Orioles fans have been through a lot in 2018. They were only the third team in American League history to lose at least 115 games in a season. Manny Machado, Zach Britton, Kevin Gausman and Jonathan Schoop were all traded away. They drew fewer than 1.6 million fans in a full home schedule for the first time since 1978. Hope isn’t exactly on the horizon, either: Last week Bovada gave them MLB’s longest odds to win the 2019 World Series, at 350:1.

The Orioles are currently in the process of seeking new leadership, as GM Dan Duquette and manager Buck Showalter were not invited back for 2019. That new regime will likely be asked to oversee a long rebuild, as an organization that has been gutted to the studs starts the slow process of building a core to compete with the Yankees and Red Sox. It’s a daunting task.

The rebuild formula established across baseball is clear: Tear down, collect high draft picks while waiting for your prospects to develop, and hope to catch lightning in a bottle when your “window” opens again in a few years. What if, however, one could completely skip those steps just by writing a big enough check? How much would it cost to turn the Orioles from bottom feeder to contender this winter, using exclusively free agents?

I see it happening something like this:

NEW ORIOLES GM calls PETER ANGELOS on his first day on the job.

NEW GM: Hey, what would you think about adding some guys via free agency this winter?
ANGELOS: Sure, go for it.
NEW GM: Go for it…via free agency?

ANGELOS has already hung up. NEW GM starts feverishly working the phones.

 

The Starting Point

Step one in the process is figuring out what the Orioles have now. First, here are their four guaranteed contracts for 2019:

That’s $57.5 million committed for 2019 in…less than inspirational fashion. The 2019 Steamer projections are out and show those four guys combining for 2.2 wins above replacement, with Cobb accounting for more than half of it. This also means two rotation spots and much of the playing time at first base/DH is spoken for.

On to better investments: The Orioles have eleven pre-arbitration players on their 40-man roster that Steamer projects to be noticeably above replacement level for 2019. The notables in that group are infielder/outfielder Renato Nunez (1.9 WAR), center fielder Cedric Mullins (1.7 WAR), 1B/OF Trey Mancini (.9 WAR) and a trio of catchers (Chance Sisco, Andrew Susac and Austin Wynns) worth a combined 1.4 WAR. We’ll estimate this group’s projected value at 6.6 WAR. That brings us up to 8.8 WAR and about $62.5 million in payroll.

Now it’s time to start making arbitration decisions. MLB Trade Rumors lists the Orioles with five candidates, which we’ll list here alongside their projected salaries and Steamer WAR totals:

All three of the catchers above project for more value than Joseph, and keeping all three would cost less than retaining him. So let’s non-tender him and keep everyone else, tacking on $13.7 million and 4.3 WAR to bring us to totals of $76.2 million and 13.1 WAR, respectively.

 

Let’s Go Shopping

FanGraphs’ current projections show the fifth-best American League team (the Angels) at 38.3 WAR. Their projections (and presumably other AL teams) will improve as teams begin to make trades and sign free agents, however. A reasonable goal for this exercise might be 45 WAR, with a goal to make a run at the second Wild Card spot. That means we need to find around 32 wins in free agency. This is going to get expensive. All players listed are accompanied by their 2019 Steamer WAR projection and their MLB Trade Rumors contract prediction:

  • Bryce Harper, 4.9 wins, 14 years, $420 million
  • Manny Machado, 5 wins, 13 years, $390 million

There’s virtually no way to make this exercise work without sweeping the two biggest names off the free agent market. Harper and Machado (he’s back!) immediately give the new-look Orioles some impressive lineup presence, but come at a combined projected cost of over $800 million in guaranteed money. This had better draw some fans, because their 2019 salaries alone will be around $60 million. These expenditures put Baltimore’s Opening Day payroll commitment at $136.2 million, which is somehow still less than where they were on Opening Day 2018.

We’ll let Dylan Bundy, Alex Cobb and Andrew Cashner duke it out for the final two rotation spots behind these three signings, who combine for 10.3 wins and add $53.5 million to the 2018 payroll. The Orioles’ largest Opening Day payroll in franchise history was $164 million in 2017, and we’ve now blown past it at $189.7 million. 12 wins to go.

Steamer really likes Donaldson as a candidate to bounce back from an injury-plagued down year in 2018, when he was worth just 1.3 wins after averaging around 6.8 in each of the prior four seasons. He could be a bargain as a reclamation project, at least as compared to this winter’s other expenditures.

With the rotation full, the infield full from third to second (and an attempt planned to get something out of Mark Trumbo/Chris Davis at first and DH) and Harper filling up the outfield, one of the last shots to make a splash is in the bullpen. These aren’t the most efficient improvements at $37.5 million for 3.9 wins in 2019, but they should make for some entertaining late innings.

Adding Donaldson, Kimbrel, Robertson and Miller raises the Orioles’ projected Opening Day payroll to $247.2 million, which is only about $14 million more than the Red Sox’s MLB-leading 2018 mark.

The plan to go cheap at catcher goes out the window here in a last ditch effort to get over the hump. Grandal adds about $16 million to the 2019 payroll for a final figure of $263.2 million but, more importantly, he adds 3.6 wins to the projection and puts the All-Free-Agent Team/Orioles at 45.3 projected WAR, lining them up to make a run at the postseason.

So, without further ado, here’s one possible Opening Day lineup for the “going for it in free agency” Billion-Dollar 2019 Orioles:

  • Bryce Harper, RF
  • Manny Machado, SS
  • Josh Donaldson, 3B
  • Yasmani Grandal, C
  • Jonathan Villar, 2B
  • Mark Trumbo, DH
  • Chris Davis, 1B
  • Renato Nunez, LF
  • Cedric Mullins, CF

Their starting rotation:

  • LHP Patrick Corbin
  • LHP J.A. Happ
  • RHP Charlie Morton
  • RHP Alex Cobb
  • RHP Dylan Bundy/RHP Andrew Cashner

And bullpen:

  • RHP Craig Kimbrel
  • RHP David Robertson
  • LHP Andrew Miller
  • RHP Mychal Givens
  • LHP Paul Fry
  • LHP Tanner Scott
  • Bundy/Cashner

Astonishingly, these expenditures would add up to $1.233 billion in guaranteed salaries over the next decade and a half, but the Orioles’ likely 2019 Opening Day payroll would still be about eight million dollars lower than what the Dodgers spent in 2015.

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