Mike Elias couldn't have been anywhere more fitting when the call came last fall from his boss in Houston, Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow, to relay that the Orioles requested to interview him for the promotion of a lifetime.
He was on the road, scouting at a Dominican Prospect League tournament in Jupiter, which brought the best international amateurs for the 2019 signing class into one place in late October — about a week after the Astros' season ended one step shy of the World Series.
Elias, 36, and Luhnow, the only baseball boss he’d ever known, talked it through. A month later, Elias was announced as the new executive vice president and general manager of baseball's latest modern-day rebuilding project in Baltimore. The move set off a frantic offseason that included the hires of assistant general manager for analytics Sig Mejdal and manager Brandon Hyde, and overhauls to several baseball operations departments with one mission in mind: to create a new version of the drafting-and-development behemoth that helped the likes of the Chicago Cubs and Astros win World Series in 2016 and 2017, respectively.
"Our goal is not to cobble together a one-year wonder team that has a chance at making the playoffs, but if things go wrong, we'll have to break it down," Elias said. "We want to do this right. We need a sustainable pipeline of talent that starts in the amateur world and extends all the way up here to the major league level. We need to do the things necessary to build that pipeline."
That, more than immediate major league success when the season begins March 28 at the New York Yankees, is why the offseason in Baltimore has revolved around Elias, Mejdal and Hyde more than any player who will be on the team come Opening Day.
It's why, with their father, Orioles owner Peter G. Angelos, having a reduced role running the franchise, brothers John and Louis Angelos arrived at Elias. It’s also why, upon introducing Elias, they described ownership's obligation as getting “the absolute best baseball operations person involved and give them the resources, and let them do the job."
They'll have been happy to find out where Elias was when he got the call to start that process.
A good fit
Elias, a left-handed pitcher at Yale from 2002 to 2006, began his career in professional baseball in 2007 not as a player but as an amateur scout for the St. Louis Cardinals in a department headed by Luhnow. He worked his way up to supervisory roles there, then went to Houston when Luhnow was hired as Astros general manager ahead of the 2012 season to execute a rebuild that mirrors what the Orioles want in many ways. At the time, a rebuild like this was far more unusual.
Elias was the director of amateur scouting for several impactful drafts for the Astros, was the point man when they drafted All-Star shortstop Carlos Correa with their top pick, and eventually had international scouting director added to his job description when he was promoted to assistant general manager in 2016.
The Alexandria, Va., native was in that position when the Orioles' top job came open this past October. Elias now acknowledges that he was monitoring it throughout the end of the 2018 season as the franchise he grew up watching lost 115 games and the contracts of executive vice president Dan Duquette and manager Buck Showalter were expiring.
When the time came to meet with the Angelos family, he hadn't formally interviewed for a job since college; even the initial Cardinals scouting job was one he knew he was a strong candidate for. But he knew how to sell himself.
"I explained to them very objectively our successes in St. Louis and Houston, our track record with scouting and player development, and there are benchmarks and metrics you can point to to demonstrate that success," Elias said. "I thought it'd be very applicable here in Baltimore."
Their drafts in both places produced large parts of World Series-winning cores, and through several phone interviews before marathon in-person sessions, he communicated what was behind those triumphs.
"I was pretty confident with the success of what we did in Houston and St. Louis, and our know-how in the scouting and player development areas on top of the fact that the Orioles would be looking to expand their international program and their analytics program," Elias said. "There was a lot of overlap with my resume and their needs. I wasn't surprised to be a serious candidate, but the interview process, just the communication process went well enough where things only got better after that."
Bringing on Mejdal
As long as Elias had worked for Luhnow, so had Mejdal, an engineer with a diverse resume of blackjack dealing and NASA work. Mejdal, 53, was hired during the "Moneyball" era in 2005 to build draft models for the Cardinals and came along to Houston with the title of director of decision sciences. The Astros were going to take the data-driven success St. Louis had built in its amateur scouting department and have that inform everything from player development to major league strategy.
"He informs basically everything that we do, scouting and player development — just everything," Elias said. "He's kind of the intellectual core of a lot of that."
Mejdal's influence grew outside the analytics department. He was made special assistant to Luhnow and spent a season in uniform at Short-A Tri-City to see what players and coaches truly needed to implement some of the club’s analytics and player-development practices.
But through 2018, something changed.
"I realized that I very much enjoy the start-up phase more than the status quo," Medjal said. "That was becoming clearer to me as the year went on. The internal dialogue was like, 'Are you crazy, Sig? This is arguably the best team in baseball, and they're expected to arguably be again next year, and I'm not completely satisfied?' But the feeling didn't go away."
When he spoke to Luhnow about the possibility of leaving Houston, he and Elias hadn't spoken about the idea of getting the band together elsewhere. Mejdal said he was embarrassed to acknowledge that he didn't think Elias would be part of this year's batch of top executive hires until he saw him connected to a job.
"I immediately thought, 'That would be the best-case scenario, where I would have a GM who already trusts me, and who has experienced the value in what I can bring, and doesn't have to be sold on this,' " Mejdal said. "Then, I thought from Mike's perspective, that a lot of the tools that he put to the Astros’ and previously the Cardinals' advantage, I had created or been involved with that. So, he would know that he was going with someone who could re-create some of those valuable tools."
Just days after Elias' hire became official, the Orioles announced that Mejdal was joining him.
"We worked so well together the last 12 years, and the results have been so good that I would be crazy to not want to work with him," Elias said. "I think he would also be crazy to not want to jump in with a new general manager with whom he's got that type of relationship and trust right off the bat."
That background helped, because their list of tasks was significant. Mejdal was about to inherit a department that had just lost its head, Sarah Gelles, to the Astros, and had one programmer on staff. There hadn't been a formal international scouting director in 2018 after Fred Ferreira left, and the person taking point in that role without the title, Cale Cox, wasn't retained when baseball operations contracts expired Oct. 31.
But as Elias and Mejdal were hard at work addressing some of those institutional deficiencies — and still are — the task of replacing a popular figure in Showalter loomed.
Fifth time’s the charm
Hyde, 45, had already been a candidate for four jobs by the time Elias signed on in Baltimore in mid-November. Hyde had spent as long after the Cubs’ season ended crisscrossing the country on interviews and hopping on conference calls before the last of those vacancies were filled Nov. 3, as he did in "take a step back" mode, refocusing on the 2019 Cubs and what could get them back to the World Series.
All the reasons he was fine with staying in Chicago were the reasons he was an attractive candidate this offseason to manage. He was Joe Maddon's bench coach, and worked for a well-respected front office that had entrusted him with building the farm system that helped Chicago to its 2016 World Series title.
But unlike with some of the other jobs that came open this fall, Hyde didn't have any connection to Elias and Mejdal, save for his brother-in-law, Astros bench coach Joe Espada. He ultimately didn't need one.
Before Elias went about the business of calling other executives who had hired new managers, he asked Astros manager A.J. Hinch for his thoughts, and Hinch told him about Hyde.
Few have amassed the experience Hyde has — as a minor league manager, a player development coordinator, a front-office executive and bench coach — over nearly two decades with the Miami Marlins and Cubs.
Hyde liked the fact that the interviews were more personal — he met with Elias in the owner's suite at Camden Yards — and how the Orioles seemed just as interested in getting to know him as learning about his baseball philosophy.
The commonality of what the Astros and Cubs went through to build their world championship teams was an immediate draw to each.
"Just hearing him talk to how he got to where he is, and the way he thinks about baseball, and his evaluative skills of players and all that which has been honed not just as a member of a field staff but also as a front office executive — just the perfect package," Elias said.
Said Hyde: "I felt like right away with Mike, it was very realistic, and that there was a vision that mirrored what I went through in '12 with Chicago. That attracted me, and I knew how much work we put in in '12, '13, '14, and what it took, and I thought he saw it the same way. Right then, I was like, 'This is interesting.' "
They went to a rooftop dinner in Harbor East, bonded some more, and Elias and Mejdal felt Hyde would "certainly be among the final two or so," after his visit. That he was the final choice became public during an uncomfortable media briefing with Elias in the Orioles' suite at the winter meetings, when Elias was denying a hire had been made while news of Hyde's selection flashed across the television screen on MLB Network. When it was formalized, the work was only beginning for the front-facing trio of Elias, Mejdal and Hyde.
They had to fill out a major league coaching staff and try to supplement the minor league staff with coaches whose visions more aligned with some of the progressive practices of Houston's farm system. The Orioles hired minor league pitching coordinator Chris Holt away from the Astros, and he could turn out to be a prominent addition given Houston’s pitching development success.
In early January, Koby Pérez was hired away from the Cleveland Indians as senior director of international scouting, addressing what Elias believed was one of two immediate areas of deficiency. Mejdal said the most important thing on his agenda at the moment is to "create that [analytics] department and get it up to speed and make it state of the art."
Elias called all that "procedural and infrastructural," and not the primary concern of the 60-plus players and coaches who arrived in Sarasota in early February to prepare for the major league season, nor the fans whose time and resources will go toward the team this summer.
No one is promising results, not with a young team that's mostly intact after last year's club-record losing season. But Hyde went about establishing quickly that things would at least be different. His camp was one he didn’t see as remarkable, but players raved about how much more comfortable they feel to be themselves and make the kinds of mistakes that lead to improvement. Hyde doesn’t take satisfaction in that, but knows what will constitute a good year.
“I really want our guys to just want to be a real competitive team, where guys play for each other, they play hard, they play to win every night,” Hyde said. “Then, I'll feel good. But I just want this group to take ownership of not only their careers but our team, and to watch it just grow and improve.”
Players, so far, have bought in on some of the analytics-driven concepts Luhnow and company implemented in Houston. They've looked at how the league changed and in some ways passed them by, and welcome anything to help their careers and help their team win. Mejdal said the front office’s success with such practices has been so visible that it has has made things easier to implement with the Orioles.
But the Orioles are seeking a whole organization where such practices drive success. That's why Hyde has integrated minor league coaches into major league camp more extensively, and why the hope in the Warehouse is scouting and player development will now be on the same page. Success in such systems in Houston and Chicago, as well as with other teams, is why the Orioles installed this trio to create that in Baltimore.
"That is the only way for a team like ours to have a sustained chance at making the playoffs over several years across a decade," Elias said. "I think that's what other teams around the league are doing, and it's tough, because in our division, there's two of the richest teams in baseball. There's many of the smartest teams in baseball, and there's two or three really stacked farm systems right now.
"We've got our work cut out for us. But I feel like having the group that we have, and some of the edges that I think we bring to the table, we've got a real shot. But people understand that we're trying to do this the right way. It needs to be done the right way."