Orioles executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias began his first winter meetings in charge in the unique position of still having to hire a manager and fill other baseball operations vacancies.
Yet even as he acknowledges that "something's missing there" not having a manager around for the winter meetings agenda, Elias said Monday that the Orioles are "pretty far along" in the process of replacing Buck Showalter and giving another face to the team's rebuilding efforts on the field.
"Last week, mostly, and a little bit beyond that, we conducted in-person interviews with a number of candidates — with six candidates," Elias said. "It was a fantastic experience, and it's still a great ongoing experience. All of our candidates were extremely impressive, and one thing that's been pretty clear to me through this is that there's a reason that these guys have put themselves into a position to be considered as major league managers. They're pretty impressive candidates all around. It's a good choice to make, but it's a difficult decision to make. I think we have a lot of good choices, and I'm still in the process of doing deeper background work on the candidates right now."
The identities of those six candidates have been kept quiet by Elias and the Orioles, but according to reports from The Athletic and FanCred Sports, they are Chicago Cubs bench coach Brandon Hyde, Washington Nationals bench coach Chip Hale, Arizona Diamondbacks vice president of player development Mike Bell, Kansas City Royals quality control/catching coach Pedro Grifol, Colorado Rockies bench coach Mike Redmond and Seattle Mariners bench coach Manny Acta.
Three of those — Acta with the Nationals and Cleveland Indians, Hale with the Diamondbacks and Redmond with the Miami Marlins — have major league managerial experience.
"I'm very confident that our manager will come from the list of candidates that we've interviewed so far," Elias said. "I'm not sure that there will be a second in-person interview round. We spent plenty of time with these people, and we've done a lot of phone work, and we're also cognizant to the fact that we're a little pressed for time and we want to be courteous to other teams around the league who are trying to get their staffs set, and we also have a major league staff to hire subsequent to this hire. Being as expeditious and deliberate as possible with a hire this big."
That expeditious-but-deliberate nature means the Orioles under Elias are in the rare position of not having a manager at the winter meetings, to say nothing of the rest of the staff. He said the hire could come by the end of the month, but committed to no timeline.
Elias noted that director of baseball operations Tripp Norton was handling most of the communications with other teams and director of Pacific Rim operations and baseball development Mike Snyder had assumed professional scouting oversight in the transition period. It makes for a skeleton crew in Elias' suite as he continues the hiring process for major league coaching roles, plus their scouting and player development leadership roles.
But having a manager to help chart the course for the Orioles' future isn't worth accelerating a decision, he said.
"It's not so important that I would fast-forward the hiring process beyond what it should entail, just to get this person here in time for these meetings," Elias said.
December managerial hires aren't necessarily unprecedented, though they're not common, either. In the Orioles' division alone, Aaron Boone was selected as the New York Yankees' manager on Dec. 1, 2017, and Kevin Cash succeeded Joe Maddon in charge of the Tampa Bay Rays on Dec. 5, 2014. But those are the only two managers out of the 29 sitting who were hired in December. The Orioles' will make three.
That they're at the winter meetings without a manager speaks just as much to the gravity of the rebuild that will be required as the current process that's underway. When Elias was hired to replace executive vice president Dan Duquette, manager Buck Showalter was already gone and his coaches were allowed to walk when their contracts expired Oct. 31. The club hasn't been grooming anyone at the minor league level for such a big jump, and even if it was, the change in front office-to-field dynamics in recent years into wholly synergetic operations means Elias might have wanted his own man in the manager's office anyway.
Such uncertainty at this junction of the offseason, with the entire sport assembled for the winter meetings, is equally rare. Veteran executives and managers at the meeting were split on whether a team has been without a manager here before.
The last comparable example is when Elias' old boss in Houston, general manager Jeff Luhnow was hired during the 2011 winter meetings. He kept the manager in place after an ownership change that dragged into November for the Astros, but was introduced at the showcase event — a very late juncture in the offseason for such a move.
Dan O'Dowd, former general manager of the Colorado Rockies and current MLB Network analyst, said the fact that the Orioles are still filling that managerial vacancy is not "as big a deal as it might be in other cases."
"Mike got the job exceptionally late in the process [Nov. 16], and they've had significant turnover in staff and personnel there," O'Dowd said. "So if they weren't a club that was in a full rebuilding mode, but a lot of the rebuilding had already taken place as far as the kind of trades of impactful players, I think then it might be different because you'd want some collaboration with a manager to begin to shape a vision. Because beyond just making trades at the winter meetings, it's a great opportunity to just develop relationships with your people, because you're pretty much around each other for three straight days, nonstop."
Instead, O'Dowd sees someone with a scouting and player development mindset like Elias as having hires just as important to make on the scouting side, "because the reality of it is the most important personnel decision they're going to make in 2019 revolves around who they take with the No. 1 pick in the draft, and who they take thereafter."
O'Dowd said Elias is likely looking for a manager with whom he can have a symbiotic relationship. An organization that has that kind of relationship between the manager and general manager benefits at every level, even the business side, he said.
"I think what's most important for Mike, in my humble opinion and that doesn't necessarily make it right, is that there's shared values, how they look at life in general; they have a common way where they look at the game; they're both open-minded and empathetic and vulnerable to each other's roles; and they have the ability to really develop an authentic relationship that stands up through the difference of opinions that you're going to have through the two individual role," O'Dowd said.