When the Orioles introduced Mike Elias as their new baseball operations chief and Brandon Hyde as the manager this offseason, they touted the parallel experiences of taking the Houston Astros and Chicago Cubs from the basement to the World Series in a years-long process requiring elite player development and a whole lot of patience.
Days like Sunday are of a piece with all that, but this is the part no one is supposed to think about.
The Orioles on Sunday sent heralded prospect Austin Hays — their best player this spring — along with outfielder Anthony Santander and six other players to minor league camp in the name of their individual development. It's what the Orioles signed up for in bringing in the executives and coaches that they did. It's also a pretty clear signal that the camp of competition Hyde and Elias so much wanted didn't come with the proverbial carrot of a major league roster spot.
"We're doing the right thing for these guys' careers," Elias said. "They're going to be a big part of what we're doing here, what we're trying to do, and in no way do we want to jeopardize any part of their development just to have a pure tryout based on spring training at-bats."
Said Hyde: "We're going to always do what's best for the player. When it's a prospect-type player, their development is the most important thing. When you're talking about some of those guys, you're talking about guys who in our eyes, haven't quite finished their development."
This is both the defining trait of the new Orioles regime, and the language used to talk around some of the more uncomfortable realities in the game. Just because it's true about the likes of Hays and the rest of the cuts at this particular camp doesn't take away from the fact that it's the same types of things teams like the Toronto Blue Jays and Chicago White Sox are saying about top prospects Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Eloy Jiménez as they keep them in the minors to manipulate their service time for the purpose of getting an extra year of player control before free agency and keeping long-term salary costs down.
Elias emphatically said there was "zero" consideration given to any of that for these decisions, and that likely extends back to the cuts of top prospects Yusniel Diaz, Ryan Mountcastle, and Hunter Harvey earlier in camp. He said it's "not even relevant" in the cases of Hays and Santander, who have varying amounts of major league service time already accrued.
"As soon as we feel like they're ready and they have their development behind them in the minor leagues and we feel like they're ready to contribute and most importantly to stick up here — because I don't want to see these guys come up and then struggle and fail and have to go back down — we'll have them on the team,” Elias said.
That consideration is one that is more relevant to the here-and-now. Both Elias and Hyde are acutely aware of the value not only from a baseball sense of a young player coming up and playing well, but for what it means to a team's fans. The presence of top prospects-turned-stars helped mitigate a lot of losing seasons at their previous stops.
But just as they didn't really entertain the idea of a fan-service idea like re-signing beloved former outfielder Adam Jones, Sunday crushes the notion that even something as exciting as a player like Hays making the Opening Day roster won't be obliged at the expense of the long-term plan. The way Elias talked about the lack of a complete minor league track record for Hays and Santander for simply evaluative purposes was in contrast to what he had to say about Cedric Mullins, the presumptive everyday center fielder who has had a slow spring but succeeded at every stop in the minors.
"We have projections that we can look at that show he's got a good shot to be a good major league player this year, and he's shown he can play center field for us," Elias said. "We want to keep giving him an opportunity."
At his previous stop in Houston, Elias and assistant general manager Sig Mejdal built a forecasting system that considered every data point imaginable and spit out what the expectations for a player at the major league level could be. Maybe a few months in Triple-A can give them a fuller picture on some of these players in that sense.
That's wholly unsatisfying to fans who have taken the team's advice to invest their time and energy in the team's prospects, and want to be able to do that at the major league level. It takes a level of detachment that’s a feature in a modern-day baseball front office but is tough to have while caring enough about a team to be a fan of it. In a lot of senses, keeping someone like Hays would make the Orioles better.
It would certainly make a lot of people happy, and it would also be a lot easier if Chris Davis and his $161 million contract weren't pushing Trey Mancini to the outfield. In the swift stream of this teardown and rebuilding process, Davis is the concrete piling for an old, long-gone bridge that everyone and everything must maneuver around.
Anything to immediately address any of that would be done in the name of making the 2019 Orioles better. There's a reason Elias said at the winter meetings that so much of the Orioles' plans to revamp their scouting and player development processes would need to be executed and produce high-level talent before the team will "shift gears towards maximizing major league wins."
It's because so many of the decisions that are made in keeping with that philosophy — from trading established players for packages of young prospects and devoting resources away from the major league payroll to invest in other aspects of the organization to, yes, keeping exciting players like Hays and Diaz in the minors — are implicitly detrimental to that big league win total.
No one involved with or invested in the major league club wants to hear that. Hyde will rightly say that he wants what will be a young team to go out and fight every single night. That they're liable to lose far more games than they win will be a result of things outside the control of the field staff and the players.
Sunday solidified that in a significant way. So much of the Orioles' mission has been discussed on a conceptual level to this point. The impact on the major league team — with a few Rule 5 adds, some waiver claims, and saying goodbye to Tim Beckham and Caleb Joseph over a few million dollars — was anything but jarring. These eight transactions involving players the Orioles openly acknowledge will be parts of their 2019 club at some point only illustrate that nothing is going to get in the way of their long-term player development goals.
"These are the decisions that organizations have to make," Hyde said.