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Orioles’ front office remains committed to rebuild as tanking, ‘Astroball’ roots come under scrutiny

Orioles general manager Mike Elias and manager Brandon Hyde look on during spring training from Ed Smith Stadium in Sarasota, Florida.
Orioles general manager Mike Elias and manager Brandon Hyde look on during spring training from Ed Smith Stadium in Sarasota, Florida.

After years of slowed-down signings in free agency and a general cooling of baseball’s hot stove, the winter meetings kicked off Monday with a flurry of activity and World Series Most Valuable Player Stephen Strasburg re-signing with the Washington Nationals for a record contract.

But as the player movement that’s made the baseball calendar so fun to follow this time of year returns, the Orioles are one of a handful of teams going in the opposite direction: subtracting instead of adding, with no sign of a win-now mentality.

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Executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias is in his second offseason in charge of the Orioles, and this one is clearly centered around trading pieces off their major league roster and flipping them for far-off future assets that more align with the timeline and fashion of when he expects another contending Orioles team. Last week’s trades of Jonathan Villar and Dylan Bundy proved as much.

It’s the blueprint he brought from the Houston Astros, who pioneered a type of teardown at the major league level that runs counter to what observers of the game have come to expect but brought unprecedented on-field success, even if both that organization and the tanking they took to new heights have come under scrutiny.

“We are only going about rebuilding our roster this way because we have to,” Elias said. “This is, in my opinion, the only avenue available to the Baltimore Orioles right now to restore greatness as an organization and a consistent, playoff-caliber team, especially in our division.

“It’s a very difficult thing to endure at the major league level. It’s tough for me on a nightly basis. It’s very tough for [manager] Brandon Hyde and the coaching staff on a nightly basis. It’s tough for the fans. It’s tough for the business side of the organization. It’s tough for the owners, but it’s where we are, and it’s what we have to do, and I think in many ways the Houston Astros in 2011 were in a very similar situation, and it was not only the only realistic path, but it was the right path, and also the quickest path to restoring the team to the playoffs.”

How Elias, who along with assistant general manager for analytics Sig Mejdal worked in St. Louis and then Houston for general manager Jeff Luhnow, meant to bring the Astros’ way to Baltimore is nothing new. Nor is how Houston did it — stripping the major league roster to the bones and diverting resources toward scouting and player development to build a long-term contender.

In Houston, they’ve done just that, winning the 2017 World Series and losing Game 7 in pursuit of a second title this year. While the Astros earned plenty of criticism earlier this decade as the progressive front office broke all kinds of norms in remaking themselves, the success mostly justified that.

What’s come lately has been different. Executive Brandon Taubman was fired for taunting female reporters during a playoff celebration over the role of pitcher Roberto Osuna, who had previously received a 75-game domestic violence suspension, but not before the organization fumbled its response for days. Then, after the World Series, stories on the 2017 team’s methods of using video to steal signs and relay them to hitters launched an MLB investigation.

There have always been rumblings around the game about the way the Astros did things, with malice ascribed to decisions that were merely unpopular. The recent transgressions bunched together create that image in public.

“There’s been a little bobble recently with the Astros with some of the other issues, but I think if you look baseball-wise, the Astros did a great job," said former major league executive Steve Phillips, who is currently an analyst for MLB Network Radio. "If they bring that plan to Baltimore, I think the fans should be excited for that. Some of the other stuff that’s going on now, with the cheating scandal and the other things that have happened, obviously the Astros need to clean it up. It’s not something the Orioles would want, but I don’t think they have to go hand-in-hand.”

Citing the ongoing investigation, Elias said he didn’t want to be “making any public comments that might interact with that investigation in any way” while saying that he needed to be cautious about “the Astros PR topic that’s out there right now.” Mejdal, likewise, declined to address that.

What they did speak to, however, was a similarity in the situations they arrived into both in 2011 in Houston and 2019 in Baltimore, at least from a baseball standpoint. Elias said “the path that was taken was necessary” given the state of that Astros organization at the time. He’s got a litany of reasons why the Orioles need to be doing the same.

“We had come into the organization at a time when the major league team had hit a wall, bottomed out with a horrendous record,” Elias said. “The farm system was OK, perhaps better than people realized, and there were bad contracts on the book and there was an outdated front office structure with no international scouting apparatus whatsoever and a threadbare analytics staff and threadbare infrastructure in place.

“All of that requires a significant amount of investment and time to build up, such that there is a pipeline of consistent talent flowing throughout the organization, which is going to be absolutely necessary to compete in the economic environment the Orioles are in both divisionally and geographically. A sustained period of building out those functions, that infrastructure, that player pipeline, is totally necessary.”

That’s all underway in Baltimore, with the first year of this regime making strides in pitching development while trying to build out some of that infrastructure on an analytics and baseball operations side to allow them to function and grow in the manner they’ve become used to. It’s continuing in their first full offseason this year at a higher rate, even if the major league moves fly in the face of what conventional progress is for a team that’s judged by wins and losses.

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“There’s an excitement in the Orioles front office of the changes that Elias has implemented, the changes and the appreciation of analytics and other technologies that is similar to the excitement we were feeling in the early years in Houston,” Mejdal said.

Still, trading Bundy and Villar in moves that many viewed as salary dumps without doing anything to improve the Orioles in the short-term has stirred some dissatisfaction for fans who want to see a winner at Camden Yards now rather than later and already question the direction.

It seems that, for some, this offseason is the end of the honeymoon phase for an Orioles front office whose goodwill is built on a track record of their plan working elsewhere before, and the hope that the end product can bring. It’s not likely anything will happen at the major league level to change that soon.

“There’s going to be pain, and fans are going to react to it,” Phillips said. “What front offices believe is that even though it may cause some pain, as long as we keep doing the right things, sooner or later we’ll get the result we want and the fans will accept it’s the right thing.”

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