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Orioles reset: David Rubenstein has a low bar to clear following John Angelos. The expectations should be higher. | ANALYSIS

Orioles reset: David Rubenstein has a low bar to clear following John Angelos. The expectations should be higher. | ANALYSIS

Following John Angelos as the control person of an MLB team is like presenting a class project after a fellow student flunked his.

All David Rubenstein has to do to be better than his predecessor is not repeatedly have bottom-five payrolls, not use Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a shield against questions, not lie to reporters about opening the Orioles’ books and not cry poor to the country’s largest newspaper about the cost of signing young stars to extensions.

The bar for Rubenstein to clear is so low it’s almost the floor, but the expectations should be much higher. Instead of comparing Rubenstein with Angelos, he should be judged against other owners across MLB and the American League East — just like his team is in the standings.

To Rubenstein’s credit, he’s seemingly off to an excellent start — from declaring his goal is to win a World Series to promising to not interfere in baseball operations to interacting in down-to-earth fashion with fans at Oriole Park. Even other members of his ownership group did a stellar job of pandering by purchasing a round of beer for fans at Pickles Pub before opening day.

However, these early days, as Rubenstein acknowledged during his introductory event Thursday on the sixth floor of the B&O Warehouse, are not difficult, especially with the Orioles coming off a 101-win season. Baltimore fans grew so weary with the Angelos family’s ownership of the Orioles — first the late Peter’s meddling and ego-driven decisions, then his elder son’s lack of spending and handling of Camden Yards lease negotiations — they would have applauded anyone with a different last name purchasing the club.

“Today is an easy day to say everything is great,” Rubenstein said.

To be clear, Rubenstein and company deserve this honeymoon period, and so do Baltimore fans.

Buying an MLB club is no small feat, and it cost them a pretty penny with a deal that values the club at $1.725 billion. By purchasing his hometown team, the 74-year-old private equity billionaire and Baltimore native is providing an energized fan base excited about the present a reason to be so about the future.

But, like a marriage’s actual honeymoon, this one shouldn’t last long. The time to win — and spend — is now.

March 28, 2024: Orioles' new owner David Rubenstein gives some instruction to Aubree Singletary, 10 of Baltimore as she gets ready to throw out the ceremonial first pitch on opening day at Camden Yards. ( Kenneth K. Lam/Staff)
New Orioles owner David Rubenstein gives some instruction to Aubree Singletary, 10, of Baltimore as she gets ready to throw out the ceremonial first pitch on opening day at Camden Yards. (Kenneth K. Lam/Staff)

The Orioles have the fifth-lowest payroll in the major leagues, according to Cot’s Baseball Contracts, at $97.4 million. They’ve ranked in the bottom five each of the past six seasons since executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias was hired.

Hiring Elias — the 2023 MLB Executive of the Year who Rubenstein called “the best general manager in baseball” — and allowing him to manage this rebuild without interference is something for which John Angelos deserves credit. But throughout 2023, as hype for the team was building, Angelos frequently stepped in to pop that balloon.

When asked about payroll last spring training, Angelos listed Tampa Bay, Cleveland and Milwaukee as “examples” he looks at. Those three small-market teams each have bottom-10 payrolls without a championship between them in the past 75 years. In August, Angelos told The New York Times that prices at Camden Yards would have to “dramatically” increase if the club were to hand out the type of large contracts stars such as Gunnar Henderson and Adley Rutschman will garner.

It wasn’t the first time Angelos bemoaned the financial challenges of owning a small-market team. Last February, he said the Orioles wouldn’t have payrolls near those maintained by the Los Angeles Dodgers, Boston Red Sox and New York Mets and Yankees.

“That’s not an Oriole thing,” he said.

Does Rubenstein also believe high payrolls are “not an Oriole thing”?

The answer to that question — the one that might be paramount in determining whether his tenure as owner will be successful or not — remains unanswered. During his Wednesday news conference, Rubenstein was asked only two questions about the Orioles, and neither were about payroll, as lengthy introductions and questions to Gov. Wes Moore about the Francis Scott Key Bridge collapse took up the majority of the time.

During a forum last week a day before his purchase was approved by MLB, Rubenstein did not commit to increasing the team’s payroll, instead saying he would let Elias make baseball decisions.

“I’m going to rely on the best general manager in baseball and see what he recommends, and I will follow his recommendations,” Rubsenstein said.

As Rubenstein navigates the early years of his ownership, including negotiations for development rights around the downtown ballpark, it’s important to remember that none of this is new. Fans were thrilled when Peter Angelos, who also grew up in Baltimore, bought the team in 1993 to keep the club away from another out-of-town owner.

Peter Angelos, who died at 94 years old in March, also said all the right things in those early days to ingratiate himself to fans. He vastly overpaid for the team, and he told The New York Times after he won the auction in bankruptcy court that making money wasn’t “the primary concern.”

“The primary concern is putting the best club on the field,” he said.

Peter Angelos’ legacy as Orioles owner is complicated, but it soured from the highs of the early days as the club suffered through 14 straight losing seasons between 1998 and 2011. The fact that the Orioles have fallen that far before means they can go back there again.

Rubenstein last week said he didn’t want the 2023 season or the elation of Thursday to be the “high-water mark” for the organization.

“I want the high-water mark to be in the fall when we go to the World Series,” he said.

That declaration is a stark contrast from when John Angelos said, “first, I have to do the concerts,” when describing how his job directed him away from the field.

But when it’s time to evaluate Rubenstein’s legacy as Orioles owner in a few decades, his well-meaning and tactically sound rhetoric in these early days won’t matter. His willingness to spend and the success of the team will.

None of those fans at Pickles last week will care about the free booze in five years if Rutschman and Henderson are playing for the Yankees.

What’s to come?

Two reunions and a road series against one of the only remaining undefeated teams.

Right-hander Jordan Lyles and second baseman Adam Frazier return to Baltimore as members of the Kansas City Royals after being key contributors on the 2022 and 2023 Orioles teams, respectively. The three-game series at Camden Yards will also feature the first two picks in the 2019 draft: Orioles catcher Adley Rutschman and Royals shortstop Bobby Witt Jr. Dean Kremer and Cole Irvin will start on the mound for Baltimore on Monday and Tuesday, respectively, before handing the ball back to ace Corbin Burnes for his matchup with up-and-coming left-hander Cole Ragans on Wednesday.

After a day off Thursday, the Orioles travel to take on a Pittsburgh Pirates team that is currently 4-0 and has the chance to remain undefeated against the lowly Washington Nationals.

What was good?

The vibes.

Rubenstein taking over as owner last week, a sold-out crowd Thursday, back-to-back games scoring at least 11 runs and dominant starts from Burnes and Grayson Rodriguez made the start of the 2024 season an unforgettable one. After his season debut Saturday, Rodriguez said he and the rest of the Orioles players were eager to play well at home after the two losses in the AL Division Series last year. The fans were ready, too, to replace those bad memories with more positive ones.

What wasn’t?

Outscoring an opponent 25-11 in a three-game series makes it difficult to pick out something that wasn’t good.

The only concerning thing to happen over the weekend was the oblique injury that landed left-hander Cionel Pérez on the 15-day injured list. It’s unclear how long he’ll be out, but at his best, Pérez is a back-end reliever Hyde has often gone to in big moments over the past two seasons.

On the farm

The only minor league level to play games this weekend was Triple-A, and the Norfolk Tides began their national championship defense in dominant fashion. The Tides scored 24 runs in their first two games, winning both over the Durham Bulls before losing Sunday, as a lineup with prospects Jackson Holliday, Connor Norby, Heston Kjerstad, Coby Mayo and Kyle Stowers clobbered the ball all over the yard.

The minor leagues’ best team is off to a fitting start.


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