In my last post, I took a look at where the Orioles really stand so far this season and why there might be cause for optimism. But even the most optimistic view (third order wins) sees the team topping out at somewhere around 87 or 88 wins. Any Orioles fan would be happy if the team managed to win that many games this season, but it's not enough to make the playoffs. Indeed an AL East team would have needed to win at least 95 games in each of the past six seasons to make the playoffs. Not since the Yankees won the division at 87-74 in 2000 would fewer wins have done the trick.
So clearly with improvement necessary, we must evaluate what the team has for next season, and at what prices. Following is a look at all players under the team's control for the 2008 season.
SS Miguel Tejada ($13M)
3B Melvin Mora (~$8.6M)
1B/DH Aubrey Huff ($8M)
C Ramon Hernandez ($7.5M)
2B Brian Roberts ($6.3M)
LF/DH Jay Gibbons ($5.7M)
LF/CF Jay Payton ($5M)
RP Danys Baez ($4.5M)
RP Jamie Walker ($4.5M)
RP Chad Bradford ($3.5M)
SP Kris Benson ($7.5M Club, $0.5M buyout)
SP Steve Trachsel ($4.75M Club, $0.1M buyout)
1B/DH Kevin Millar ($2.75M Vesting)
Subtotal: $3.35M (estimated)
SP Erik Bedard ($5.5M, estimated)
SP Daniel Cabrera ($2.5M, estimated)
RP Chris Ray ($1M, estimated, assuming Super 2 status)
SP Adam Loewen (~$400k)
SP Jeremy Guthrie (~$400k)
RF Nick Markakis (~400k)
That's not exactly a pretty picture. The team has 17 players under contract next season - 4 starters, 4 relievers, and 9 position players - for a total of $81.15. They will also add some mix of Brian Burres, Garrett Olson, JR House, Jon Knott, James Hoey, Corey Doyne, and Nolan Reimold to the 25 man roster after camp breaks next year. None of those players are assured of a spot at this point, but all are somewhat attractive options, partly because none of those players will be eligible to arbitration for several seasons.
But the problem with the current roster construction should already be quite apparent at this point. The team has locked up an offensive core that is not close to being productive enough for the team to contend.
A modest upgrade could be expected if the team does a better job of roster management. Taking at-bats from Paul Bako, Brandon Fahey, Luis Hernandez, Alberto Castillo and other offensive dregs and assigning them to Jon Knott, JR House, or even Nolan Reimold could provide a small but cheap boon to the offense.
Modest bounce back seasons might be within reach for Ramon Hernandez, Miguel Tejada, and Aubrey Huff, but those could easily be offset from declines by Melvin Mora, Kevin Millar, and Jay Payton, all of whom will be 35 or older next season.
With this seasons' opening day payroll at $89.5M, there will be little room for meaningful free agent upgrades unless Peter Angelos decides to reach deeper in his pockets. Call me an optimist, but given the sizable increase in payroll this season, that just might happen. But unless the upgrade in payroll is substantial, the team will be far out of the running for any top-dollar free-agents. One can argue the merits of going after high dollar free agents - and I'd tend to agree - but the alternative of continuing to sign mediocre vets on the decline isn't particularly attractive.
The path seems clear enough. Andy MacPhail must work on a plan where some of the seven-figure veterans are traded and replaced with cheaper solutions, or more expensive, but smarter solutions. Yet that's easier said than done. Of the players locked up to long-term deals, Payton, Huff, Gibbons, Mora, and Baez are all unmovable because their contracts are paired with mediocre (or worse) performance.
Walker and Bradford have performed well, and might be able to be traded for small returns. And given the volatility of relievers and their small workloads, the Orioles would be wise to work hard to find a team that will accept their contracts at the upcoming trade deadline where relievers are likely to be at more of a premium than in the offseason.
More likely the team needs to trade Tejada, freeing up a substantial amount of payroll while likely still getting a useful part or two back. As painful as it might be, a trade of Brian Roberts has to be on the table if the team can get multiple high quality young players.
Andy MacPhail walks into a tough situation. While some solutions seem obvious to me (adding Knott and House, trading Tejada), there is no quick fix. MacPhail can only right the ship by crafting a detailed plan and adhering to it. A plan which, most importantly, stops the over reliance on mediocre veterans whose most attractive quality is the familiarity of their name.