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Five things to watch as the Orioles begin their business at baseball’s winter meetings

Typically, the Orioles’ trips to the annual baseball winter meetings in December come in quiet circumstances for not only the club, but the game in general, with free agency cooling off to an alarming degree and the Orioles never being terribly interested in starting their offseason until at least the new year.

That’s all changed this year as executive vice president Mike Elias and his leadership team of assistant general manager for analytics Sig Mejdal and manager Brandon Hyde continue their work on what’s looking to be baseball’s most drastic rebuild while finishing the teardown started in 2018 by their predecessors.

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Trades of infielder Jonathan Villar to the Miami Marlins and right-hander Dylan Bundy to the Los Angeles Angels this month signal plenty of intent for the Orioles, though none that is positive for the short-term future. At these meetings, they’ll sit with other teams and player representatives trying to find players who fit both their present and their future. They’ll meet with vendors to learn new tech that could be their key to enhancing player development. They’ll also be asked to justify their recent moves — a lot, probably.

Last week’s deals mean it might not be a busy week on the personnel front for the Orioles, but it’s certainly already one with clear points of interest. Here are five things to watch this week as the Orioles’ front office heads west to San Diego for the winter meetings.

Are the trades finished?

In the week preceding these meetings, the Orioles took care of two pieces of offseason business that will likely define their winter more than anything that happens this week in trading Villar and Bundy — unless they keep trading.

Elias was pretty forthright after trading Villar about the likelihood that Bundy would be dealt, but hedged a bit more when asked after the Bundy trade whether this was it. He said that once a team gets into trading mode, it makes subsequent trades a bit more reasonable.

How does that relate to some of the Orioles’ remaining stars like Trey Mancini and Mychal Givens? It seems like the winter meetings will go a long way toward explaining that. Elias was clear that just because they’ve already made trades doesn’t mean the club doesn’t value those two players, who have the mixture of talent and club control on their side that makes them worth keeping. Mancini is the team’s unquestioned star and blossomed into the franchise’s face in a great 2019 season. Givens will be a tremendous asset in a consistent late-inning role, like the one the Orioles had him in when their bullpen was stacked in 2016 and 2017.

If the Orioles trade either player, it will be a significant blow to a team without much to look forward to in 2020 and a fanbase that’s starting to realize that and doesn’t like it. That doesn’t mean Elias and company’s long-term plan will change, though, and if trading Mancini or Givens is something they think will benefit the franchise in the future, nothing’s stopping them from exploring that further this week.

How strong will the anti-tank sentiment be around the game?

There are bad teams in baseball every season, and thus teams who sit out the free-agent festivities at the top of the market at the winter meetings. Those teams also become targets for analysts with rightful concerns about the financial state of the game for players and for the competitive integrity of the league.

While the Orioles have been steadfast in their rationalization that the only way to take a franchise that was in the straits they inherited back to the playoffs is aggressively rebuilding, that’s not something that everyone will accept.

In a way, the Orioles’ best hope to stay under the radar is to navigate these meetings without further depleting their major league roster while hoping some of the big free agents sign so that everyone has something else to talk about other than what the Orioles are (or aren’t) doing.

Can the Orioles upgrade their roster as the big boys make their moves?

At last year’s winter meetings, the Orioles made a move that actually impacted the 2019 team a lot — claiming third baseman Rio Ruiz off waivers from the Atlanta Braves. Atlanta tried to slip him through waivers and he didn’t make it past the first team in the claim order. The Orioles needed a third baseman, and got a player who rated very well defensively while hitting .232 with a .682 OPS, albeit with a lot more power in the second half.

He and catcher Pedro Severino were the team’s most significant waiver claims last year, and Ruiz will be an everyday player in 2020 as well. With teams needing to free up roster spots for what seems to be an active early free-agent market and some teams still needing to clear Rule 5 space, players like Ruiz might end up available. The Orioles would do well to snag one or two to change the conversation away from the players that won’t be running down the orange carpet on Opening Day in March.

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What does Brandon Hyde think of all these moves?

After each of last week’s trades, the Orioles held a conference call for Elias to explain and justify moves that weaken the present-day club and allow him to tie the moves to his vision of the future. The same can’t be said for Hyde, who has seen two of the few players he’s relied on shipped away for prospects who, save for one, are probably years away from reaching the majors.

Hyde has been as steadfast as Elias in adhering to and proselytizing for the team’s intentions and goals in this rebuild, and despite moves that will make his job more difficult every day of the season, that’s likely to continue. He could, however, have some more insight into the plans to replace those players short-term at the major league level, which is of a more immediate concern to fans who just want to see a good product on the field every night.

If it’s up to Hyde, he’ll likely say that he just wants to see his players competing as hard as they can every night. But it will be interesting to see who he envisions stepping up in the two recently vacated spots to do that competing.

What will the Rule 5 draft produce?

As ever, the Orioles’ player haul at these meetings might end up being exclusively players in the Rule 5 draft, in which they have the second overall pick Thursday. For the uninitiated, the Rule 5 draft allows players with a requisite amount of minor league experience (four or five seasons, depending on how old they were at signing) who aren’t on their team’s 40-man roster to be selected and get a chance at sticking on another team’s major league roster.

Last year, it produced Richie Martin, who filled a vast organizational need at shortstop and spent the entire year in the majors despite not playing above Double-A with the Oakland Athletics. He was the consensus top pick last season, but it doesn’t seem as if there is a clear front-runner (or two) this week. The Orioles will probably take another infielder or a pitcher with their top pick this year, considering how dire their need is at those spots.

These picks rarely turn out to be impact players in the big leagues, but any new player is notable in these circumstances. This selection will come with plenty of fanfare.

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