Let's start with the basics. The current salary commitments for the 2017 Orioles stand at $95.9 million, according to BP's compensation data; along with the $50.1 million in arbitration projections from MLB Trade Rumors, that brings the probable payroll to $146 million at a minimum, plus an additional $5 million or so for the minimum-salary guys (Mychal Givens, Joey Rickard, and the like). With a cap at $160 million for 2017 — a modest increase from 2016's payroll of $147.7 million — that gives us $9 million to play around with. Can we make this club a contender? Let's find out!
The Orioles, as you probably know, have three free agents of note: Mark Trumbo, Matt Wieters, and Pedro Alvarez. The latter two clearly don't warrant a QO — Wieters accepted his last offseason before declining in 2016, while Alvarez remains a one-dimensional player whose one dimension (hitting righties) isn't all that noteworthy. Each of them will sign elsewhere for less than the $17.2 million a QO would net them.
Trumbo, by contrast, presents a dilemma. Had he become a free agent at the All-Star Break, we'd obviously stick a QO on him — the first-half version of Trumbo earned 2.1 fWAR and was on his way to a breakout year. But then the second half happened, and Trumbo ended the campaign with just 2.2 fWAR to his name. Assuming his true talent lies somewhere between his first-half wRC+ of 143 and his second-half wRC+ of 98, we'll tender him a QO, in the hopes that he'll get greedy and try his fortunes elsewhere. If he takes it, that pretty much seals our fate for 2017; to have any shot at contending beyond next year, though, we need draft picks, which means we need declined QOs.
Non-tenders and trades
Let's dive into that $50.1 million in projected arbitration contracts. Can we shave that down at all? For starters, letting Vance Worley, Ryan Flaherty, and T.J. McFarland walk would cut $5.7 million off. Worley bluffed his way to a 3.53 ERA in 86.2 innings; underneath that, he had some of the most underwhelming peripherals in the majors. Flaherty and McFarland don't add much beyond competence at shortstop and a questionable ability to retire lefties, respectively. These guys wouldn't do much for the 2017 squad as members of it; with them gone, we up our budget to $14.7 million.
And although our benevolent overlord Jon doesn't permit it in this scenario, we should try — for the second straight year — to trade Zach Britton and his $11.4 million projected salary. As phenomenal as he pitched in 2016, that probably represents his ceiling, which means he'll never have more value than right now. In Brad Brach, they already have a dominant reliever they can make their closer, while Mychal Givens and Darren O'Day should be able to hold down the middle innings. And plenty of teams, such as the Rangers and Giants, will (a) want to contend in 2017, (b) need an upgrade to their bullpen to contend, and (c) thus be willing to pay a pretty penny for a lights-out closer. Getting a swingman, a bench bat, and a few prospects in return for two years of Britton would save the O's a lot of money, which they could re-invest in an area of greater need.
Here, the Orioles are pretty much set — in terms of starters, at least. Chris Davis, Jonathan Schoop, J.J. Hardy, and Manny Machado combine to form one of the best infields in baseball, and all will return for 2017. But what about depth? Without Flaherty returning, who will step up if a member of that foursome hits the DL.
While the best option would probably be re-signing Steve Pearce, he'll likely demand a multi-year deal that Baltimore can't afford. Instead, I have a less sexy yet still satisfying alternative: Erick Aybar. Jon expects Aybar to receive a two-year, $21 million contract, but I can't imagine his market will be that sunny after a -1.2-fWAR 2016. I think he'll come to the Orioles for one year and $6 million, hoping to rebuild his career and cash in next offseason.
If Aybar flopped in 2016, why would the Orioles want him? Well, he probably won't get any worse than that. His strikeout rate spiked to a full-season career high last year, and if that regresses toward his career norm, he'll improve upon his ghastly 65 wRC+. Although he's never hit for power or taken walks, with a clean bill of health, he has reasonable speed and thus a good BABIP. Combine that with his ability to play any infield position, and he's the best free-agent fit for the O's.
Nor will Aybar occupy the bench alone. The Orioles have a pair of Quad-A players who could contribute in limited 2017 roles: Trey Mancini and Christian Walker. Each can play first base, and both should succeed against lefties, at the very least. Hopefully for the team, none of these three will see significant playing time; if they do, however, it won't doom the club.
And with regards to catchers: Despite his horrendous 2016 showing, I still believe in Caleb Joseph. Why? He doesn't need to hit very well to earn his keep, because he consistently ranks as one of the best pitch framers in baseball. Over 2014 and 2015, he posted a wRC+ of 80 in 630 plate appearances, yet thanks to his receiving ability, he earned 4.0 WARP in that span. A Joseph-Francisco Pena tandem won't win any awards, but a rebound from the former will give the Orioles a dependable defensive backstop.
Where the infield has certainty, the outfield has uncertainty, and a lot of it. While Hyun Soo Kim and Adam Jones are under contract for 2017, the former might need to stay in a platoon, and the latter struggled with injuries and slumps this year. Even if we count on both of them to start for the entire year — which this cash-strapped club will have to do — what do we do about the yawning chasm in right field?
The answer: Ink Carlos Gomez. Jon's model predicts a frigid market for the former Ranger, pinning his value at two years and $25 million. For a player who excelled with his new employer and can play quasi-average defense at any outfield spot, he's a decent gamble. If he continues to hit the ball hard and wields an above-average stick, then he becomes a two- to three-win outfielder again, pairing nicely with Jones in center and Kim in left.
For the outfield bench, we'll rely on Joey Rickard to fill in (and possibly platoon with Kim if needed). Nolan Reimold doesn't have much left in the tank, so we'll replace him with Walker, who could man a corner in a real pinch. As with the infield, we'll pray for a clean bill of health with the outfield; although this group has a lot less certainty, the presence of Gomez should shore things up a bit.
With Aybar and Gomez, the Orioles have filled out their roster for 2016. What does that mean for the pitchers? Even if the position players hit enough to keep the team in games, will the hurlers just give the lead away? We'll hope that the O's can trot out an average staff, which isn't out of the question — after all, they ranked 14th in fWAR and 11th in RA9-WAR this year. Simply maintaining that would put them on the right track.
For the rotation, we'll lean on the following five men, in order: Kevin Gausman, Chris Tillman, Ubaldo Jimenez, Wade Miley, and Dylan Bundy. This set of hurlers could pay off, so long as Gausman continues to strand runners, Tillman stays healthy, Jimenez maintains whatever black magic carried him through September, Miley stops underperforming his peripherals, and Bundy doesn't blow his arm out again and/or tire. That's a whole lot of hypotheticals — but as mentioned earlier, this team doesn't have many guarantees for 2017. The rotation, while unimpressive, doesn't have any pressing needs like the outfield and bench do. Should all this break right, the O's could even have an average group of starters.
And the bullpen should be anything but average. Even if Britton does depart, the core of Brach, Givens, and O'Day will blow past opposing hitters. Donnie Hart showed an ability to retire lefties and slot in as the LOOGY of the group, and Oliver Drake's splitter gives him some intriguing upside. Meanwhile, Yovani Gallardo, Mike Wright, and/or Tyler Wilson can serve as the fireman/spot starter when needed, although none of them deserves a regular place in the rotation. All together, the pitching staff should at least not be a liability for the 2017 Orioles — and, possibly, it could develop into an asset again.
Over the past five years, among AL teams, the Orioles rank: