2007 Payroll: $93.5 million
Key Free Agents:CF Corey Patterson, 1B Kevin Millar, SP Jaret Wright, SP Kris Benson
IF: SS Miguel Tejada (2 years/$26 million), 3B Melvin Mora (2 years/$17 million), C Ramon Hernandez (2 years/$16 million), 2B Brian Roberts (2 years/$14.3 million), 1B/3B/DH Aubrey Huff (2 years/$16 million)
OF: OF Jay Gibbons (2 years/$12 million)
After a decade of losing, Orioles fans have little reason to expect significant improvement over 2007's 69-win season. Baltimore received below-average production for six out of their nine lineup spots, which helps account for one of the league's weaker offenses. What's worse, many offensive contributors are being paid a premium while at an age where their production can be expected to decline. For instance, Miguel Tejada, Melvin Mora, Ramon Hernandez, Aubrey Huff, and Jay Gibbons are all on the wrong side of thirty and they are all making a ton of money over the next two years. Simply put, this is not the offensive core of a winning team and it can only get worse from here.
So what are the Orioles supposed to do?
To begin with, they can stop thinking short-term. Too often, the Orioles have approached the off-season with an agenda of spending X amount of dollars, with little regard for who they give that money to. It'd be different if the Orioles were anything close to an 85-win team and needed a few role players to push them over the top in the competitive AL East. Maybe that would justify the horrendous contracts given to Jay Payton, Danys Baez and others. Maybe. As it is, the Orioles entered last off-season as a few players away from a .500 record. Short of snagging Albert Pujols and Barry Bonds, there was little hope that they could topple the mighty Red Sox and Yankees of the AL East. When players of that quality proved unavailable, the Orioles lowered their standards. When second-tier free agents spurned Baltimore for more competitive markets, they lowered their standards again. And then they overpaid.
Now the Orioles are stuck with a handful of bad contracts and as many holes in their roster as ever. Jay Payton didn't solve the left field problem, he just absorbed $5 million that could have gone towards a real solution. Ditto for Jay Gibbons, Melvin Mora, Danys Baez and, yes, Ramon Hernandez. Unfortunately, the fans who have put up with a decade of mismanagement are still stuck with a team that is bad, expensive, and might even get worse. There's no quick fix. This team is far from a Jaret Wright away from contending.
Becoming competitive again is going to be a difficult process. Baltimore is going to have to become attractive to marquee free agents, but that's only going to happen if the Orioles can figure out a way to win again, which is tough when you can't sign top free agents. It's a depressing cycle. Luckily, the Orioles do have a few things going for them. The rotation has improved, as has their minor league pitching depth. Youngsters like Adam Loewen, Hayden Penn, Radhames Liz, Jim Hoey and Garrett Olson might be able to contribute as soon as next season. A few of them might even become stars. By the time they do, however, players like Erik Bedard, Miguel Tejada, and Brian Roberts will have reached free agency. The key for this franchise will be to build an offensive core that peaks at the same time as their promising pitching depth.
The Orioles are not going to make the playoffs in 2008. They are not going to in 2009 or, likely, 2010, either. The sooner they start building for 2011, the more likely it becomes a realistic goal. If they feel the urge to splurge on a big free agent reliever, they have to stop themselves. Spend that money on next year's draft, or just pocket it for the 2010-2011 free agency period. Then the Orioles have to clear some payroll. Hand the third base job to Scott Moore and try like hell to convince Melvin Mora to waive his no-trade clause. Maybe he'd be willing to go up I-95 an hour to Philadelphia, where third base is a perennial problem. Miguel Tejada has to go, as well. They missed the boat on getting maximum value for him, but the Orioles can still net a pair of top position prospects for him. The O's don't need to get their shortstop of the future in return, they just need quality players. If they can find someone willing to absorb the Jamie Walker or Chad Bradford contracts, they should be moved for whatever the O's can get for them. Even Brian Roberts and Erik Bedard should be moved this off-season. Both are under club control for another two years but, let's face it, they aren't sticking around after 2009, and their value will never be higher.
This all might seem a bit extreme, but the Orioles have to be aggressive this off-season. They have a unique opportunity to shed $30 million in payroll, build up some organizational depth and put the team in a position to build towards the future. Then they can take that money and invest it in scouting, signing some Latin American players, or just lowering ticket prices. The bottom line is that there is no way this is a team that can succeed in 2008. The pitching is moving in the right direction, but the offense is not.
No one is going to care whether the Orioles are a 65-win team or a 72-win team. The sooner they commit to building a young offensive core, at any cost, the sooner the Orioles can make off-season decisions that will impact whether or not they are a playoff team.
Michael Hollman is the Senior Writer for Inside The Warehouse and can be reached via email at Publisher@InsideTheWarehouse.com