One year ago this week, the Orioles unveiled executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias as their head of baseball operations and heard him tell of the “elite talent pipeline” he hoped to bring to Baltimore to help revive a franchise that had no such thing on the horizon.
A lengthy search to replace Dan Duquette led the Orioles to Elias, who as scouting director and assistant general manager of the Houston Astros was responsible for largely the same things there, and the message that he presented upon his hiring and any time after was that this was going to be a methodical, at times difficult, process.
A year in, not much has changed. On the field, the Orioles lost 108 games, an improvement over the 115 losses of the previous season buoyed by the emergence of All-Star rookie pitcher John Means, the breakout season for outfielder Trey Mancini and featuring all kinds of waiver claims to keep the team afloat.
On the farm, it was much better, with four affiliates leading their respective leagues in pitching, Low-A Delmarva named MILB.com’s Team of the Year, and the prospect base taking a large step forward.
With one year of the plan completed and the Orioles still hard at work to build for a future beyond 2020, Elias spoke to The Baltimore Sun about what he saw in his first year, what could change in year two, and how he remembers the process of getting started last fall.
When we talked about the GM meetings, you mentioned this was early on in the process. You were very clear about what you wanted to do here. Is there an adjustment of the long-term goals or how those are gone about in the second year in your mind?
I don’t think so. I think that we’re staying the course of what I would have expected it would look like a year ago today. I think the first year met those expectations, and in some ways, we feel — especially on the minor league [side] — good about what we’ve got cooking in the farm system with the success that a lot of our teams and players had this year. Obviously, there were some good steps forward made at the major league level. Not every single player, but some really important ones, had good years. We understand that’s the case.
I think the most important thing of this year has been the capabilities of the department. We’ve got a full-blown international scouting staff now, a five-man team living in the [Dominican Republic]. We’ve got Koby Pérez as the director. We’ve got one full-time scout living in Venezuela, which is a first for this organization, and there will be more in that country. And we have a growing analytics squad. I just met with that team and had a long presentation about everything that we’re working on and what we’re trying to do. The work we’re doing is really impressive, and it was a lot of tough progress to make in a year — a year that started late in the cycle. I think it was only possible because of the experienced leaders that we were able to get for those departments who were kind of plug-and-play guys. I give them a lot of credit for how they staffed out and got things up to speed.
You were pretty clear about that early in the offseason here last year, that this stuff wasn’t going to be easy and it wasn’t going to happen overnight. What types of things do you think might fall under that category in year two?
Well, we’re still working on some infrastructure projects here in Maryland, in and around our facilities, and in the Dominican Republic, and digitally. Those take a lot of work and are never simple.
I think the biggest challenge going forward, and we’ll see how this goes, but historically, these types of rebuilds don’t always progress linearly. We still have young players that are still a ways away from the major leagues that we’re counting on, and we’ve got young players who have made their major league debut and probably have some lumps to take, and we still have some veteran players that are attractive trade chips and may or may not be moved. We’re still going to be in a process where it’s possible that we take a step back to take two steps forward at the major league level. That can be challenging and it can try the patience of everyone involved, and the fans.
What position would that put [manager] Brandon [Hyde] and the major league staff in if this is not a step forward? Are there considerations made going into the year as you’re planning as to how to deal with factors like that?
First of all, I hope it’s not the case. But it’s a tough part of Brandon’s job when we’re where we’re at right now. He’s trying to win the game every night. We’re all trying to win the game every night. The coaching staff and the players put in hours and hours of preparing for each night’s game, and it stinks when you lose the game. Nobody likes to do it. But we’ve got to be mindful of the fact that we are more concerned this year with the individual development of the players and the team, so we’ve just got to continue to focus on that and be as competitive as possible, and take our reward when we see our young guys get better and have good seasons and take steps forward.
And for you personally, I know this is a generic anniversary-type question, but have you learned anything about yourself in this last year?
I’ve learned a lot about this job. I had an idea of what to expect coming into it, but this has been a big undertaking and it continues to be. In terms of how to budget your time and efforts, there’s a lot to be learned in your first year. But I feel so much better right now. We’ve got a lot of great people around us, and we’ve got a lot of tools built, and we continue to become a more developed front office and a more well-equipped operation, and I think that will make everything easier for us. But in terms of any self-lessons, I feel like I’ve always been somebody that has been self-aware when going about things. I try to learn a little bit better at whatever job I’m in every day. This is certainly the most challenging one I’ve had yet, but overall, it’s been a good year.
What do you remember about this time last year? It’s a long interview process with the Orioles, you’re announced and you’ve got to come to Baltimore and start this process. When you think back now, what do you think about that time?
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It was a lot of fun. So much of the first few days was spent meeting people around the company, doing public relations and media. And that was a lot of fun, but there was a lot of work that needed to be done, and done quickly — hiring the staff, hiring the major league coaching staff, getting [vice president and assistant general manager, analytics] Sig [Mejdal] in here, getting an international scouting director in. I had to kind of race with all that behind the scenes, on top of trying to at least be somewhat helpful with moving my family here. It was quite a bit. You kind of surprise yourself with what you’re able to accomplish and cram in with all that, and I had a lot of really good help. The year has gone very quickly, but I think we’re happy with where we’re at 365 days later as a department.