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Orioles’ quiet trade deadline signals that return to contention might not be so far away: ‘I think it’s getting closer’

Amid the opening statement of his post-trade deadline Zoom call, Orioles executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias used two words that haven’t truly described the club at any point in his three seasons leading its baseball operations department.

Playoff contender.

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Of course, he wasn’t talking about the 2021 Orioles, who even with a victory Friday night are 30 games below .500 and ended play tied for the worst record in the American League at 36-66. Elias, as he so often has done in his role, was looking to the future. Friday afternoon marked the trade deadline, and neither deal the Orioles made took or added to their active major league roster. But in describing why the team didn’t move any of its players who have multiple years of team control left, Elias, for the first time, hinted at when the organization could begin turning from rebuilding to contending.

“Leading into this deadline, we were very mindful of the fact that a lot of our best players that were in demand are players that are not pending free agents with the Orioles, and they’re players that are young and talented and we like and that have future years with this club and project to be a part of this club when we hope to be a playoff contender,” Elias said, “so we were very judicious and mindful of that as we approached this deadline.”

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The players Elias was referring to included starting pitcher John Means, center fielder Cedric Mullins, and left-handed relievers Paul Fry and Tanner Scott. Each of them is eligible for arbitration for the first time this offseason. They won’t be free agents until after the 2024 season.

Elias’ regime is in its third season. It seems to have its eyes on being a playoff contender within three more.

Such a timeline would make sense. The Orioles have one of baseball’s top farm systems, with catcher Adley Rutschman — likely to be ranked as the sport’s top prospect this offseason — and a wave of pitchers in Grayson Rodriguez, DL Hall, Michael Baumann and Kyle Bradish likely arriving next year, if not this fall in some cases. Of course, that crop needs time to settle at the major league level, so even with those pieces in place, it could still take another year or so for the excitement to be converted into victories.

“The team’s going to go up,” Elias said. “We’re going to get better every year.”

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Still, asked directly when he sees the Orioles contending as talent builds in the minors and players show signs of progress in the majors, Elias spoke broadly.

“I think it’s getting closer,” he said before citing the developments of Means, Mullins and Austin Hays, as well as Trey Mancini’s successful return from colon cancer. He noted the changes made to organizational infrastructure, with the club investing into the international market in a way it never has before.

Yet, the Orioles remain in the American League East, where each of the four other teams are currently jockeying for playoff spots and are either constant heavyweights in the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees, the reigning pennant winners in the Tampa Bay Rays, or baseball’s best hub of young talent this side of San Diego in the Toronto Blue Jays.

“The organization is in much better shape,” Elias said, “but I continue to be daunted by what I see in our division and what I see around the league. There are super teams on both sides of the league right now, American League, National League, and some very loaded rosters, so we have a very long way to go. We have a lot of work to do.

“It’s hard for me to forecast. I just know the direction we want to continue to push in and I know that there’s talent on the way, and I think that the deficit between the Orioles and the AL East that we’ve seen the last few years is closing, and that’s important, and we’re gonna get more competitive very soon in this division. I know that.”

Mark your calendars for 2024. In assessing trade offers this week, it seems Elias and Co. were doing the same.

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