Fans get their wish with the highest payroll in Orioles history

At FanFest, the Orioles’ annual preseason celebration featuring fan forums and player autograph signings, manager Buck Showalter sat on stage during a Q&A session and referenced an imaginary bucket. The team would need to take up a collection to re-sign first baseman Chris Davis, Showalter joked, and anyone who wanted to donate could drop some money in.

When a fan brought up pursuing free agent outfielder Justin Upton, Showalter continued with the gag: “That’s another bucket right there. We have bucket one and bucket two.”

Flash forward to Opening Day, and the Orioles now have the highest payroll in team history. Executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette has committed $242 million to on-field talent this offseason, highlighted by retaining catcher Matt Wieters, who accepted the team’s qualifying offer of $15.8 million, resigning reliever Darren O’Day (four years, $31 million) and Davis (seven years, $161 million), and signing starting pitcher Yovani Gallardo (two years, $22 million with a team option), first baseman Pedro Alvarez (one year, $5.75 million), and South Korean outfielder Hyun-soo Kim (two years, $7 million).

The estimated 2016 payroll of $153 million would have put the Orioles in the top 10 in baseball last season, and they’ll likely be somewhere close to that by the time the first official game is played.

This is an important sea change. For years, fans have been pleading with the team to spend more money, especially after the establishment of the lucrative Mid-Atlantic Sports Network—a majority of which is under Baltimore control—that broadcasts games for both the Orioles and Nationals. (The ongoing legal dispute over dividing up ownership of the network is another can of worms, but suffice it to say the channel generates lots of money.) And now they’ve finally done it.

Even after spending all this cash, will the team be any better than their 81-81 mark from last year? It’s hard to say.

With the additions of Mark Trumbo and Alvarez, the Orioles are the only team in Major League Baseball with six players—the others being Davis, Manny Machado, Adam Jones, and JJ Hardy—who have hit at least 30 homers in a season. While it’s hard to imagine Hardy will get close to that mark this year—he’s combined for 17 home runs over the last two injury-plagued seasons—it’s not hard to envision second baseman Jonathan Schoop reaching it.

ESPN senior writer Dave Schoenfeld crunched the numbers a bit after the Alvarez signing and determined the Orioles have the kind of power to score more than 800 runs, which would put them just behind the 2015 output of the division rival Toronto Blue Jays. It’s a long season and a lot would have to go right for this prediction to happen, but it’s not unreasonable.

Pitching, however, remains a question mark. Signing Gallardo was a shrewd move that should help bolster a somewhat weak starting rotation. Even so, it seems unlikely the righty will be markedly better, if at all, than the departed starter Wei-Yin Chen, who signed with the Miami Marlins. Many were looking forward to a full season from promising young pitcher Kevin Gausman, and that’s now in doubt given the righty’s shoulder problems.

The club was likely hoping for bounce back seasons from starters Miguel Gonzalez and Chris Tillman, who both saw their earned run averages jump by more than a run and a half from 2014 to 2015. Unfortunately, Tillman’s spring has been a mixed bag, while Gonzalez’s has been disastrous.

Once again, Showalter will likely have to rely heavily on his stellar bullpen. The good news is the core of the stellar 2015 group remains intact, with closer Zach Britton and set-up men O’Day, Brad Brach, and Mychal Givens there to hold down small leads late in games.

Maybe the batters will hit so many bombs that games won’t even be that close. Or maybe they’ll strike out in bunches and have to scratch out runs with well-timed hits, something that hasn’t been this group’s strong suit. If the lineup plays up to its potential, the hitting should be able to mask any starting pitching struggles, and then the O’s could really do some damage in what should be another strong year for the AL East.

Even if things don’t work out, the team’s winter splurge should extend the Orioles’ competitive window, enabling them to push for the playoffs for at least several more years. That didn’t seem like a dream as recently as December, when the team’s leader teased that we might have to crowd fund a first baseman.

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