Oriole fans watching the American League Championship Series might not have a strong choice in deciding who to root for.
In the National League Championship Series, former Orioles Nick Markakis and Darren O’Day are playing for the Atlanta Braves. Catonsville’s Adam Kolarek pitches for the Los Angeles Dodgers.
There’s not a former Oriole on either the Houston Astros or Tampa Bay Rays. Oliver Drake, who pitched 30 games for the Orioles from 2015-2017, was taken off Tampa Bay’s roster during the Division Series after he suffered a right flexor tendon strain and was designated for assignment on Sunday.
Orioles executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias was hired away from Houston in November 2018 but shies away from comparing the Astros’ rebuilding situation to that of the Orioles, and not just because he doesn’t want to bring up the electronic sign-stealing scandal that cost general manager Jeff Luhnow and manager A.J. Hinch their jobs.
Although Elias drafted two vital pieces of the Astros, shortstop Carlos Correa with the overall No. 1 pick in 2012 and third baseman Alex Bregman with the second pick in 2015, the economics of the two teams are different.
Houston is the eighth-largest television market in the United States; Baltimore is 26th. Of major league teams, only San Diego (29), Kansas City (32), Milwaukee (35) and Cincinnati (37) are smaller.
When the Astros were in contention in late August 2017, they didn’t hesitate to pick up the remaining two years of Justin Verlander’s contract, although the Detroit Tigers paid $8 million of his $28 million salary.
Houston negotiated a two-year, $66 million extension for 2020 and 2021 for Verlander, whose Tommy John surgery won’t allow him to pitch next season.
Last July, the Astros moved decisively to pick up the last 2 1/3 years of Zack Greinke’s $206.5 million deal. (Greinke’s former team, the Arizona Diamonbacks, is paying just under $26 million of his remaining salary.)
They also awarded a seven-year, $163.5 million extension to second baseman José Altuve, and a five-year, $100 million contract to Bregman. Both contracts run through 2024.
The Orioles aren’t going to be in that kind of financial position any time soon.
But, as Elias has pointed, they can look to the Rays, Indians and A’s, all playoff teams in 2020, for comparisons.
Those teams, as he has described, are “transactional.” They make calculated and smart trades.
Tampa Bay is the best example because, like the Orioles, they have to play in the American League East where the other three teams — the Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees and Toronto Blue Jays — have much more money to spend.
The Rays’ opening day payroll was $23.773,481, 28th in baseball, barely ahead of the Orioles’ $23,770,983 according to the Associated Press.
The Orioles have two large contracts that are winding down — Chris Davis’ seven-year, $161 million deal has two years left, and Alex Cobb’s four-year, $57 million has another year to go.
They don’t have any other large contract on the books.
Tampa Bay has given out moderate-sized extensions. Pitcher Blake Snell has a five-year, $50 million contract that extends through 2023, and centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier has a six-year, $53 million deal through 2022 with a team option for 2023.
Second baseman Brandon Lowe, who was a rookie in 2019, accepted a six-year, $24 million extension that continues through 2024 with team options for two more years.
Kiermaier, Lowe and Snell are the three most prominent Rays’ draft choices on the team.
Tampa Bay has freely traded, and pulled off an excellent deal with the Pittsburgh Pirates in July 2018 when they snapped up pitcher Tyler Glasnow and outfielder Austin Meadows for underachieving starter Chris Archer.
Glasnow will be arbitration-eligible for the first time this winter, and Meadows won’t enter the arbitration process for another year.
Other key Rays pieces — Willy Adames, Nick Anderson, Randy Arozarena, Ji-Man Choi, Yandy Diaz, Pete Fairbanks, Manuel Margot, Hunter Renfroe, Joey Wendle and Ryan Yarbrough — were also acquired in trades.
Mike Brosseau, who has terrorized the Orioles in his first two seasons in the major leagues, was signed as an undrafted free agent from Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan, a school that’s produced only one other major leaguer.
Tampa Bay generally signs only modestly priced free agents but made an exception two winters ago when they signed dependable right-hander Charlie Morton, who left the Astros. Morton, who will be 37 next month, signed a two-year, $30 million contract for 2019 and 2020 with a vesting option for 2021.
They also signed Japanese outfielder Yoshi Tsutsugo for two years and $12 million last winter.
Elias knows the Orioles aren’t close to competing with Tampa Bay. The organization is still short on depth and his trades were moving pieces nearing later years of arbitration or free agency — Richard Bleier, Dylan Bundy, Andrew Cashner, Miguel Castro, Mychal Givens, Tommy Milone and Jonathan Villar.
For these veterans, the Orioles have received a mixture of teenaged players from the Dominican Summer League, and minor league prospects. (The players from the trade of Milone to Atlanta have yet to be identified.)
Only first baseman Tyler Nevin, acquired with infielder Terrin Vavra from Colorado for Givens, and right-handed pitcher Isaac Mattson, one of four pitchers in the Bundy deal with the Los Angeles Angels, are considered possible contributors to the Orioles for 2021.
It’s clear that Elias is methodically accumulating his “elite talent base” so that at some point in the near future, he can use some of these players to deal for what the Orioles need.
The Orioles have a huge advantage that Tampa Bay doesn’t have. The Rays’ stadium, Tropicana Field, is one of the worst in the major leagues. The Orioles have Camden Yards.
Tampa Bay has tried to solve its stadium situation for years and still doesn’t appear close to a solution.
The Rays, who had the best record in the American League this season, 40-20, are in the American League Championship Series for only the second time but seem to have the pieces to continue their run for several years.
Tampa Bay also has a first-time manager, Kevin Cash, who has grown in his job since taking over for Joe Maddon in 2015. Cash has been extended through 2024 with an option for 2025.
Brandon Hyde, who grew in his job this season, can only hope that Elias can acquire the type of talent the Rays have in the next few years.
If Tampa Bay can put together a first-rate club with all its inherent disadvantages, there’s no reason the Orioles can’t.