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José Iglesias and Hanser Alberto moves show Orioles’ ‘ultimate goal’ isn’t close as rebuild continues

Three years into the Houston Astros’ rebuild from which Mike Elias and Sig Mejdal came, a Sports Illustrated magazine cover rightly predicted that a World Series championship was three years away.

As the equally daunting task of turning around the Orioles enters its third year, it’s still an open question as to when such competitive heights could be reached. To project a champion at Camden Yards in three years seems as outlandish as that Astros forecast did then. All that’s certain is that time is not now — and every move they make reinforces that.

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Wednesday’s culling of their starting middle infield combination was yet another, with José Iglesias traded to the Los Angeles Angels for two pitching prospects and Hanser Alberto not tendered a 2021 contract because of his expected raise through salary arbitration.

So was last month’s release of slugger Renato Núñez, the in-season trades of relievers Mychal Givens, Miguel Castro and Richard Bleier and even last December’s trades of starting pitcher Dylan Bundy and infielder Jonathan Villar.

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In every instance, the Orioles went for a lower-cost replacement to simply bide time for the elite talent pipeline Elias promised in November 2018 to start producing in the big leagues. The work on that front has been obvious, and the overwhelming opinion around the game is that it’s going well.

Just as strong, however, is the opinion both locally and nationally that the Orioles actively casting off their major league talent isn’t helping their cause.

“It’s very difficult, and you get attached to these players when you have them, but the business that we’re in, there are contract structures and players near the end of their stint with the teams,” Elias said. “They’re either coming up on their last year or they’re going into a phase of arbitration where either our team or other are not willing to enter into that process with them, and it makes sense in every case that you’re able to, especially when you’re rebuilding, to try to see some long-term value coming back from these guys near the ends of their stints with the team.

“At the time of the trades last year or even this year, we don’t feel that we’re close to our ultimate goal yet in terms of setting up what we want to set up and getting to the level that we want to get to, and unfortunately, when you’re in that situation, this is what you do.”

Entering the third year of evidence, it should surprise no one that this is what Elias and the Orioles did. They have values in mind for what a major league player is worth to them, especially while they’re rebuilding, and they try and move on from that player either via trade or otherwise when they feel there’s more value in doing so and either getting younger players or using the roster space on a cheaper player.

Elias on Wednesday frequently faulted the arbitration system for constraining clubs when it comes to their dealings with eligible players and forcing moves like nontendering Alberto, but the system also gives the team the ability not to engage and simply renounce the player’s rights. No such remedy is available for Chris Davis’ contract, but the Orioles seem to be chipping off payroll at the edges of that boulder.

At the highest end of their projections at MLBTradeRumors.com, players on the Orioles’ Opening Day roster last year who no longer are with the team were projected to make nearly $12 million. They’ve saved $3.5 million by trading Iglesias and probably secured some savings over projected arbitration figures on the four players who agreed to contracts this week.

Elias said some of that money could be invested back into the 2021 Orioles, albeit with qualifiers.

“I think it’ll depend on the player and the opportunity and the possible deal that we’re able to strike,” he said. “This isn’t a situation where there is an exact number that we’re going to end at and I know what it is and we’re going to get there no matter what. So we will monitor the market and do what we feel is the right fit for putting together a group at the major league level that helps us achieve our goals, which is continuing to take a step forward, get some more young talent in this organization, and see our young guys that hopefully are blossoming into stars continue to improve and develop at the major league level.”

Those goals are likely widely held when it comes to the Orioles. For every fan who both knew all about Ryan Mountcastle, Dean Kremer and Keegan Akin before their debuts as a result of deep investment in the farm system’s progress and were also charmed by Alberto’s spirit and Iglesias’ quality, there’s probably another who just wants to watch a good baseball game every night.

An Orioles team without those two in 2021, pending moves to replace them, might not win more often than the past two iterations did. So now, as ever, solace must be taken for both those who believe it and those who don’t in the idea that following through on the early parts of a plan and sticking to an ethos, even an unpopular one, is a true way to mark progress.

“We’re still in the phase of accumulating talent and trying to rise to the top of young talent,” Elias said. “We want to have the best young talent in baseball. I think we’re going to need that to compete in this division. The baseline that we have, while it’s improving and improving rapidly, there’s still room to go. We’re setting a really high bar for where we want the foundational structure to be for our farm system.

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“There will come a time when we flip the switch to maximizing wins in the next given season, but it’s our judgment that we’re not there yet. This is not fun, to subtract from your major league team, but that’s what you do when you’re below .500 and rebuilding, and we still are. We did have a shortened draft this year. The July 2 class was postponed. The minor league season was canceled. There were some setbacks this year, too, that perhaps make our progress a little harder to judge.”

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