Despite a consistent downpour of rain in downtown Baltimore on Saturday, the 1,000 or so fans on Eutaw Street found ways to enjoy the Orioles’ first Winter Warm-Up event, part of a multitude of efforts designed to involve fans throughout the offseason in place of a traditional FanFest.
That positivity carried into a moderated question-and-answer session with executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias, assistant general manager of analytics Sig Mejdal and manager Brandon Hyde. At least until one fan asked about the Washington Nationals’ recent World Series victory.
The mention of it prompted some boos from other fans, while the fan asking referred to it as “a slap in the face” to watch a franchise so close win a title with the Orioles coming off a second straight 100-loss season. He worried how Orioles leadership planned to persuade casual fans in the area to cheer for Baltimore while the Nationals are competitive and successful. Elias, an Alexandria, Virginia, native, pointed to the 12-2 Ravens’ successes as a sign that winning will bring fans across the Baltimore-Washington border.
“I know that fans from both sides of the market will be supportive of the Orioles when we turn back to where we were a few years ago, a playoff-caliber, exciting team,” Elias said. “I think that the fact that the Nationals won the World Series, it’s good for baseball in the region, but more specifically, I look at it from the perspective of I remember where they were, and they built that organization the way we’re building the Orioles right now. Scouting, a very strong international focus, they were patient, they did a good job with some high draft picks — which we’re in the midst of right now — and it shows that that exact model can lead to where the Nats are.
“We look forward to getting back on equal footing with them one day. Right now, we're not there quite yet, but I know we will, and I think that the success that the Ravens are having right now shows that we can draw support from that side of the market, too. I'm looking forward to it. We're working on it, and it's gonna be a lot of fun when we get back there."
When that happens remains the question, given that the Orioles have given no indications of an improved on-field product in 2020. Ahead of the winter meetings, the team traded infield Jonathan Villar, its most productive position player in 2019, and right-hander Dylan Bundy, a former first-round pick who led the Orioles in innings last year, for five minor league pitchers, only one of whom has pitched above Class A.
Yet, fans at the Winter Warm-Up were generally open to Elias’ approach of rebuilding the team from top to bottom, especially given the improvements in the Orioles’ farm system in his first year on the job.
“The day [owners] John and Lou Angelos announced they were tearing the organization down to the studs and starting over, I got very happy,” said Ed McDonald, 64, of Federal Hill, while checking out vendors along Eutaw Street. “This organization needed to be redone. I’ve been very happy with everything Mike Elias and the whole organization has done so far, to rebuild this in the right way.
“I expect bad baseball again in 2020, and I’m OK with that as long as they’re building the foundation for return to championship-winning ways.”
Andrew Maggio, 41, of Elkridge went to the event with his 12-year-old son Matt, who boldly predicted the Orioles would be back in the playoffs by the time he was 14.
“We trust Mike Elias,” Andrew Maggio said. “We trust the process [and] Brandon Hyde. We’re diehards Orioles for life no matter what.
“We believe in the longer picture.”
Others who also do still aren’t necessarily excited for the short-term future of the franchise.
“It’s sad,” said Emily Galita, 46, of Catonsville. “I get why they’re doing it, but it’s still depressing to watch players go when you know that we need people in those positions. It hurts, from a fan’s perspective.”
For that reason, patience remains the message, and it was preached repetitively Saturday.
“We fully get it that it’s hard to watch at times,” Hyde said. “It’s frustrating in the chairs that we’re sitting in right now, also. But we understand the process it’s going to take, how long it’s going to take, and we just want everybody to just buy in to what’s going on because I think there’s a lot of positive things going on.”
On multiple occasions, the men on stage thanked those in attendance, with Mejdal calling them, “the best fans in the world.”
“We build off of your support,” Elias said. “[For you] to come out here and brave this weather says so much to us, and we know you guys understand what we're doing as an organization and where we're headed and we really appreciate you coming out.
“A huge part of our success is going to be you guys hanging in there, understanding the process and helping us spread this message around the city."
Around the horn
After saying during the winter meetings that prospect Ryan Mountcastle would get looks at first, third, left field and right field in spring training, Elias said the organization is open to Mountcastle playing some second base when a fan asked specifically about Mountcastle’s ability at that position. “It’s something that we might try to mix in here and there,” Elias said, noting it would not be in a full-time capacity as the Orioles try to find a defensive home for Mountcastle’s bat. … The Orioles are open to a reunion with free agent catcher Caleb Joseph, who played for Baltimore from 2014-18 before getting non-tendered last offseason. “He’s on the radar screen for us," Elias said. “We would love to have him back, for sure.”