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The Orioles, still in a rebuild, think they can win without spending

The Baltimore Orioles are off to another tough start in 2022. (John G. Mabanglo/Shutterstock) (John G Mabanglo/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)
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The Baltimore Orioles began the 2022 season with the lowest payroll in the majors. They finished the 2021 season with the lowest payroll in the majors, too. If Max Scherzer wanted to sponsor a Major League Baseball roster with his 2022 salaries from the Mets and Nationals, he could sponsor theirs, no GoFundMe required.

Their team is a perfect embodiment of the approach to roster construction (“tanking,” basically) that players so desperately hoped to deter in a new collective bargaining agreement. They spent less than $10 million combined on free agents this winter. Their highest paid player is owed $7.5 million this year, and they probably will trade him because of it.

Anyone with a vested interest in Baltimore baseball would like to see the Angelos family spend more on their Orioles than the roughly $45 million Spotrac documents they have committed to their roster this season.

But that is not going to happen. Even if the Angelos family could spend the Orioles into contention, a splurge is not in their plans. So as he has since he was hired before the 2019 season, executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias is in his fourth year of trying to build a franchise that can succeed long term without one.

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“I think the way the Orioles attacked things prior to 2019 and before the Washington Nationals moved in, it was possible to be a huge-spending, free agent-oriented team,” Elias said, eyes glued to some up-and-comers playing catch in the Camden Yards outfield last week.

In those days, he said, the Orioles could skimp on international investments or even player development and make up for it with a big signing here and there. But with the Nationals nearby, a small market and “a division with three other beasts and arguably the best-run franchise in the sport for the last 14 years,” he said, “we are going to need to have an internal pipeline that is thriving at all times.”

None of this rhetoric is new to Orioles fans, who have watched a hapless product on the field for half a decade now, who heard about the ways in which the pandemic set back the rebuild because it slowed player development, who, frankly, would rather everyone stop explaining that they just need to be patient because the future is brighter than the present. Perhaps the question everyone should be asking is this: What choice do they have?

For some years now, many in the industry wondered whether the Orioles’ salvation would come in the form of new ownership, whether a deus ex machina might suddenly spend them back into relevance. And the Orioles’ position grew more interesting this month when the Lerner family decided it will consider selling the Washington Nationals. For years, the Orioles seemed like the Beltway team most likely to hit the market.

Orioles spokeswoman Jennifer Grondahl declined to comment on the potential sale of the Nationals and any implications for the Orioles. She made clear that despite years of rumors about the Angelos family preparing to sell — rumors spurred by the relative gutting of the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network — it has given no public indications a sale is imminent.

Grondahl assured The Washington Post that as of now the leadership structure implemented around Elias remains firmly in place. The Orioles expect the baseball team to ascend — and soon.

But the Orioles have not had a winning season since 2016, and their 4-9 start has offered little indication they will log one in 2022. In the last full season before the coronavirus pandemic, they drew the third-fewest fans in baseball; only the Tampa Bay Rays and Miami Marlins drew fewer. Team officials used to joke about avoiding layovers in Nashville, a long-rumored MLB expansion target, for fear someone would think they were headed that way for more calculated reasons than a Southwest connection.

Yet team officials were in attendance when Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) signed a bill this month that would allow the Maryland Stadium Authority to borrow up to $1.2 billion in funds, some of which can be allocated to renovate Camden Yards to show the state’s commitment to keeping the team in Baltimore.

The quality of Camden Yards has never been a question for the franchise. The quality of the baseball team has. Elias can’t control the money. So he is trying to fix everything else.

When he took over in November 2018, he inherited a franchise that needed gutting. Baseball America ranked Baltimore’s farm system the 20th best in the big leagues. The New York Yankees and Toronto Blue Jays, both in-division spenders with much larger payrolls, ranked higher. The Tampa Bay Rays, who somehow compete with them despite having one of the five lowest payrolls in baseball year after year, were second. Where did that leave the Orioles, who couldn’t make up their prospect deficits with spending?

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“We are approaching the task of resuscitating and revitalizing this franchise and repositioning it for long-term health in a way that’s never been done and in the only way that’s realistic and feasible for us,” Elias said.

His staff had to rebuild the franchise’s international infrastructure, introduce analytics into an under-resourced farm system and restock it with talent. The Rays contend without spending. The Orioles would have to build a system that could do the same.

And they have, at least on paper: Baseball America ranked their farm system the fourth best in the majors. MLB Pipeline ranks it No. 1. In Norfolk, Bowie and Aberdeen, the bricks of success have been laid.

A few bricks seem to be sticking at Camden Yards, too. Elias said that while the Orioles had some young players break out last year — Ryan Mountcastle, for example, turned in a .796 on-base-plus-slugging percentage at age 24 and Cedric Mullins was an all-star — he thinks they need to see more such breakouts sooner than later. He is counting on “four to six guys” from the team’s top 10 prospect list to debut this year. He has challenged his young major league starters to do better, warning they soon will be pushed by the young starters hurtling through the minors.

“We know this is going to be a long year for us probably,” Elias said. “But the individual players and their success are at the forefront of their minds.”

Elias and his staff also tried to remold Camden Yards for the team’s benefit. If he couldn’t spend on dominant pitching, he could make Baltimore an easier place to pitch. He and his team used data to push for moving back the wall in left field, something the team did before this season.

That move may have been the biggest of the Orioles’ offseason, which included the free agent signings of starter Jordan Lyles, infielder Rougned Odor and catcher Robinson Chirinos, who will make a little more than $7 million combined in 2022. The Orioles have spent less and less on veteran placeholders in recent years, and Elias knows that approach undermines any suggestion that his team is trying to put the best possible product on the field.

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“It’s hard. We feel thin sometimes,” he said. “But we feel it’s better to err on the side of seeing the young players than blocking them.”

There is no one blocking the young Orioles now. And there is no one coming to save them, either. In fact, the assumption around baseball has long been that the team will trade 30-year-old slugger Trey Mancini to save money, clear more major league at-bats for young players and gain more talent in return. Maybe the Angelos family could spend more money. Given that the state is committing hundreds of millions of dollars to their stadium there, you could argue they should.

But Elias was never counting on much payroll patronage. That was never the deal. Tanking or not, like it or not, the Orioles’ baseball renovations were never going to include megadeals and superstars developed elsewhere.

Winning in Baltimore, he says, means molding the franchise to the cramped and sometimes frustrating space allotted to it — a beautiful ballpark with a stingy owner in a division packed with free spenders. It means creating more favorable circumstances any way possible. It means loading up a farm system with talent, building a system that can develop it and replenishing it annually. And it means trusting that talent will translate to contention, sooner or later, whether money comes with it or not.