To Win A World Series, The Orioles Are Going To Have To Spend
By all appearances, the Orioles are in a good place.
The Orioles won 83 games last season, propelled by a young core that includes budding star Adley Rutschman. They have the No. 1 farm system in baseball, led by the No. 1 overall prospect Gunnar Henderson. All but one player in their projected starting lineup is 28 or younger. So is three-fifths of their projected rotation and their top three relievers.
After a half-decade of misery, there is finally light at the end of the tunnel. If recent history is any indication, the Orioles will return to the postseason within the next two years by virtue of having the game's top farm system.
But for all that promise, the Orioles are going to have to spend for their rebuild to result in a World Series title.
Since 1992, 27 of the last 30 World Series winners had an Opening Day payroll that ranked in the top half of MLB, according to figures compiled by the Associated Press and Cot’s Baseball Contracts. All but one team ranked in the top two-thirds in Opening Day payroll. Only the 2003 Marlins (25th) have won a World Series while ranking in the bottom third of Opening Day payroll in that time.
Spending money is not a guarantee a team will win a World Series, of course. At the same time, for the last 30 years, teams have almost always had to cross a certain payroll threshold to be actual World Series contenders.
That presents a predicament for the Orioles. The team projects to enter the 2023 season with a $64.9 million payroll, according to Cot’s Baseball Contracts, second-lowest in MLB. While having a low payroll certainly is hardly unusual for a rebuilding team, Orioles chairman and CEO John Angelos made clear expectations for future Orioles payrolls should be modest. He cited the Rays, Brewers and Guardians—three bottom-half payroll franchises—as examples the team could follow.
“We're probably not going to have, nor is any other middle or small market team, the payroll of the Mets or the Dodgers or even the Red Sox or certainly the Yankees,” Angelos said at the start of spring training. “But that's not an Oriole thing. That's a small and middle market team (thing) in this economic system.”
“You've got examples like Tampa, you've got examples like Cleveland, you've got examples like Milwaukee, and they're all different payroll levels.”
The Brewers and Rays, while admirably competitive in recent years, have not won a World Series in 79 combined years of existence. Cleveland, for all of its recent success, has not won a World Series since 1948, the longest active drought in baseball.
For the Orioles to win the franchise’s first World Series since 1983, they’re likely going to have to aim higher.
The team that ranks 15th in the majors—the demarcation line for the top half—is the Cardinals, who have a projected $174.2 million Opening Day payroll this season, according to Cot’s. That’s more than two-and-half times the Orioles’ projected payroll, and a difference of nearly $110 million.
In fairness, Angelos later clarified that he expects the Orioles payroll to increase. By how much, and when, remains unclear.
“I don't expect payroll to model any particular team,” Angelos said. “I was giving … a range of small- and middle-market teams. So could payroll be double or triple what it is? Or could it be over $100 million? Yeah.
“We're not there yet. We have a very young team that's overachieved and overperformed because of the great work of our baseball folks. It's not my job to predict payroll.”
There is recent precedent for the Orioles to rank in the top half of MLB in payroll. The Orioles ranked in the top half in payroll in six of the seven seasons between 2012-18, during which they made three playoff appearances and won their only division title in the last 25 years.
While the Orioles haven’t spent much on the major league roster since general manager Mike Elias took over after the 2018 season, they have spent in other areas.
After years of neglecting the international market, the Orioles have spent the maximum allowed on international amateurs each of the last four signing periods. They have awarded more than $59 million in signing bonuses in the draft and made substantial technology and infrastructure investments in player development, including building a new, 22.5-acre complex in the Dominican Republic. Those “foundational dollars,” as Angelos called them, have laid the groundwork for the Orioles to have the No. 1 farm system for the first time in franchise history and given the franchise a collection of potential standout, homegrown players such as Rutschman, Henderson, righthander Grayson Rodriguez and 2022 No. 1 overall pick Jackson Holliday.
Still, the Orioles have only ever awarded one contract of more than $100 million—the ill-fated seven-year, $161 million deal they gave Chris Davis before the 2016 season. Rather than try to build off their 83-win season, the Orioles signed only righthander Kyle Gibson, second baseman Adam Frazier and reliever Mychal Givens to one-year deals for a combined $23 million in free agency.
Many of the Orioles best prospects are on the cusp of the big leagues, and holding off on signing major free agents or making splashy trades until they are established may be the right move for the franchise.
But if the last three decades are any indication, when the time to compete comes, the Orioles are going to have to increase their payroll by $110 million, and potentially more, to climb into the top half of MLB and become a true World Series contender.
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WORLD SERIES CHAMPION PAYROLLS
Opening Day Payroll
No World Series
Sources: Associated Press, Cot’s Baseball Contracts