Not long before Orioles tickets for the remainder of the season went on sale to the general public Wednesday, executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias spoke for nearly five minutes, unprompted and uninterrupted, about the largest impediment to selling those seats.
The Orioles exited Wednesday’s matinee in Minnesota as losers of nine straight and 16 of 18, a stretch that dropped them to having the worst record in baseball at 17-32. Since he took over in November 2018, it’s their worst run of results yet.
Elias’ message was clear: The long-term development goals of the young players on the roster and on the farm and the organization’s plans to build a player-development machine to keep such a miserable rebuild from ever being necessary again are on track. He also said the short-term plans don’t include doing much to make what would be cosmetic changes to a roster that just keeps losing.
“It remains a very difficult task and these processes are difficult,” he said. “They don’t go perfectly. They don’t go smoothly. They require a lot of perseverance and endurance through tough stretches like this. We continue to have the utmost confidence in the coaches and player-development professionals that we have up and down the organization, people involved who are involved in guiding these young players and coaching them and making decisions about their futures, and the players themselves.”
At times in 2019, when the Orioles were in a tailspin like this one, Elias stepped in to take some of the spotlight off the struggling team. Each time, including Wednesday, he noted that he doesn’t “think anyone’s happy about the win-loss record.”
He said it’s “very painful,” acknowledging that the front office staff sees the same thing fans do.
“We follow this team as well on a night-in and night-out basis,” he said. “We’re living it. We understand the length of losing that this fan base has gone through.”
This time, he has nearly two and a half years of progress in baseball operations infrastructure and player-development to tout.
The Orioles have jumped back into the Latin American market, which Elias said accounts for one-third of all the game’s cost-controlled talent, and are building a new Dominican academy to further that process. Top prospects up and down the farm system are performing well and warranting promotions, perhaps accelerating their paths to the big leagues. They have built out and modernized analytics and player development operations since 2019.
And yet, to watch the Orioles every night is often an exercise in frustration. Outside of top starter John Means, the rotation is inconsistent and struggling, with Dean Kremer optioned to Triple-A Norfolk for the second time Wednesday morning. The bullpen has collapsed in recent weeks, though Elias pointed to nearing returns for Dillon Tate, Hunter Harvey and Mac Sceroler as ways to help that group. There are bright spots among the position players with Trey Mancini’s comeback, Cedric Mullins’ emergence, and Anthony Santander and Austin Hays’ play when healthy.
But the infield defense is poor and the catchers are having trouble simply catching the ball. On that front, Elias said they’re “weighing things” and watching what the catchers at Triple-A are doing.
“I have been frustrated at times with a lot of defensive performances on the team, but understanding this is a tough game and the players are working hard,” he said. “We’re going to try to get the most out of them, but ultimately, if we get to the point where a different mix would be to the benefit for not only the players themselves but for the pitching staff, for the good of the team at large, we’re going to look at that and consider it. I know that there have been frustrations and we share them. But we’re not at that point, and we’re going to continue to push and work.”
As far as the major league team goes, the lack of imminent change is consistent with the team’s approach everywhere. The frustration is more with the rebuilding players on the roster, the short-term free agents or waiver claims and those who aren’t going to be part of the future.
But to get to that future, the Orioles plan on largely sticking with the younger players who are struggling as well. Kremer’s rotation spot was taken by Keegan Akin, who had been pitching well enough in the bullpen but was poor in spring training and needed to start the season in the minors. Bruce Zimmermann has been up and down, while reliever Tanner Scott has regressed in the past month.
“But it’s very important to us to remain focused and committed and overreacting briefly to struggles with young players, making rash rushed decisions with guys with bright futures, is not in our long-term nor short-term best interest,” Elias said. “We remain committed and focused on working hard and getting through it.”
Elias said there was a lot of work to do when he and his staff came to Baltimore, and “the way that baseball is and the way that it’s set up is it takes more than one season or two seasons, especially in a division that we’re in.”
“There’s some length to the process,” he said. “We’ve been here for two drafts, one of them was only five rounds. But we’re seeing those players graduate up through the minor leagues. Soon, the international players will start to join them. There’s a lot to look forward to. We’re doing things the right away, and doing them in a way that will set us up for a long time so that hopefully, we can be among those organizations that are able to avoid going through processes like this.
“It is possible, and it’s difficult, but you’ve got to get to that level first. That’s what we’re doing right now. That’s what I and a lot of other people were brought here to do. It’s hard work. It doesn’t go perfectly. You have some good luck, you have some bad luck, but our sleeves are rolled up and we’re grinding through it. We’re going to start seeing results eventually. I’m very confident in that.”