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For rebuilding Orioles, Mike Elias ‘calm and patient’ about coronavirus shutdown’s impact on draft, player development

While acknowledging there are more pressing concerns because of the coronavirus pandemic, Orioles executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias thinks baseball returning will mean a lot to the country when it’s safe to play again.

A return to normalcy for his Orioles won’t necessarily be nightly games at Oriole Park at Camden Yards, though.

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The Orioles are entering their second year under Elias, who was hired in November 2018 to build what he called an elite talent pipeline using the draft, international scouting and player development to create a sustainable playoff contender.

All of that is essentially on hold, with no development time for minor leaguers, frozen international transactions, and no scouting allowed ahead of a draft that might not happen in mid-June as planned.

Elias said Thursday on a conference call that while every team is dealing with the same restrictions and limitations, all he can do is be “calm and patient about it” as what’s clearly been a priority for the Orioles is put on hold.

“There are a lot of concerns with baseball and a sudden layoff of this type,” Elias said on a conference call Thursday. “That’s one of them. I think every player in every organization will be impacted the same way, so that will alleviate some of the ill effects of this disruption when it comes to minor leaguers.”

According to multiple reports, the league is considering myriad changes to the June draft, which for organizations such as the Orioles are essentially the lifeblood of the operation. The Associated Press reported the league was considering skipping the draft entirely to devote the cash spent on signing bonuses to other areas of baseball operations.

Elias said he hopes there’s a draft this year for a number of reasons, but knows it’s far down baseball’s priority list. He said the league and its committee of scouting directors tasked with addressing draft-related issues were in frequent communication about discussions, and on Thursday “issued guidance that we’re basically freezing all scouting activities so that teams aren’t trying to create advantages for themselves in this idle period while there’s this public-health crisis going on.

“I like the fact that we’ve been officially frozen in terms of our activities," Elias said. "We can still evaluate players using video and data and the scouts can update their scouting reports. I’ve given our staff some pretty specific instructions about how we want them to spend their time as they’re housebound, and I am extremely confident that we will be as prepared or more prepared than any other team given the way that our department is set up and the way they’ve been working since the summer started, that we’ll be in good shape for this draft whenever it takes place or however it takes place.”

Since they finished with the second-worst record in baseball in 2019, the Orioles will have the second overall pick in the draft to add to what’s already a vastly improved farm system since Elias took over.

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Some of that is new draftees from 2019, while plenty of holdover prospects from the Dan Duquette administration benefited from a year in the Orioles’ new pitching program. This year was meant to be a step forward in how they taught hitting, but without games, it’s unclear how that development would continue.

From a player-development standpoint, months off at this stage will be something that could delay the arrival of several Orioles prospects as major league ready, whether that arrival was supposed to be this summer or years from now.

Top pitching prospects such as Grayson Rodriguez and DL Hall had both been in Sarasota, Florida, training with early-camp pitchers for about a month at the time of the shutdown, while top overall prospect Adley Rutschman was in major league camp for several weeks before going over to minor league camp.

Hall was set to start the season at Double-A Bowie, with Rutschman and Rodriguez likely to be at High-A Frederick. Those assignments aren’t likely to change, but the timeline for promotions and climbing the ladder might.

Elias said it’s a difficult time for the young players who were just drafted last year to learn the professional game. In the Orioles’ case, Gunnar Henderson and Darell Hernaiz were drafted as high school shortstops last summer and would have likely played every day in extended spring training after camp ended. Instead, they’re back home like the approximately 150 minor leaguers that were in camp.

“It’s tough for young guys, especially guys right out of high school who are still in A-ball, those are really precious at-bats,” Elias said. “And there are college players out there that aren’t getting at-bats. There’s just no baseball being played.”

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Manager Brandon Hyde, who spent most of his coaching career in player development, thinks the shutdown could impact that front.

“This can cripple the development a little bit, in that you want guys to get innings,” Hyde said. "You want guys to get at-bats. You want guys to go through full seasons, especially early on, understanding what it takes to live through a full season and compete for a full season. That’s going to be cut short. ...

“If guys have to miss some time and miss some innings and at-bats in 2020, we’ll roll with it and go from there. But from a player-development standpoint, you want guys to rack up at-bats and want pitchers to have meaningful innings. Right now, they just can’t do that.”

Adding more young players could be hampered as well, both with the draft and international signings. While Elias said the Orioles weren’t in the process of adding anymore international signees to the largest class in franchise history — 42 players for over $4.9 million in signing bonuses once all pending deals are approved — scouting there was frozen as well.

“I guess the takeaway is everyone’s impacted the same way, and will be in the same boat,” Elias said. “Overall, whatever affect that has will not affect one player over another. It’s going to be something that we’re continually assessing and talking about during the layoff. It’s just one of these things we’re going to have to deal with it.”

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