When the Orioles wrap up their home schedule Sunday, it will be an opportunity for fans to ring out the old and wonder just what will be new when the gates open again at Camden Yards on March 26.
There’s really no way of knowing and no one expects Orioles executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias to tip his hand when he meets with the media before Sunday’s series finale against the Seattle Mariners. But it’s fair to assume the major league roster will undergo significant change ahead of the second year of his rebuilding program.
Don’t get too excited. That doesn’t mean the Orioles are going to rush into the free-agent market and spend all that money they saved on this year’s bare-bones payroll.
It means — in the short term — that Elias will likely shed a number of players on the 40-man roster who the front office determined are not destined to be with the club when it eventually blooms. The Orioles will then replace them with the five or six upper-level prospects that have to be protected from the Rule 5 draft in December.
It might also mean Elias will take advantage of his first full offseason as general manager to target a couple of well-priced free agents to shore up the pitching staff and put Rebuild 2.0 in a position to show some modest improvement, as well as keep the fragile fan base engaged.
Though it might be difficult for the front office to justify burning future payroll to acquire anyone who might not be part of the final product, this season proved how much a small investment might make a difference in the public perception of Elias’ long-term strategy.
The Orioles already have scored significantly more runs than last year’s club, even though the 2018 offense featured superstar Manny Machado for half the season and Adam Jones for all of it. That will be reflected in the slightly improved win total, but the Orioles could have avoided a second-straight 100-loss season if the bullpen had not blown middle-inning leads so regularly.
There’s a case to be made that the Orioles are better off losing big if they know they’re going to lose anyway, since the plan is to improve through the draft and international player development. But the ability to build and maintain “an elite talent pipeline” requires more than just new-age front-office expertise.
The Orioles are on pace to draw about 1.3 million fans this season, which would represent a 17% year-over-year decline in attendance ... and last year’s total of 1,564,192 was the lowest since the 1978 season at Memorial Stadium.
While major league teams don’t depend on gate and concession receipts nearly as heavily as they did before the explosion of television rights revenue, it’s still important to give fans reason to show up to the ballpark.
Manager Brandon Hyde acknowledged before Saturday night’s game that a 100-loss team is a tough sell, but strongly endorsed the approach Elias and the front office are taking to return the Orioles to prominence.
“I can understand it,” he said. "We’re not competing for an American League East title. I’m hoping that when we become a little bit more competitive, I hope the fans do see the big picture and do understand that this is a little bit of a painful process right now.
“But we are in this for the long run. We are in this to be continuously good and we’re in this to be continuously competing for an American League East title. It just doesn’t happen overnight.”
There are other important personnel questions to ponder over the next few months. The future of slugger Chris Davis remains an open question that probably won’t be answered until next spring, and Elias will have to decide whether to tender contracts to several salary arbitration candidates who might not be around for the whole ride.
For instance, does it make sense to go to arbitration with Jonathan Villar, who will turn 29 in May and already makes $4.83 million? Or Mychal Givens, who will turn 30 in May?
Elias might try to trade both over the winter. But it seems unlikely that he’ll attempt to unload newly crowned Most Valuable Oriole Trey Mancini, whose presence in the lineup and the clubhouse would be sorely missed even at a time when winning isn’t the top organizational priority.
Those decisions will determine whether the Orioles make a push to show some progress next season or trade the possibility of a more respectable won-loss record for another year devoted entirely to their developmental ground game.
They also will determine whether a lot of Orioles fans start to get back on board or continue to stay home.
This year’s Orioles’ slogan is “Be Part of it All.” Next season, fans might need a little more encouragement than that.
“As impatient as I get sometimes, I’m asking for everybody’s patience,” Hyde said, “and I think there is a great track record from the guys that are building this team and I want fans to just trust that we’re going to get there.”