Before the Orioles’ ninth straight loss Wednesday, their league-worst 32nd of the season and the 174th in 270 games since this era of rebuilding under executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias, the man entrusted with eventually turning around all that explained why the losing was continuing apace.
It’s to be expected when a team goes young, he said, but the Orioles’ infrastructure and minor league improvements are on course. He called for patience as things start to turn around.
It’s Year 3 under Elias and his regime, though because of the shortened 2020 season, this is roughly around the July 31 trade deadline of the second full season in terms of number of major league games played.
He can rightfully tout improvements on the farm that have come as a result of new scouting and player development changes, as well as all sorts of efforts to get the Orioles in step with how the modern game is played.
Still, it’s hard to convince fans it’s all going to work. On a base level, there’s still a game on television every day, and more often than not, the Orioles lose it. That’s hard to overcome.
To some fans, no amount of rebuilding can change the fact that perfectly adequate, or at least familiar, major league players were released or traded away so unproven younger players can come up and play in their place.
Even the most ardent supporters of the Orioles’ rebuilding efforts and believers in what Elias is trying to do have to understand the scope of what it is the team is actually asking the fanbase to tolerate.
Most of the consternation starts with baggage: nearly 30 years of the Angelos family running the team, countless baseball operations heads whose dubious moves were blessed by ownership or otherwise foisted on them by the top level of the organization, unceremonious departures from the club and long fallow periods on the field.
Elias cutting payroll over the past few years to divert money elsewhere has played into the notion that ownership won’t spend what it takes to win. But this rebuilding period was brought about by the Orioles diverting almost every available resource into major league payrolls in the eight figures and the top half of the league from 2013 to 2018 — at the cost of sustainable success.
There are rightful concerns about the financial state of the team, and Elias has contended there’s money available to do what the club needs. But what major league team has to say goodbye to a beloved announcer in Gary Thorne before building a new academy in the Dominican Republic? What evidence is there that any homegrown players won’t be traded once they start making too much money?
And what does a fan do when the choice is either pay for a ticket and chip into the revenue that could help improve the team, or stay home and not support a losing club that’s not worth coming to see?
It’s three decades of baggage, preceded by three decades of championship-caliber baseball, versus two-plus years of rebuilding, and the past is enough to make it hard to believe in the future.
As far as personnel decisions, Elias has gotten good value for free-agent shortstops José Iglesias and Freddy Galvis so far. To many fans, his track record is one of far more subtraction than addition.
He’s dealt Andrew Cashner, Dylan Bundy, Jonathan Villar, Richard Bleier, Mychal Givens, Miguel Castro, Tommy Milone, Iglesias, and Alex Cobb away for a total of 19 minor leaguers. Only one — reliever Isaac Mattson, with one appearance — has appeared in a big league game, though four (pitcher Kyle Bradish, infielder Jahmai Jones, pitcher Kevin Smith and infielder Terrin Vavra) are in the Baseball America Top 30 prospects list.
Those are just names on a headshot next to some minor league statistics on a MASN in-game graphic for the general fanbase, and the players they were acquired for were actually part of the games. None of them were going to be part of the next great Orioles team, and each was part of a bad Orioles team in the moment. But on occasion, they helped the Orioles win, and everyone went home happy. They still were major league players, and replacing them with waiver claims and eventually prospects means the on-field product will suffer in the short term.
That leads to the reason Elias gave a media briefing Wednesday to begin with: all the losing. It makes sense that when things get this bad at the major league level, as they did several times in 2019, he’d pull himself from his duties to deflect pressure off manager Brandon Hyde and try and refocus the conversation away from the nightly defeats.
But at some point, when a team has two players under the age of 25, hearing about how young they are for the third year in a row rings hollow. Many of the young players from 2019 are still here, and only a few are better. Some have regressed.
In the third year of all this, especially with the return of minor league games to distract everyone with the tantalizing performances of Adley Rutschman, Grayson Rodriguez, DL Hall and company, the Orioles have probably reached a point in which everyone who will buy stock in Elias’ “elite talent pipeline” already has. The rest will need to see the fruits of it at Camden Yards, and then will need to see the team spend accordingly to maximize that window of contention and keep those players around.
That might happen sooner than it seems watching the sliding major league team right now. All three of the above-mentioned prospects will be at Double-A Bowie together soon enough, putting each on track to at least begin 2022 at Triple-A Norfolk — if they’re not there later this summer — and join the big league club soon after that. Jones and Bradish are already at Triple-A with the centerpiece of the Manny Machado trade, outfielder Yusniel Diaz.
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None of this hope for the future is new, though. It’s been around for as long as Elias has been in charge, and even back to the last days of the Dan Duquette era. The problem is, skepticism in what the Orioles are doing has roots that are much, much deeper.