Baltimore Orioles

Orioles reset: How the front office is setting itself up for big changes after its first year

In keeping with the rest of the season, the most significant parts of the Orioles’ final week at home in 2019 had little to do with the product on the field.

The Orioles hired Matt Blood away from the Texas Rangers last week, then paraded around their minor league award winners over the weekend, the latest emphasis on what’s happening below the big league level in Baltimore. On Sunday, executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias tried to spend most of his season-end media session talking about the minors.


All of this comes after a month of drastic change in the baseball operations department, where dozens of scouts, front office staff, and player development personnel were told they wouldn’t be back for the 2020 season, sparking understandable angst about the futures of staff who have decades upon decades of experience with the game and with the Orioles and what will happen without them.

The Orioles chalk it up to their joining what’s been a sweeping change in the makeup of baseball operations departments over the past decade or so, one the front office of Elias and assistant general manager Sig Mejdal were a part of starting in their time with the Houston Astros.


That doesn’t make it right, and that doesn’t mean good baseball men weren’t let go in the past month. It does, however, mean this is full speed ahead in the direction Elias and his staff feel it needs to go. And a new direction was certainly needed.

“The group of people who joined the organization this year, we took this on, trying to fix it,” Elias said Sunday. “In order to do that, we’re making changes. We’re not just doing the same thing with the same people that have been done here before.”

No one who lost or kept his job over the past year — all the way back to the dismissals of executive vice president Dan Duquette and manager Buck Showalter and the concurrent staff adjustments — is solely responsible for the past two 100-loss seasons, or the ones that are likely to follow.

But consider this: removing first-round draft picks, who are often the most talented players in the country and not often requiring much development, the Orioles have signed and developed two amateur players selected after the first two rounds this decade who have, according to FanGraphs WAR (wins above replacement), produced a two-win season in an Orioles uniform. Those are John Means and Trey Mancini this year. (Wei-Yin Chen was signed out of Japan ahead of his age-26 season.)

Means drove back and forth across the state of Missouri to attend a specialized pitching development facility that helped him add the velocity necessary to pitch at this level, and honed what’s become a devastating changeup this spring training working with new minor league pitching coordinator Chris Holt. Mancini is a self-driven player with a chip on his shoulder who overcame plenty of stigmas, internally and externally, to make himself into the Most Valuable Oriole.

Plenty of hands helped them along the way, but major league clubs should be enjoying the types of seasons from homegrown players like Means and Mancini every year, not once a decade. Change of the incremental variety wouldn’t really have been change at all.

That, it seems, is where Blood comes in. His hiring was the type that drained the phone battery. Everyone had an opinion on him and the hire, and most of it focused on his time in Texas — where he was hired in the offseason away from a job running the Under-18 national team for USA Baseball to be the farm director but was quickly shuffled out of that role and given the title Director of Baseball Innovation, with little on-field interfacing after the transition.

That doesn’t happen for no reason, but also doesn’t mean the Orioles didn’t know the reason. If it was personality-driven, the Orioles clearly know what they’re getting given Elias and Mejdal worked with him in St. Louis before departing to Houston. If it was baseball-driven, and his ideas simply weren’t what Texas was looking for, they probably know what they’re getting on that front too.


Year One was a lot of inventory-taking, and building on what was already here in the most direct ways possible. Year Two and beyond can’t just be about continuing to try and be the Astros; everyone in the league has been doing that for far longer, and are far closer to replicating it than the Orioles will ever get before the league moves onto the next best thing.

Elias has touted the ahead-of-schedule successes of the pitching program they imported from Houston, with Holt educating coaches new and old on what was expected. After two years of injuries and a philosophical chasm left former first-round pick Cody Sedlock, in Elias’ words, “dead in the water,” Elias pointed to their new program as having helped him get back on track.

“It was a wonderful story, and there were a lot of them,” Elias said.

But that’s all from the program the front office brought from Houston. From the moment they signed on, Elias and Mejdal have been interested in finding what’s next themselves. Elias said in a statement upon his hiring that Blood’s “knowledge of the latest trends in the player development sphere will help to keep us on the forefront of this critical area.”

The last month has made it so there won’t be much tethering the Orioles’ player development operation as they tap Blood to take things in the direction they want, however outside-the-box that direction may be.

“In the role he was in [with USA Baseball] and the way he went about the role, he became very plugged into this whole burgeoning world of technology-oriented player development that we all find ourselves in now,” Elias said. “I know him. He’s got a lot of skills. He’s a real talented guy. He’s real organized. He’s real energetic. But we’re going to be doing a ton of hiring and kind of starting up a lot of new practices. I like him to spearhead those areas for us. … I think bringing him in for those reasons is going to be huge, to continue to keep us evolving in the player development space.”


What’s to come?

By this time this week, the end, which will be equal parts merciful and disappointing. These Orioles have been a lot of things, but boring has rarely been one of them. The most modest goal of the final week of the season will be to avoid 110 losses, which just two wins in six games between Toronto and Boston can accomplish.

Toronto, as displayed here last week, is in a similar position as the Orioles but with plenty more young talent. Boston, already eliminated from the playoffs and flagging some down the stretch, might not put up much of a resistance to the Orioles’ efforts to finish respectably. At stake is a third winning road trip of the season, with the first coming the first week of the season through New York and Toronto and the second in late July through Arizona, Anaheim, and San Diego.

What was good?

Austin Hays has basically only provided positives since the Orioles recalled him two weeks ago, so with respect to Mancini, it was good that MLB changed the rule for the Arizona Fall League that allowed players to be called up in September and just report after the major league season is over.

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Had that not been the case, Hays would be playing in anonymity in the desert instead of getting the most valuable experience a young player can get: the kind where he realizes he can hack it in the big leagues.

At the plate, he still drives the ball with authority, and is showing a bit better of an approach than he has since he debuted in 2017. He has more than held his own in center field, and the fact that he’s allowed to play more shallow than the Orioles’ other center fielders have this year means they trust him to cover a lot of ground out there.

The extra at-bats once he goes to Arizona next week will be important to his development. But the last few weeks, considering how they’ve gone, are irreplaceable.


What wasn’t?

Chris Davis rightfully savored the moment that came along with his go-ahead home run Sunday, as it’s been a miserable season (or three) for the Orioles’ highest-paid player. All of that was rightfully cast as happening on what could be Davis’ last homestand in an Orioles uniform, considering his lack of production and the three expensive years left on his contract.

But Elias said before the game that Davis would be with the Orioles during spring training. The same can’t be said for designated hitter Mark Trumbo, whose three-year, $37.5 million contract signed ahead of the 2017 season runs out after this year. It’s unlikely Trumbo will be back in 2020, and despite his 2016 All-Star season with a league-leading 47 home runs, and his 87 home runs in an Orioles uniform, it was a quiet sendoff Sunday if that’s what it ultimately was. That’s a little bit of a shame.

He wasn’t expecting much, but was glad to be able to play nonetheless. He said it’s “easier to operate” in the mode of just treating it like a regular game and hoping for a part in an Orioles victory.

“I think just getting back on the field was my biggest goal all year,” Trumbo said. “So, in Tampa, I think that was extremely special, and then to be able to take the field today, maybe one more time at home, it is important. I think throughout this year, there were plenty of times when it looked like it might not be a possibility. But I think kind of having a patient mindset, but optimistic at the same time, has been helpful in getting to this being a possibility.”