Arbitration Eligibles: Baltimore Orioles

Matt Swartz has developed a very accurate model that MLBTR uses to project arbitration salaries, as explained in this series of posts. We've heard from many MLB teams and agencies that reference the projections in their work.  The Orioles are next in our series.  Estimated service time is in parentheses, and estimated 2014 salary follows.

Davis put together a monster, MVP-caliber season: .286 average, 53 home runs, 138 RBI, and 103 runs scored as the Orioles' first baseman.  It wasn't from completely out of nowhere, as he hit 33 home runs in 2012.  Only 16 other players in baseball history have hit as many home runs in a season, and Davis led MLB in RBI this year as well.  

This year Matt and I created what we call the Kimbrel Rule in our arbitration projections: a player's raise cannot be more than $1MM more than the previous record raise.  Normally Davis' stats would justify a salary close to $11MM, meaning a raise of $7.5MM.  The largest raise on record we've found is Jacoby Ellsbury's $5.65MM bump, so with our new rule we're capping Davis' raise at $6.65MM to put him at $9.95MM.  We'll call it an even $10MM, since that's a nice benchmark for agent Scott Boras.  Can Boras get there?  After hitting 54 home runs in 2010, Jose Bautista sought an $8.1MM raise in arbitration, with the Blue Jays countering at $5.2MM for a midpoint raise of $6.65MM, exactly where we've capped Davis.  Bautista ultimately signed a five-year, $65MM deal instead, which I don't think is going to happen with Davis and Boras.  Boras has done some two-year arbitration year deals, which is more feasible if the Orioles want to avoid the arbitration process after 2014.

On the strength of a second consecutive 50 save season, closer Jim Johnson is due a large raise as well.  This one is more difficult to stomach, as Johnson's salary would exceed our predicted average annual value of free agent closers Grant Balfour and Joaquin Benoit, and approach that of an elite closer in Joe Nathan.  Johnson led MLB in saves in 2012 and tied for the lead in 2013, but he also led MLB in save opportunities each year.  This year, in particular, his 84.7% success rate was pedestrian, ranking 23rd among those with at least 15 opportunities.  There's an argument to be made that if Kevin Gregg, Brad Ziegler, or Ernesto Frieri received 59 opportunities this year, they would have saved 50 games as well.

That's not to say Johnson is a bad reliever — his ERA has been under 3.00 in each of the past three seasons, he maintains a low walk rate, and he gets tons of groundballs.  Though he blew nine saves in 2013, any team would be happy to have him in their bullpen in a late inning role.  The problem is the salary inflation brought about by saving 101 games over the last two seasons.  This doesn't seem to concern Orioles executive vice president Dan Duquette, who told Roch Kubatko of in September the O's will tender Johnson a contract and intend to bring him back in 2014.  "He's established himself as one of the top closers in the game," explained Duquette, and I suppose a one-year, high-salary deal is more favorable than the three years he might get on the open market.

Wieters is another big Boras case, a year after beating our most aggressive salary projection by almost 20%.  The Orioles offered an extension of at least five years around April, but it seems to have fallen short of the player's requirements.  Though his counting stats and durability were good in 2013, Wieters' already-low batting average took a dip, as did his walk rate.  The result was an unimpressive .287 on-base percentage.  Still, Wieters is in line for another solid raise, with free agency looming after 2015.  It might be time to consider a trade, if only the Orioles had a ready replacement behind the dish.

Norris, acquired from Houston at the trade deadline, bumped his strikeout rate significantly with Baltimore but also saw his rates of walks, home runs, hits allowed, and ERA rise.  He's still penciled in for a 2014 rotation spot.  Hunter's first full year in relief went well, with 21 holds.  He'll be joined again in the bullpen by Matusz and Patton, who remain affordable.

The Orioles removed Pearce from their 40-man roster in December, and he rejoined the club on a minor league deal and made the team out of Spring Training.  He had two DL stints for a wrist injury, but was otherwise solid with a .261/.362/.420 line in 138 plate appearances.  I think he'll stick around. 

Reimold, Dickerson, and Dan Johnson are non-tender candidates.  Reimold has been limited to 56 games over the last two seasons due to neck issues.  Dickerson joined the big club in April after signing a minor league deal in the offseason.  He was designated for assignment in July and accepted an outright assignment, getting his 40-man roster spot back in September.  Johnson spent most of the year with the Yankees' Triple-A club, landing a minor league deal with the Orioles in late August and later getting into three September games for the Major League team.

If the Orioles tender contracts to Jim Johnson, Davis, Wieters, Norris, Hunter, Matusz, Patton and Pearce, they're looking at an estimated $41.2MM for eight arbitration eligible players. 

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