Orioles executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias traded a hotel suite for his home office in front of a computer Tuesday in providing the update on the Orioles’ free-agent desires, trade talks, and Rule 5 draft plans that would be a daily occurrence at the annual baseball winter meetings.
With the meetings not held in Dallas as planned, all those hot stove machinations are occurring virtually this year — including Elias laying out his and the club’s thoughts and plans on a variety of topics near the midpoint of baseball’s offseason.
Replacing the infield duo of José Iglesias and Hanser Alberto, who left the club last week via trade and non-tender, respectively, is chief among them. So is the constant pursuit of pitching. But there were also moments in which Elias used the here-and-now to outline the team’s short- and long-term future plans.
Here are five takeaways from what Elias had to say:
Replicating last year’s offseason additions would put the Orioles in a good spot.
In his first offseason in charge of the Orioles, Elias made a pair of big league additions in Iglesias and Kohl Stewart, and then supplemented the rotation with veteran left-handers Wade LeBlanc and Tommy Milone on minor league deals.
Iglesias and Milone proved to be useful both on the field and in their trade returns, while Stewart opted out of the season because of COVID-19 concerns without pitching in a game and LeBlanc struggled before a season-ending elbow injury.
All told, the Orioles didn’t lay out too much money or commit anything long-term to any one player and got the kind of value that would be commensurate to such deals.
Elias mentioned a shortstop and pitching depth again as offseason priorities, and if the Orioles follow that model in terms of low-cost acquisitions, they know the possible benefits they could get without much downside.
Absent big-time free-agent moves or trades to make the major league team better, which aren’t really reasonable to expect given everything that’s known about this team, that’s the best version of the offseason that can be expected.
Multi-year deals might signal that this team is ready to compete, but they won’t happen now.
Unless the perfect opportunity presents itself on the free-agent market, Elias said Tuesday that the expectation was that the Orioles would be operating on one-year contracts, with maybe a second-year option as long as they’d go for a player.
His explanation as to why, however, was illuminating. In the third year under Elias, it’s fair to wonder when the focus will shift to winning major league games. Many posit it will be once Adley Rutschman comes up to the big leagues. Others think it could be after one or two more high draft picks add more premium talent to the farm system. Elias, though, noted multi-year deals are indicative of a team that knows exactly what it needs to compete at the highest level.
“When we’re still kind of in talent gathering mode, talent collection mode, it’s really hard to script out your major league roster and plan it with the type of precision that you’d want with a multi-year contract,” he said. “As we get closer to that level of crafting the major league roster, I think we’ll see more of that.”
Perhaps that moment will come at next year’s winter meetings, or maybe the one after it. But those types of deals to supplement their homegrown core long-term will be signs of a turning tide at Camden Yards.
There’s a ‘high bar’ for trades of the team’s younger, controllable talents.
Having traded so many of the team’s arbitration-eligible players in the last year, Elias doesn’t have many such players left to shop in what he views as the sweet spot of nearing the end of club control or otherwise growing too costly for their production.
But with such an uncertain timeline as to when the Orioles will compete, other talents who could theoretically be around when that time comes get tossed around as trade pieces. Elias said it would take a lot for that kind of move.
“We’re still entertaining trades off the major league roster,” Elias said. “It doesn’t mean anything is going to happen. In fact, I wouldn’t say that anything is particularly likely at this point. But we’re certainly open to it and looking at it.
“I think everyone who follows baseball understands that when someone is approaching the end of their contract like Iggy one year left, for a rebuilding club, that’s a much different calculus than when we have young players that are two years into their career, three-years into their career, and have the opportunity to be here when we turn the corner and make it back to the playoffs. We’re going to take that with a lot of caution and it’s really going to be a high bar for us to clear if we were to entertain trading somebody like that.”
Alex Cobb is a firm part of their 2021 plans.
One player whose club control is about to run out is right-hander Alex Cobb, who is owed $15 million for next season but pitched well for the Orioles in his return from a hip surgery last summer.
Elias seemed firm Tuesday on the stance that Cobb would be with the Orioles at the beginning of the season, and because of both his production on the mound when healthy and his presence around their young pitchers, they’re “planning on keeping him all year.”
“We’d be thrilled if he could be contributing and is healthy again, like he was last year, and stabilize the entire rotation in that way,” Elias said.
That said, his salary for a midseason rental could be palatable to contenders, especially if there are fans back in stadiums boosting club revenues. Elias said he’s encouraged by teams’ activities this week in that they suggest optimism about an end to the coronavirus pandemic, and that could create more of a market if the Orioles are searching for one.
“I have no doubt that if he pitches like Alex Cobb, he’s going to draw interest,” Elias said. “We’re going to ultimately see where we’re at and see what the situation is. But I think any time you get a veteran pitcher, pitching well, healthy, and is essentially on a one-year deal, that’s going to attract a lot of interest.”
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It would be hard to see the Orioles not capitalizing on that interest come July if it materializes, but so many uncertainties lay before that point that planning on a trade that far down the line makes little sense now.
Expect at least one Rule 5 draft pick, but maybe not many losses.
With the fifth pick in Thursday’s Rule 5 draft, Elias said the only scenario where they don’t make at least one pick is if only four players emerge from their prep meeting Wednesday as draftable, and they’re all taken in the first four picks.
“That seems really, really unlikely to me,” Elias said. “I imagine our list is going to be longer than that, and also, the Rule 5 draft never goes like that.”
It’s fair to reason the infield and pitching depth are the areas they’d try to bolster with a Rule 5 pick. But given the Orioles’ rapidly improving farm system, there will also be concern that they could lose a player at some stage.
Right-handers Cody Sedlock, Brenan Hanifee and Zach Pop were all top-30 prospects who are available in the Rule 5 draft this year, and it’s noteworthy that none participated in the team’s secondary camp or fall instructional camp. Pop was on the road back from Tommy John surgery, but it’s possible the team excluded them with an eye toward keeping them away from the summer’s video sharing systems and scouts that went to see them.
They also lost several players in the minor league portion of last year’s Rule 5 draft, in which players below their Triple-A reserve list can be plucked away. This year’s list of eligible players seems far less enticing, so they could be safe on that front.