Saturday's Orioles FanFest marked the public beginning of a new era of Orioles baseball under new executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias and manager Brandon Hyde. And it just so happens to be driven at this point by the main commodity the event is built on: hope.
The Orioles, fresh off a 115-loss season and the collapse of their best run in a quarter-century, quickly grew short of that as last year wore on and all their biggest stars were traded away.
But every winter, whether the team's prospects for the coming season are strong or not, FanFest is a chance for the whole operation to start anew. Players reunite after months apart, executives share their offseason vision and fans soak it all in before the team heads to spring training.
This year more than most, however, FanFest served as an introduction into what 2019 and beyond will be like under Elias and the baseball operations department he's managing. Here are five things we learned at Orioles FanFest.
1. This is as good as it's going to get, until it's actually good.
After the warm reception Elias and Hyde got during their season-plan-member Q&A session before FanFest opened to the public, a front-office member noted this was probably going to be the high-water mark of the early years for the new regime.
The Orioles haven't lost a game on the field yet, let alone the 100-plus losses this year could bring. They haven't made any draft picks that haven't panned out, haven't traded away Jake Arrieta or any other breakout pitcher, and haven't slighted any Orioles legends.
This time next year, there might be some agitation after another year of losing, or pressure from above to improve things on a faster schedule, or some of the touted prospects not panning out the way everyone hopes. A lot can change in a year, but this year, Elias, Hyde and their cohorts did a good job of both managing expectations and selling the vision for the future that could make all this worth it.
Hyde stressed that none of this would happen overnight. Assistant general manager for analytics Sig Mejdal and senior director of international scouting Koby Pérez put on a panel explaining the gains that can be made in those fields while kindly noting they're beginning near the back of the pack.
The messages seemed well-received by the fans who appreciated their honesty, and time compounded by losses could change that. That's all for the future, though. Saturday was as fine an introduction to the new Oriole Way as anyone could ask.
2. This coaching staff has an energy to it …
Part of that optimism comes from the first interactions with Hyde's new coaches and the philosophies they shared in their brief time with the media Saturday. One described the vibe among the new coaches, a staff which was only finalized last week, as like a family atmosphere already.
They all come with decades of player development experience and — most importantly of all for a team in the Orioles' position — they combine some of the relationship-building skills that come with coaching experience with an aptitude for using modern data and analytical methods, and relating them to their charges.
All told, it's a group that seems like it will value instruction and effort over all else, with the hope that improvement comes for the young Orioles core. Tim Cossins said they're trying to find their "moj" as a team — abbreviating the already-short mojo — and they probably won't have to look hard to do so.
3. ... and so do the players.
That's because the players who filed through the media room Saturday seem just as energized by a fresh start as anyone else. New pitching coach Doug Brocail noted that on his pitching staff, only a handful of spots were truly spoken for, leaving dozens of arms entering spring training with an honest chance to earn a job. On the hitting side, there's steep competition among the team's young stable of outfielders in the majors and high minors, and nothing outside of Chris Davis at first base and Jonathan Villar starting somewhere up the middle is settled in the infield.
With last year's 115-loss season now behind them and a fresh start with a fresh coaching staff and drastically different approaches awaiting them in Sarasota, Fla., there's plenty to look forward to. Everyone in the clubhouse has a reason to use this opportunity to get better, even the veterans who might see the best option to further their career to be traded out of Baltimore.
Whatever they do will mostly be done on a clean slate, though, which has to be appealing to the players. Hyde said he only had some video and a few conversations to go off for his initial impressions on the roster, which isn't enough to make many decisions. That means everyone will enter spring training next month knowing they can play their best and make an impression to win a spot. The energy makes a lot of sense in that context.
4. The lack of star power came into focus Saturday.
Part of the reason there's so much youth and excitement around the team is because there's not a lot of veterans, and that means not a lot of star power. Trey Mancini joked that he spent September fielding questions about his 401(k) from rookies — questions he himself had been asking veterans a year earlier.
But Mancini, along with Davis and Mark Trumbo, plus pitchers Andrew Cashner, Alex Cobb and Dylan Bundy, represent the team's veteran core at this point, and there were signs of how thin the rest of the roster was elsewhere at FanFest. Cashner and Cobb weren't in attendance, but several autograph sessions featuring lesser names didn't sell out Saturday, and only the ones with those big names did.
There's plenty of interest in the up-and-comers in the organization, and rightfully so. The prospects who are off the 40-man roster but were invited to FanFest — an idea that came from the community relations department early in the offseason — are more likely to be part of the next winning team than many on the current major league roster. And fans should get to know them, too.
But it's hard to sell tickets on prospects, and hard to market them when they aren't on the major league roster. And winning might end up being just as difficult as selling the actual product on the field this year.
5. Chris Davis is saying all the right things, but it doesn’t matter unless he hits.
The Orioles' onetime slugger spoke at length about turning the page from last year and what has been different in his offseason during his media sessions Saturday. If nothing else, Davis continues to be honest and reflective about his struggles and their impact on him.
What comes next, and where the issue has arisen with Davis before, is all that reflection and adjustment needs to result in tangible results. Davis had one of the worst seasons in major league history last year, and of course he'd want to turn the page to change his physical and mental approach.
The reality is that Davis cited a few seasons — 2012, 2013 and 2015 — as what he wanted to get back to. Those were a long time ago, and the game has changed in ways that almost exclusively hurt him. Pitchers throw harder and spin the ball more effectively. The shift won't go away. And he hasn't been able to muscle mistakes out of the ballpark the way he used to.
Whether a leaner body or a different approach can rectify all that will be made apparent soon enough. Former Orioles manager Buck Showalter said he tried everything he could to get Davis back to form, and Hyde and hitting coach Don Long said they'd get to know the man before they got to work on his swing. But absent any other options, what happens with Davis might be just as important as anything they do this year.