Orioles executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias made his final assessment of the 2021 season ahead of Thursday night’s home finale, setting the stage for perhaps an uneventful offseason for his rebuilding club.
He remained adamant in his belief that the club is on a course back to winning consistently and competing for championships. While leaving enough options open, he didn’t mince words when it came to getting the Orioles where they need to be.
“I do feel like we’re in a very healthy spot right now as an organization,” Elias said. “It took some work to get into that spot. I feel like we’re there, and we have a ton of young talent. We just need to get that talent to the major leagues, and get more talent at the major league level, which is coming. And then, I do know that this will work.”
When it will work, precisely, is likely farther in the future than much of what Elias discussed Thursday. Here are five things we learned from his season-ending media session:
If the Orioles are markedly better next year, it will mostly be because of the players who are already here.
Much of Elias’ comments stemmed on whether he planned to make meaningful free-agent additions to the major league roster for 2022, moves that would supplement a promising young core and bring a winning mindset when the top prospects arrive.
The gist was that he would if the ideal scenario presented itself, but nothing would be rushed. The front office also has ownership’s “full financial support for executing our strategy of getting this team back to the playoffs in a realistic, viable, sustainable way,” he said. That strategy has, from the very outset of Elias’ tenure, not included spending significant resources on improving the major league roster. He’s said on multiple occasions it wouldn’t until the team was in a position to win, and this roster is too far from contention to warrant such a pivot in strategy.
Perhaps a free-agent infielder or two will want to rebuild their value on a short-term deal in Baltimore. Same goes for a veteran pitcher or two, the kind who have pitched effectively in the majors more recently than this year’s reinforcements in Matt Harvey and Félix Hernández.
It seems as if Elias is setting the expectation that there won’t be any splash signings in the hopes of at least tempering expectations so there’s not a letdown when this team looks largely the same come spring training. Whether that works is another question entirely. Another 100-loss season would be tough to stomach.
The Orioles haven’t given up on their young pitching, even if it needs supplementing.
Even if the Orioles don’t sign a pitcher in free agency, their fortunes could change quickly if this year’s crop of rookie pitchers learn from their collective walloping and homegrown solutions fill out the rotation.
Bruce Zimmermann’s season was best of the bunch, but injuries limited him to 12 starts. Keegan Akin had a 4.21 ERA in his last seven starts, but that brought it to 6.63 overall. Each of Zac Lowther and Alexander Wells showed flashes in extended looks in September, while Dean Kremer never really got a chance to come back and reestablish himself after bottoming out early. Mike Baumann, perhaps the most promising of the bunch, only got a brief look in the majors after he struggled to find his form early.
The Orioles aren’t asking them to all turn into John Means. They just need them to show signs of being stable, back-end type pitchers so the arrivals of Grayson Rodriguez and the next wave of pitching prospects will be all they need to start competing on the mound.
“I think it would be very overly optimistic of us to assume that we have enough pitching to compete in our division, just by bringing back returning players,” Elias said. “But that said, we are very interested still and very encouraged by a lot of the guys that are on this 40-man roster, even though a lot of them had a lot of rough stretches in the middle of the summer, and I think we’ve seen some encouraging finishes for some of these guys in September, whether that’s in the minors or in the majors. So, a long way of saying this group, by and large, is still part of our future plans.”
There’s no ruling out another winter of unpopular trades.
Where the Orioles are concerned, the offseason — specifically the early-December deadline to tender players contracts and begin the salary arbitration process — is a time of subtraction from the major league roster. Some of the Orioles’ least-popular moves of this rebuild happened around this time: Dylan Bundy and Jonathan Villar traded in 2019, and José Iglesias traded and Hanser Alberto released in 2020.
The players due big raises this winter are even more entrenched: Trey Mancini, Anthony Santander and John Means. In that order, their rising salaries make those players candidates for the Orioles to move on from and use to acquire prospects, should they continue to be in talent-acquisition mode.
“We like all those players,” Elias said. “They’re talented guys, very many of them have a lot of control left that would make us more apt to kind of put them off-limits. But I’ve said a number of times, we’re not doing our job as a baseball front office if we’re not entertaining conversations on our guys, by and large. So, we will do that, and I’m sure it’ll include a lot of guys from that group.
“But it doesn’t mean that we’re going to pull the trigger on anything. It doesn’t mean we don’t plan around them as if they’re going to be here in the future. That’s just the way we’re going to have to operate. It’s not anything specific to the Orioles by any stretch.”
There would be internal replacements for Mancini and Santander, but that wouldn’t make it sting any less. Mancini has become a fan favorite and overcame stage 3 colon cancer to return this season. Santander was voted the Most Valuable Oriole in 2020. As for Means, he could net a game-changing haul with three years of club control left.
Sentimentality won’t have a role in deciding whether trading any of those players is worth it long-term for the Orioles, but it will certainly determine how such a move is received. Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.
The pending labor dispute will color everything in the game this winter.
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Elias might have been underplaying slightly when he said the upcoming labor negotiations between MLB and the players union was “adding a wrinkle” to offseason planning. True, the possibility of a work stoppage and uncertainty about the landscape of the game could make for a quiet November before the current deal expires in early December.
It stands to reason, however, that a new deal could put a significant crimp on the completion of the Orioles’ long-term plans. They’ve often cited the existing system, with its draft-based motivation to lose and thus earn high picks and larger signing bonus pools, as the basis for these losing seasons. That’s been a cause for them not to spend on free agents despite clear needs. It’s precisely the type of actions the players union will try to negotiate out of the game.
The bright-side perspective will be that the Orioles have harvested most of the available fruit from the current system, and wouldn’t be in this position for much longer anyway. But aspects like a salary floor or raising the minimum salary would certainly change how the Orioles have to operate going forward.
Maybe don’t expect Adley Rutschman or Grayson Rodriguez on the orange carpet after all.
I know — Rutschman would be catching the starter’s pregame warmup if he were with the Orioles on Opening Day, so he wouldn’t be on the orange carpet as it is. But after saying last week on MASN that the team’s two top prospects would be in major league camp and could break with the big league team, Elias clarified that the latter is a natural consequence of the former.
A couple hints within his discussion of the pair could be telling. Elias noted that Rodriguez hasn’t pitched in Triple-A while saying he doesn’t “think that it’s 100% necessary to do so” before reaching the majors, eliminating that hurdle. But he also said Rutschman’s two months in Norfolk is “a short amount of time there,” even if he’s played really well.
Most importantly, however, he said Rutschman and Rodriguez are “on schedule despite losing a full season with the pandemic.” It’s hard to envision a scenario, given the club control and salary implications that the team can benefit from, that their schedules included playing on Opening Day 2022. That’s not to say either will need to spend much time in Norfolk next year. It would just be surprising if they were called up right away.