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Q&A: Five questions with GM Mike Elias on his first three years with the Orioles, and where the next three will take them

Three years ago this month, the Orioles concluded a lengthy hiring process for a baseball operations head by bringing Mike Elias over as executive vice president and general manager from the Houston Astros. There, he oversaw the draft and amateur talent acquisition as part of a long-term rebuilding project that the Orioles sought to emulate.

Elias assumed control of an organization that was set to pick first in the following year’s MLB draft by virtue of a 115-loss season, and three years later, they’re likely picking first again after losing 110 games in 2021.

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Most of the progress the team has made in that span has been below the surface. Their farm system, through an adjustment in draft philosophies and a full overhaul in player development principles featuring data-driven plans and progressive instruction, went from being middling to being one of baseball’s best. Their front office has been built out with a growing analytics department, and they’ve returned to the Latin American player acquisition market in a more significant way than ever.

On the occasion of this anniversary, Elias spoke to The Baltimore Sun about where he’s seen the most progress in the Orioles’ rebuild, how their moves this offseason are meant to marry their organizational improvement with the major league results and where he sees things in three years time.

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Editors note: Some questions and answers have been edited for clarity.

How would you characterize the progress that’s been made over the last three years in what you set out to accomplish?

I think we are absolutely thrilled to the degree we have built out the baseball operations staff and infrastructure. I think we could stack it up against some of the best in the league. Right now, the results of that work is most visible with what’s going on with our farm system and our amateur player acquisition channels, but very, very quickly, it’s going to be evident to observers what our baseball operations department is putting together on the major league field.

We knew it was going to be a challenge starting late in the 2018 offseason, to start hiring, but we were fortunate, I think top-to-bottom, I think with a lot of our major hires, getting people who had very plug-and-play-like capabilities in the areas we were lacking and that sped things up. And also, the talent we’ve been able to find in the minor league coach hiring space has exceeded my expectations. That’s been a big boost. We really feel great about where we’re at, especially having navigated the COVID seasons.

Everyone knows all the challenges that you came into this and were open about, but was there anything particularly challenging or that was a curveball in those three years that you look back on and thought you handled well, or weren’t expecting to have to handle, other than COVID?

I mean, everybody had to handle COVID and it impacted different teams differently, but putting that aside, I think we got some major, really unlikely and unusual health situations with Trey [Mancini] and [Heston] Kjerstad, and those are both looking on the up-and-up right now, and that’s wonderful, a testament to our medical staff. But those are things that a baseball team doesn’t bake into its expectations when you think about injuries and pitchers getting hurt, two guys getting really serious illnesses, two of our better players. That was something of a surprise for everybody to have to deal with, but these things happen in life. That’s why we do all the work we do, to prepare for the unexpected.

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Do you feel like the hitting coach setup you guys have this year is an indication of the progress on the farm system and everything you’ve worked toward there starting to show itself and impact the major league team?

I think there’s a lot that goes into staff structures. It’s always an ever-changing, ever-evolving topic, and you’re looking for the right mix, the right people. In particular, with these most recent hitting coach hires, we felt that we had a coach in Ryan Fuller that we had found, hired, trained in the minor leagues, and wanted to make sure that we kept him long term, because we feel like he has tremendous potential and he’s already demonstrated that with his work in the minors. We were excited about and value — placing value on having some additional continuity across the minor league program and the major league program that tends to happen organically when you promote from within.

We found a coach in [Matt] Borgschulte from the Twins that we feel like is a very good complement to Ryan, and also is on the same page with the program that we’re implementing. We recognize, though, that neither has been in the major leagues. There are always expected to be growing pains, and sometimes you make moves with longer-term rewards in mind. There’s always tradeoffs with any decision or any hire, but we’re very excited to have this group in there, and what’s going on with the rest of the hitting group. We have many other very high-ceiling hitting coaches in the minors and we’re looking forward to growing their careers there.

With baseball operations and the infrastructure in place but little success with the major league team, how do you describe this phase that you guys are in now, and what the hopes are for right now?

Since we’ve started, we have taken the approach of everything that we do is geared towards making the playoffs, and bringing this team at least to playoff contention or playoff caliber and also doing it in a way that’s not just a one-year-and-done thing and we’re back in a hole that we’re digging out of. We’ve done everything with the long-term health and the long-term playoff odds of the organization in mind and it was truly a bottom-up project, given all of the deficiencies that the Orioles exhibited at the time that we started at the end of 2018 and some of the lingering issues from the prior cycle. I think everybody knew that. We were speaking openly about it, and everything we’ve done and will do in the future, including allocating resources, will be with the playoffs in mind.

So, while we’re not within arms reach of the playoffs right now, the core talent that you need in baseball to get yourself to that spot — core players that you have under contract for multiple years — we’ve got more and more of those guys, and we also have the depth in our minor league system now surrounding them that is leading to the really high farm systems, the No. 1 or No. 2 farm system [rankings] you’re seeing. Having those two things together is a very healthy spot for an organization to be in, especially in conjunction with the kind of roster and payroll flexibility that we have now going forward. I still think that we’re looking to see the talent and core pieces kind of emerge and gain momentum, and that’s primarily what we’re looking for and looking toward in 2022. But whenever that step is taken, I think as I said in terms of pursuing playoff odds, it will lead to a change in the way that we allocate our resources and try to leverage those playoff odds.

And I guess that ties into where this naturally ends. It’s been three years and a lot of work. What do you expect to have happened and where things could be three years from now?

We’ve recognized the challenges that exist in our division, in kind of the market size that Tampa and we have in our division and where we were starting from, and I’ve been very careful to refrain from rolling out timelines, knowing how unpredictable the future is in every direction. There’s health, there’s luck, there’s what other teams do. But I would be very confident, and I already feel confident saying right now, that I think we have joined the ranks of having a healthily-run franchise that will have the operational capability that we see from similar teams in Tampa, in Cleveland, and I can name a few more, to persist and make Baltimore baseball as good as it can possibly be over the next five, 10, 15 years. We have that now, and it’s only going to become more and more evident over the next three years.

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