Since becoming the Orioles’ executive vice president and general manager three years ago, Mike Elias’ motive has been change.
The way the Orioles scout, draft and develop players is different. Their involvement in the international free-agent pool has skyrocketed, with more evidence to come this weekend. Their farm system hasn’t been stocked with this much talent in decades, if ever.
As of this week, even their ballpark is undergoing a rebuild, with news that Camden Yards’ left-field wall will be moved back nearly 30 feet as its height increases more than 5 feet in an effort to reduce home runs at the hitter-friendly venue.
Yet, as shown by Elias’ progress toward the “elite talent pipeline” he promised early in his tenure, change isn’t necessarily a bad thing. To Elias — who grew up in Alexandria, Virginia, and was 9 years old when Camden Yards opened — that applies to Baltimore’s iconic venue, too.
“The future of baseball here and of this park and the Orioles franchise, it’s very, very exciting,” Elias said in a Zoom call with reporters Friday. “You know, it’s 30 years old, but it is an absolute masterpiece. Not just one of the best parks in baseball today, but one of the best parks in the history of Major League Baseball. But you’ve got to renovate and reinvest. Those things will be happening over the next several years and decades.”
It’s not insignificant Elias went with “decades” at a time the Orioles are negotiating a new long-term lease with the Maryland Stadium Authority, with the current one set to expire after the 2023 season. He has long said his goal is not to build an Orioles team that contends in the American League East and for a World Series title once, but perennially. His long-term thinking applies to the ballpark, as well, and those two endeavors can certainly go hand-in-hand.
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Elias was not shy in pointing out these renovations will make Baltimore a more attractive destination for free-agent pitchers. Despite the opportunities typically available in the Orioles’ rotation, Camden Yards has historically offered little incentive to join it. Assistant general manager for analytics Sig Mejdal noted Friday that the Orioles’ troubled pitching staffs were factored into the team’s analysis of the ballpark, but it hasn’t been kind to guests, either. Over Baltimore’s five straight losing seasons, visiting pitchers have allowed more home runs at Camden Yards than all but two other road venues, the homes of the perennially contending New York Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers.
Under Elias, the Orioles have signed four pitchers to major league deals — Nate Karns, Dan Straily, Kohl Stewart and Wade LeBlanc — with Jordan Lyles’ agreed-upon-but-not-official deal trapped in purgatory until the MLB owners’ lockout of the players ends. Of that quartet, Straily was the only one who had pitched more than 26 major league innings the previous year, and he was the only one who pitched more than seven innings for the Orioles after signing with them. Even Lyles, who will be given the most expensive free-agent contract of Elias’ tenure, led the sport in home runs allowed last year. Changing the ballpark will not only benefit him, but also Orioles’ efforts to add better reinforcements in the future.
“It’s definitely a significant factor in our move to do this,” Elias said. “We still expect that this will remain somewhat of a hitter’s park, and we like that about Camden Yards. But the conditions here have been very extreme towards the very most extreme in the league. It’s not a secret. It’s been the case for decades. And part of having a winning program is the ability to recruit free-agent pitchers, and that has been a historical challenge for this franchise. There’s just no way around that. So I do think it’s gonna help going forward? The proof will be in the pudding, as the games get played here over the next couple of years.
“Since I’ve been here, in three years, we’ve been tasked with taking a fresh look at the entire organization, and that’s something that has been an impediment here, and it’s something that I think this will move towards helping us in that regard.”
The alterations come at a time when, beyond Lyles, five of the Orioles’ other seven rotation candidates are left-handed, meaning they will frequently face the right-handed hitters who will be the most hampered by the changes. Likewise, eight of Baltimore’s top nine prospects are either pitchers or will bat primarily left-handed. But those circumstances didn’t factor into the move, Elias said.
“I wouldn’t say there’s anything about this move that is informed by our present personnel in the organization or 2022 in particular,” he said, before reiterating the organization’s desire to create a balanced playing environment for years to come.
Like everything else in this rebuild, these changes are about the long-term future.