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No matter who wins Thursday night’s much-anticipated deciding National League Division Series game between the Los Angeles Dodgers and the San Francisco Giants, the final four teams in this year’s Major League Baseball playoffs will be an imposing bunch.
Each team remaining — and really each team that made the playoffs — has aspects the Orioles are looking to emulate.
The Dodgers and Atlanta Braves have each had top-ranked farm systems in the past few years. The Houston Astros are in their fifth straight American League championship series with a homegrown group of stud hitters taken early in the draft. The Giants have been fueled by progressive coaching and shrewd roster building at the margins. (Hello, Mike Yastrzemski). And the Boston Red Sox have a pair clutch-hitting, heart-of-the-order stalwarts in their lineup that they signed as international amateurs in shortstop Xander Bogaerts and third baseman Rafael Devers.
They’re all worthy ways to go about winning, and the Orioles should be commended for their efforts to get a foothold and join the conversation on each of those fronts in the past three years. The separator, even when all the Orioles start producing talent at the major league level, is that they also all spend money.
Only the Milwaukee Brewers and the Tampa Bay Rays — two teams whose seasons are now over — made the playoffs with a payroll in the bottom half of the league. According to Spotrac, the Braves’ $147.5 million payroll is lowest of the teams remaining. The Astros and the Red Sox will meet in the ALCS with payrolls of $194.5 million and $184.5 million, respectively, while the Dodgers ($267.2 million) and the Giants ($163.9) will round out the big-spending group of league finalists.
All those teams have the impetus to spend money, considering their cores are built to win now and it’s hard to consider costs when the reward is a championship. The Orioles lived the flip side of that from 2014 to 2018, when they had payrolls over $100 million and topped out over $167 million in 2017, according to Cots Contracts. They poured every resource the club had — perhaps to the long-term detriment of the operation — into winning, and came up short.
This isn’t to say they should add $100 million to this year’s Opening Day payroll of $57 million and use money to win. No good would come of that, and similar spending sprees in league history have gone poorly. But the teams they’re going to have to beat to achieve their goals have rosters that cost that much for a reason: talent can be expensive.
It’s inexpensive early in players’ careers, at least under the current collective bargaining agreement, and cultivating young talent the way the Orioles have is certainly geared toward taking advantage of that.
But that only takes a team so far, and the teams trying to win by churning their roster and staying young while building around their homegrown talents have mixed results. The Oakland Athletics invented that game and haven’t won a playoff series since 2006. The Rays and Brewers are trying now, and while Tampa Bay got to the World Series last year, the ultimate prize has eluded them.
Spending at the levels of their main rivals wouldn’t necessarily change that, but the next step in developing all that talent is paying to keep it together and win with it. When the small-market Kansas City Royals won the World Series in 2015, they had the 12th-highest payroll in the game, and a pitching staff full of veterans.
When the Astros, who built the way the Orioles want to emulate, won in 2017, they traded for Justin Verlander that summer to bring their payroll to $124 million. They’ve mostly kept their talented core together and added as the years went on.
Where the Orioles are concerned, they won’t have to answer the questions as to whether they’ll do the same for a while. Executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias said last month that the Orioles have “full financial support for executing our strategy of getting this team back to the playoffs in a realistic, viable, sustainable way,” and their strategy hasn’t been and probably won’t be an expensive major league team any time soon.
Once one arrives through the work of their farm system, though, the work won’t be done. The current state of their pitching depth means even when they’re ready for the playoffs, they might have to trade for a top starter to get there. But if they don’t want to take on risky free agents, they can spend on their own players and prevent a competitive window closing.
Absent that outlay when the time comes, they’ll be making a difficult task of getting through the AL East and then winning in October even more so.
Every team they’ll be competing with will be doing the same things to gain an advantage — using data and technology to scout and develop players as well as possible. Some will spend on their major league rosters to supplement what they reap from that and end up playing deep into October because of it.
That strategy coincided with the best years of Orioles baseball in a generation. It just might not be part of the next one.