At its core, baseball's winter meetings is a trade show, one put on by Minor League Baseball for its member clubs to congregate and build their businesses in every facet. The major league rumorfest only subsumes that.
Yet when the Orioles’ affiliates — many of whom share a unique connection to the major league club by virtue of their proximity to Baltimore — gathered this week in Las Vegas, it wasn't bobbleheads and promotional strategies that most appealed to them. It was hope, delivered in the form of new executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias' comments at the organization's affiliate dinner Monday night.
"The first thing is excitement — genuine excitement — that there is going to be a renewed emphasis on the minor league system," said Brian Shallcross, general manager of the Double-A Bowie Baysox.
"It all seems very positive," said Joe Gregory, general manager of the Triple-A Norfolk Tides. "It was great, the interactions we were able to have last night. It wasn't something superficial; it was good, deep conversations. The new staff definitely seems to care about what our wants and needs are. They asked good questions. They were concerned about our day-to-day, and obviously, their track record is amazing."
While the minor league teams themselves have nothing to do with the product they put on the field — the major league clubs supply the players and on-field staff to their minor league teams — the fact that four Orioles affiliates are in Maryland (Bowie, High-A Frederick, Low-A Delmarva and Short-A Aberdeen) and the Triple-A affiliate is relatively close in Norfolk, Va., adds a unique element to Elias’ goal to build an "elite talent pipeline."
Minor league franchises know that it's promotions and shoe-leather sales strategies (not to mention a high-profile rehabilitation assignment) that drive attendance, and often the players on the field are secondary to a summer night at the ballpark. But for the hundreds of employees across the communities these teams serve, the baseball matters a bit, too. With an organizational philosophy that's going to devote untold resources and attention to the baseball at its affiliates, that could make a difference, too.
"While the main emphasis is not winning in the minor league system, when I spoke to Mike Elias last night, he said, 'Listen, we're going to win because we're going to be good. We're going to have talent,' " Shallcross said.
From a business sense, the only tangible benefit from winning minor league teams is a few playoff gates in September. But the Houston Astros used their high draft picks from 2012 on to build farm systems that fit the message Elias gave the affiliates. According to Baseball America, 14 organizations had domestic affiliates' aggregate winning percentages above .560 since 2009.
Three of those seasons belonged to the Astros, including their 2018 season when five of their domestic affiliates made the playoffs, two won championships and the farm system had a .576 winning percentage.
“As an operator, it's fun for our fans to see something that's a winning product," Aberdeen general manager Matt Slatus said. "They come out to the ballpark for fireworks, for entertainment, for a hot dog stuffed and filled with 12 different meats. But you want to hear your hometown team develop into a postseason team, and if Aberdeen is getting into the postseason, and Delmarva, Frederick and Bowie, if they're all doing that, then ultimately you're going to see those guys get up to the show and star there. It all starts right in everyone's back yard at all these minor league clubs in Maryland."
But the benefits of a team's commitment to growing its farm system stretch to several aspects of the businesses the affiliates are trying to run. On a base level, more high draft picks, including whomever the Orioles select with the first overall pick in June, means more attention from the media, and thus free publicity for the affiliates. For example, when Dylan Bundy was a first-year professional and his promotion from Delmarva to Frederick was announced days in advanced of his debut, the Keys' phones lit up for tickets.
Similar phenom status hasn't been reached by anyone in the Orioles system since, and though there's been regular graduations from the minors to the majors, there's a level of ownership those local fans feel for those players that can only grow with a prospect’s status.
"The thought that with getting a No. 1 overall pick and being more active on the international market, the number of people that are going to be able to say that at some point when the Orioles get things figured out and turned around, they'll be able to say, ‘We knew all these guys when they were in Frederick’ — kind of like the Astros can say right now," Keys director of broadcasting and public relations Geoff Arnold said.
But even from a casual baseball fan's perspective, teams see high-level players draw crowds all the time. Gregory mentioned the Tim Tebow effect — wherever he plays, home or road, in his time with the New York Mets system, he draws a crowd. Shallcross went a little more local: the draw of former Washington Nationals top pick Bryce Harper during his ascent to the majors.
"When they had their top draft picks come in — the Bryce Harpers of the world — that makes a big difference for an organization,” Shallcross said. “Whether Bryce Harper spends two months or three months, however long he'll spend, that's two or three months of real excitement in the community, and obviously at the gate as well."
The affiliates will also possibly benefit from investments in their ballparks, whether it's from a baseball standpoint or player comforts. Gregory was quick to note that such investments were made previously, too. When former Orioles manager Buck Showalter came to Norfolk for a speaking engagement, he signed over his appearance fee to the Tides with instructions to fix up the batting cages.
Still, the Astros deployed a fleet of high-speed cameras in every ballpark to collect data, and those could be part of stadium updates. And with teams realizing facilities and nutrition are areas where a little spending could bring a significant advantage, it's safe to assume the Orioles will follow suit.
"It's something where if anyone walks into a new facility, whether it's a clubhouse or a new place at home, if you've got new furniture it's going to feel a little better," Gregory said. “Maybe the spread after the game is a little bigger. Maybe it's something that takes your mind off it."
Those benefits would mean the world to players, too. Cadyn Grenier, the Orioles' Competitive Balance Round A pick in 2018, debuted with Delmarva this past summer after a national championship season at Oregon State. He learned there's a difference in the comforts of the two levels — and that investing more on that front could help the Orioles farm system improve.
"The little things like that, they absolutely make a difference," he said at the winter meetings, which were near his home in Las Vegas. "We had all that at Oregon State. We flew everywhere. We had meals provided to us. Well, that's not the nature of minor league baseball, so backtracking is not easy, you know what I mean? But you know in the back of your mind that once you get up to the higher levels, it's even better than college."
On Monday at the affiliates dinner, the minor league teams were assured there would be no avenue of improvement left unexamined by Elias and assistant general manager Sig Mejdal.
"It's a commitment to 360 degrees of improving the system," Shallcross said. "That's not just the play on the field, just the draft picks, but let's take a look at the grassroots. Let's look at the facilities. What are we providing for the players? What are the needs going to be? How's that going to change the operation? What is a renewed emphasis on the minor league system, and how can we be integral in making Mike's vision work?
"Clearly, the playbook is there from Houston and back to St. Louis, and we know the analytics is going to be an integral part. It's not a secret that the new regime is going to put emphasis on those types of things. We're ready for it, and we're excited to see what we can implement together."