The challenge: make the playoffs for $160 million. That's difficult given the large commitments already on staff. The 2016 team opened the season with a $147 million payroll. And although next year a few free agents will come off the books, Britton and Machado will earn over $11 million each, according to MLB Trade Rumors' arbitration estimator. Brad Brach's salary will jump to nearly $3 million. Jonathan Schoop and Kevin Gausman will also see their first arbitration salaries, estimated at $3.4 million for the former and $3.9 million for the latter. I'm happy for these guys; they've played well and earned the money. But that leaves the team in a bind.
With the team looking to contend yet again but with payroll already high, what moves should the Orioles make this offseason?
The most pressing question is to whom, if anyone, the Orioles should make a qualifying offer. MLBTR estimates the QO at a princely $17.2 million. That sounds like a lot but it isn't; with the price of a free-agent win coming in at around $8.5 million, the QO is the going rate for an average (two-win) player. The draft pick element adds another wrinkle, but I'll ignore it here. It's safe to say the Orioles don't care much about those right now, and I agree they shouldn't. I'll ignore that element of their decision.
Offer the QO to Wieters; I think he'll decline it. The new QO represents only an 8.8% raise to him, and Wieters stands out as a good catcher in this year's free-agent market. He will want to test the waters for his age-31 season. He can get a multi-year deal that will exceed the value of the QO. Take the draft pick his rejection will bring.
Don't offer the QO to Trumbo. It's a tempting 87% raise for him, and I think he'll take that sure thing over testing free agency. Enough teams have passed on Trumbo that he and his agent should view him as a marginal player, and enough players have been screwed by rejecting the QO that Trumbo will accept it. Given I don't think Trumbo has another two-win season in him, his acceptance will stick the Orioles with Trumbo at an above-market rate, which they can't afford.
Ditto with Pedro Alvarez: don't make him an offer. The QO represents a 190% raise from his $5.95 million salary. He'd take it in a heartbeat. As with Trumbo, I doubt Alvarez will crack the two-win mark next year.
Good-bye to Wieters, Trumbo, and Alvarez. It was nice knowing you (Wieters especially).
With the departure of Wieters and Alvarez, the team is down a catcher and a DH. It's time for Caleb Joseph to take the lead with the tools of ignorance. Abysmal 2016 aside, he makes contact at an average rate and has exhibited a roughly league-average ISO before. His defense is also better than Wieters'. Oh, he'll also make about $1 million next year.
As his backup, I'd sign Nick Hundley for 1 year and $4 million. Hundley has cut down on his strikeout rate and increased his walk rate since leaving the Orioles. He also continues to hit for a bit of power, showing a .180 ISO last year. As a result he can put up a wRC+ in the 80's. Not great, but then again he's not making Buster Posey money.
Or, if you want Hundley starting and Joseph backing up, that's fine too. I don't have a strong preference. If you want to swap Hank Conger with Nick Hundley, I'm fine with that too. I would prefer Jason Castro; his excellent framing skills will help paper over the crack in the sidewalk that is the Orioles' starting rotation. But he's too rich for this team's blood.
As for DH, I'd like to give Christian Walker a shot. There's no money available for anyone else. Walker's played the outfield before, so I have him over Trey Mancini. But if you show me a video of Trey Mancini playing left field in Little League, then fine, he can start for the team. Finally, let's keep Ryan Flaherty and his utility-ness at his estimated $1.7 million salary.
Infield total: Davis, Schoop, Machado, Joseph, Hardy, Hundley, Flaherty, and Walker for $58.81 million.
Trumbo's departure means the team needs a starting right fielder. As I did last year, I implore the team to focus on defense. Teams like the Mets can get away with a bad outfield defense because Syndergaard, deGrom, and Harvey strike a lot of guys out. The Orioles are in the opposite situation; low strikeout totals mean more balls in play.
The Orioles will also need to mix and match in the outfield moreso than in previous years. Jones is big for a center fielder (6'3", 220 lbs). Center fielders with this body type (Vernon Wells, Andruw Jones) moved to a corner by age 32; Jones will be 31 this year. He'll need more days of rest than last year, whether that means DH'ing, riding the bench day-to-day, or spending time on the DL.
With these needs in mind I'd sign Peter Bourjos to a one-year deal at $7.7 million. Bourjos isn't much of a hitter, but he has some excellent defensive seasons on his resume. He's also a good baserunner and extremely fast, meaning he can spell Jones in center and score from second in high-leverage spots. The team will hope he catches BABIP lightning in a bottle en route to a two-win season. As a bonus, Bourjos should not cost the team a draft pick.
The piggy bank is nearly empty, so let's bring back Michael Bourn and Drew Stubbs on deals at the league minimum plus incentives. They provide speed on the bases, defense in the outfield, pinch-running opportunities, and hit from opposite sides of the plate. Stubbs can platoon with Kim in left as well, if need be. Good-bye to Joey Rickard; you never learned to control the strike zone and your defense left a lot to be desired.
Outfield total: Jones, Kim, Bourjos, Bourn, and Stubbs for $28.74 million.
No moves on this front. My starting rotation consists of Gausman, Tillman, Miley, Jimenez, and Gallardo in that order. Gausman had himself an under-the-radar three-win season last year; tellingly, he started the Wild Card-clinching game on the final day of the season. Tillman is who he is at this point. Miley is also an average pitcher who suffered horrendous HR/FB and BABIP luck with the Orioles. Would you believe his xFIP with the team was a sparkling 3.34? I predict the same fans who turned on him in August 2016 will sing his praises by August 2017.
These guys are, shockingly enough, not a bad one-two-three. But the same can't be said about the last two guys. I put Jimenez in front of Gallardo because the former at least gets ground balls and can strike batters out. He's also proven he can adjust his mechanics should he struggle too much. Gallardo's K-BB% last year was a pathetic 4.6%. Enough said.
No one will take them in a trade. I would DFA/release them but that wouldn't solve the salary problem. I'd stick them in the bullpen except they'd be useful only as mop-up men. Oh well. At least both will be gone after this season. Would you believe this is the last year of Jimenez's contract? That snuck up on me.
Rotation total: Gausman, Tillman, Miley, Jimenez, and Gallardo for $47.92 million.
The aforementioned rotation means Dylan Bundy starts the year in the bullpen again. With Jimenez and Gallardo in the rotation though, Bundy should see plenty of action as a long reliever. By the end of the year, if the team is in contention, he may replace the latter entirely.
In addition to long relief, Bundy can spot start. Very few teams make it through the year needing only five starting pitchers. That's why Tyler Wilson is in the pen as well. He provides a similar, if less effective, option as Bundy. I chose Wilson over Mike Wright because Wilson walks fewer batters. Throwing 95 MPH isn't so great if you don't know where the ball's going.
O'Day, Givens, Brach, O'Day, and Britton return. I hope Givens works on his change-up this offseason so lefties don't smack him around the park so much. Donnie Hart also gets the call as a much-needed lefty.
I've heard some chatter about trading Britton. That would be a mistake. The Orioles are in urgent, red-light-flashing, sirens-blaring, win-right-the-hell-now mode. The starting rotation will not dominate the opposition and the offense is boom-or-bust. The team needs to be as sure as possible that any mid-to-late inning leads stay that way. Britton provides this assurance.
Trading Britton would also lead to ... what? Prospects? Those aren't valuable to the Orioles right now. They're all-in for the present. Another corner outfielder? $11 million doesn't buy what Britton gives you: total dominance in the highest-possible leverage situations in baseball.
No, it's best to keep Britton, scratch out a one- or two-run lead, and let the familiar Orioles bullpen put a sleeper hold on the opposition. You look at trading him towards the midpoint of the 2018 season if the Orioles aren't in a good spot then. Plenty of teams will need a rent-a-reliever. Just look at what Chicago gave up for Aroldis Chapman this year.
P.S. I non-tendered Vance Worley and T.J. McFarland.
Bullpen total: Bundy, Hart, Wilson, Givens, Brach, Britton, and O'Day for $24.63 million.
25-man total: $160.1 million.
This exercise was incredibly difficult, but the Orioles now have a reasonably competent 25-man roster that exceeds the budget by only $100,000. That seems good, although it could escalate if Bourn and/or Stubbs hit their incentives. By that time though payroll will be inflated anyway, assuming the team adds a bit of money to push for the playoffs. If Peter Angelos is going to fire me over 100 grand, well, I'm fine with that. I tried! Get Chris Davis to write you a check. He can afford it.
It's reasonable to think the team will contend again this year. In the dual Wild Card era, fielding a true-talent 81-81 team keeps you in contention to the final weeks of the season. Gain 5-6 wins in the standings with some well-timed hits with runners in scoring position (or well timed run prevention), and you vault into legitimate Wild Card contention.
These outcomes are entirely within reach for the 2017 Orioles.