualifying offer, giving Chris Davis a giant contract, re-signing Darren O'Day for four years and adding several potential impact players.
The re-signing of Chris Davis, Darren O'Day and Matt Wieters keeps the Orioles' core group intact — something few inside or outside the team's clubhouse expected at the end of last year's disappointing 81-81 campaign. It also reunited the team's five unquestioned clubhouse leaders, which might be the biggest reason to believe in the Orioles in 2016.
The case can be made that the way the Davis negotiations dragged into January forced the Orioles to rebuild on a second front, but that doesn't change anything. They've gone all in on this year and stabilized the roster through at least 2018. Now they need to get results if they want to get back into the vault when it comes time to sign budding superstar Manny Machado to the megacontract he's likely to command in the next few years.
Success really does breed success. It also breeds higher television ratings and bigger gate receipts, which still might not offset a $300 million contract to retain one of the game's most exciting players but certainly would take some of the sting out of it.
Still, this is a team with a history of skepticism about big spending that is not restricted to ownership. Baseball operations chief Dan Duquette loves to shop in baseball's bargain basement and spread his payroll budget more evenly around the roster. If Machado continues to bloom — and there's little reason to think he won't — the Orioles will face another fiscal crossroads as soon as next year.
It also won't be long before the Orioles will have to consider tacking a few more years onto Adam Jones' long-term deal, which expires after the 2018 season.
If it might be a little early to connect all those dots, it's not too early to look at the soft underside of this year's team and see how brittle this new era of Orioles economics could turn out to be. Despite the late signing of free-agent starting pitcher Yovani Gallardo, the Orioles rotation is awash in uncertainty.
The Orioles are looking for a turnaround performance from Chris Tillman and another step forward by Ubaldo Jimenez, whose disappointing first season with the team only confirmed the club's skepticism about spending big money on free-agent pitching. The news two weeks ago that top young pitcher Kevin Gausman required a cortisone shot to relieve soreness in his right shoulder, followed by the release of Miguel Gonzalez, only added to the unpredictability of the pitching situation.
Though there are some other options — most notably minor league prospect Tyler Wilson, who pitched well this spring — the rotation remains a work that hasn't made enough progress to allay fears that it could undermine the rest of the offseason rebuilding project.
This all could create something of a Catch-22 for the Orioles, since a poor performance by the rotation would blunt the impact of all the offseason expenditures, which might make it difficult to persuade ownership to approve another giant contract next winter to add a premier starter to fix the problem.
Manager Buck Showalter is fond of saying that, ultimately, "our curiosity will be satisfied," but that doesn't make that fork in the road any more passable or the unknown any more palatable.
For all of the millions that the Orioles spent over the past five months, the future is still a fragile thing.