Peter Schmuck: Big market/small market dichotomy looms over Orioles’ rebuild

With the Houston Astros and Philadelphia Phillies set to face off in the first game of the World Series Friday night at Minute Maid Park, it’s probably a good time for Oriole fans to suffer through another big-market/small market reality check.

The plan has always been for the Orioles to mirror the rebuilding effort that has made the Astros a perennial world championship contender. And executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias – one of the architects of the Houston renaissance – has painstakingly built the “elite talent pipeline” that has made the Orioles relevant again.

Trouble is, the economic landscape of baseball might never allow them to be more than an occasional “roll the dice” playoff entrant. The Houston rebuild model was all well and good for the development of a continuously competitive franchise, but that’s where the comparison with the Astros figures to end.

The O’s will, for the foreseeable future, play in a division populated by three larger-market teams that are far better positioned to get to the World Series. That doesn’t mean they won’t improve to the point where they can put more than a third-wild-card scare into all of them, but the small market/large market dichotomy in baseball remains in full effect despite a decades-long MLB effort to achieve competitive balance.

Admit it, because of the media obsession with the biggest television markets, the Astros/Phillies matchup feels like a middle-market showdown when in actuality it features two of the most well-heeled teams in the sport.

Both have top-10 payrolls of more than $150 million. The Astros play in the fastest growing metropolitan area in America, and its population of 7.1 million (according to the 2020 census) ranks fifth nationally. The Phillies draw from a region that includes more than 6 million within a half-hour drive of Citizens Bank Ballpark.

Don’t have to tell you that the Orioles play in a city that is bleeding population and dealing with a number of issues that have caused many tourists and residents of the surrounding counties to steer clear of the downtown area. Before the Nationals began playing in Washington, the Orioles drew from a region that was similar in total population to the Philadelphia/Wilmington area, but the Baltimore metro area ranks 20th in the nation with a population of about 2.8 million.

So, when Elias talks about having money to spend in the free-agent market, you have to remember where he’ll be starting from. The Orioles 26-man payroll for 2022 was just under $44 million, which is about the same amount the New York Mets paid pitching ace Max Scherzer.

Just to confirm that your small-market angst is not just paranoia, the 2022 payrolls of all four of the teams that played in the two League Championship Series were more than $150 million. The Tampa Bay Rays have proven that a small-market team can stay in the conversation and roll enough 7’s and 11’s to shock the World Series on a rare occasion, and that may be the model the Orioles will have to emulate.

Even if they did wow the fan base with several giant free-agent signings – which does not appear to be part of the plan – that would likely assure that the window to compete at a very high economic and competitive level would be reduced considerably. So be careful what (or who) you wish for. There might be another Chris Davis out there.

For the Orioles to put themselves in a position to have long-term success in the AL East, they will have to become a hybrid of the Astros and Rays, spending just enough to maintain a quality pitching staff and continuing to treat the player development system as a continuous rebuilding project to plug holes as needed.

But Elias might have to do an even better job than he and his compatriots in the Astros organization did 10 years ago to get the Orioles to that level and keep them there for more than a surprise season or two.

Elias was right about the other division contenders. They aren’t going to stand around waiting for the Orioles to come for them, which makes his job even harder. That’s why no one should assume that the O’s will grow into the playoffs next season.

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