Last December, the Orioles entered baseball’s winter meetings without a manager. A full year into their rebuild, their contingent will fly west again next week lacking something far worse: hope for the present.
This week alone, the Orioles traded infielder Jonathan Villar and former Opening Day starter Dylan Bundy to the Miami Marlins and Los Angeles Angels, respectively, in a signal to both fans locally and observers nationally that this particular brand of rebuilding baseball may redefine tearing down to the studs in the name of the future.
It signaled, in the words of executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias, that the Orioles “are in a mode of trading from our major league roster.” Whether that continues this offseason or not, it’s clear that no amount of short-term thinking will get in the way of what he sees as the ultimate goal.
No week in the last year has made that more clear — and this one isn’t nearly finished.
“I want to see a playoff team at Camden Yards, and we want to see a playoff team at Camden Yards,” Elias said on a conference call. “There’s only one way to get there, given where we’re at, where we’re starting from. We all know the strategy, the process. This is not easy. This is not something we want to happen again, but coming into the organization in late 2018, with the roster construction what it was, where the talent base was, where we were in the standings — this was the only path.
“I don’t want to have to see a selloff process again. It’s something that we want to get through, build our organization and our base, and maintain a high-quality, competitive franchise, even in the American League East. We feel it can be done. We see franchises around the league that pull it off, and we want to build that here. This is part of the road to getting there.”
Teams have bottomed out and climbed back up for the entirety of baseball history, though it came into vogue earlier this decade when the Houston Astros front office that produced Elias and assistant general manager Sig Mejdal tore that club down to the studs and used advanced player development methods to make it a World Series champion.
There was plenty of criticism for that group as well, and after a year of having the player development portion of the Orioles’ plan under Elias rightly lauded for producing early results and plenty of hope for the future, that tide is starting to rise in Baltimore. Having been part of building a contender this way, Elias is pretty steadfast in this being the only way to do it. Those who see investing in free agency and remaking the major league roster for the better don’t want to hear that, and while that’s generally a fine way to try and win, it doesn’t seem like it will be the way here.
It’s clear this long-term plan includes spending as little as possible at the major league level and reinvesting elsewhere in the organization on scouting and player development initiatives.
The Orioles’ long-term commitments to Alex Cobb and Chris Davis will prevent the payroll from getting to the $26.1 million range that the 2013 Astros had, but that’s clearly part of the rebuilding process the Orioles are trying to replicate as well.
Trading Bundy and Villar, which saves a projected $15 million arbitration-earned salary and brings the Orioles’ payroll down into the bottom of the league, takes away valuable major league experience the Orioles were already lacking in last year’s 108-loss season.
Even allowing that the Orioles will have exciting young players such as Austin Hays, Ryan Mountcastle and Keegan Akin in the majors at some point in the season, youth comes with growing pains, and doesn’t always provide the consistency Bundy, Villar and their ilk provide.
There are a lot of risks to not fielding as competitive a major league team as possible. There’s the local impact in the form of revenues lost at the gates and in television revenues. There’s the national pig-piling that happens when a team makes moves against present-day interests, though those same voices spent most of 2017 and 2018 acting as if the Orioles were committing a different version of baseball malpractice every day they tried to stay relevant and hold onto their core of Manny Machado, Zack Britton, and the rest of their mid-decade stars.
Elias is continuing what former executive vice president Dan Duquette started in 2018; selling off what was a competitive major league team for parts, and he’s not shying away from it.
“To get where we need to go, these are the types of moves and types of decisions we need to make right now,” Elias said. “It’s a tough spot that we’re in. We’ve got a long climb ahead of us. That’s why we were brought here, to lead this effort. All the people we brought in, the scouting and player development and the coaching staff, we’ve all got our eyes on a bigger goal. And in order to get there, we’re going to need to bring as much young talent into the farm system as we possibly can. Sometimes, you have to give up good quality off your major league roster to do that. We did exactly that.”
While Elias telegraphed a Bundy trade when discussing the Villar trade Monday, he wasn’t as certain about whether any of the team’s other valuable players will join the exile. That trading mode is one where “once you start doing that, it does make sense to continue down that path,” he said.
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“But we’re not going to alter what we feel are the appropriate levels of return that we might seek for any players remaining on our major league roster, especially those that are under longer-term commitments to us, whether it be through arbitration or players that are under contract,” Elias said. “We will be careful to seek the right return if we go move anyone else, but there’s certainly no guarantee that we will be moving anyone else.”