On Nov. 16, 2018, the Orioles officially sent their organization in a new direction, hiring Mike Elias to serve as their executive vice president and general manager.
Then the Houston Astros' assistant general manager, Elias brought with him a background in scouting and player development. Those traits have continued during his two years leading Baltimore’s baseball operations department.
The Orioles will enter 2021 still amid a rebuild but with a farm system full of pieces that bring hope of its end. Although Elias inherited many of those prospects, he’s also added talent through two drafts, a handful of trades and Baltimore’s first true foray into the international market.
“We’re trying to get better, we’re trying to amplify the talent base across the whole organization, as we’ve been talking about for two years now,” Elias said recently. “But I do feel like this is a group that’s not full of holes right now, and our team is improving. It’s got a little bit better two years ago, got a little bit better last year, and there’s a lot of guys here that still have a lot of room to get better.”
Of the Orioles' top 10 prospects per Baseball America, three were products of Elias' two drafts in top prospect and former No. 1 overall pick Adley Rutschman, 2020 second overall pick Heston Kjerstad and shortstop Gunnar Henderson. The full top 30 will be released in the coming weeks, but it’s likely to include most if not all of the other five prospects the Orioles drafted this year, as well as a handful of those Elias added through trades.
Organizational changes since Elias' hiring are seen in not only the players throughout the system, but also how they’re groomed. Among Elias' first hires with Baltimore was Chris Holt, a longtime pitching coach in Houston’s minor league system who became the Orioles' minor league pitching coordinator. In his one year in that role, four of the Orioles' six stateside affiliates led their leagues in ERA, with an organization-wide increase in strikeouts.
Holt was promoted to director of pitching for 2020, but the cancellation of the minor league season because of the coronavirus pandemic hampered his ability to serve in that role to the same system-wide effect. Likewise, it diminished the ability to see whether added technology and a wave of analytically informed coaches at the Orioles' affiliates led to the same steps forward for the organization’s hitters.
The hope is that won’t be the case again in 2021, though the outlook of the upcoming minor league season remains unclear amid the pandemic. Regardless, Holt will be able to continue to work with at least some of the club’s pitchers, having added the title of major league pitching coach to his director of pitching responsibilities. In that role, he’ll be responsible for leading the young pitching prospects arriving in Baltimore, along with 2020 debutants Keegan Akin and Dean Kremer.
That group could include right-handed reliever Isaac Mattson, who is among the Rule 5 draft-eligible prospects who could be added to the Orioles' 40-man roster this week and was one of four minor league pitchers Baltimore received from the Los Angeles Angels last December in trading away former first-round pick Dylan Bundy. In his first season outside of Baltimore, Bundy received down-ballot votes for the American League Cy Young Award.
Like several of Elias' trades with the Orioles, the return for Bundy was mostly young, recently drafted prospects. Of the 10 player-for-player trades the Orioles have completed with Elias as general manager, all but one featured Baltimore receiving at least one prospect who was a teenager from the Dominican Summer League, a recent draftee or a minor leaguer with experience no higher than Low-A, a clear effort to add talent to the lower rungs of the farm system.
The lone exception had perhaps the worst outcome of any of Elias' moves with Baltimore: sending outfielder Mike Yastrzemski to the San Francisco Giants for right-hander Tyler Herb just before the 2019 season in a swap of players with Triple-A experience who hadn’t broken into the majors. Herb started 2019 in Triple-A, struggled to the point that he was demoted to Double-A, wasn’t included in the Orioles' player pool in 2020 and subsequently reached minor league free agency after the season. Yastrzemski, meanwhile, reached the majors in May 2019, hit 20 home runs for the Giants that season, then finished eighth in National League Most Valuable Player voting in 2020 by posting a .968 OPS. No Oriole who appeared in at least 40 games in 2020 had an OPS higher than .816.
That move aside, Elias' efforts have been directed toward building a farm system that’s trending toward becoming one of baseball’s best, though the major league product remains less than desirable even as prospects begin to matriculate to that level. It’s the same methodology he oversaw with the Astros, with several homegrown players acquired from high draft picks eventually contributing to their 2017 World Series title, and although that championship is now tainted by the sign-stealing scandal, Elias has said it doesn’t diminish the scouting and player development work he and assistant general manager Sig Mejdal performed while with Houston.
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They came to Baltimore hoping to repeat that success in talent acquisition and development. Two years in, an improving farm system shows they’re on that path.