July 10, 2023
Right on Time
Whether the resurgence of the Baltimore Orioles is ahead of schedule or not is of no concern to general manager Mike Elias
By Doug Ottewill
A note from the author…
SuperBook Sports is proud to be the official sports betting partner of the Baltimore Orioles. In this unique, first of its kind partnership, the Orioles and SuperBook Sports have created innovative ways in which fans can consume, interact with and wager upon their favorite team, including the SuperBook Bar & Restaurant at Oriole Park at Camden Yards, as well as online at md.SuperBook.com.
“I’ve never talked timelines.”
Perhaps Mike Elias hasn’t. But in and around Major League Baseball, timelines are an unavoidable topic. When the subject comes up in Baltimore, Maryland of late, it’s currently a conversation everyone is more than happy to have.
As the MLB season approaches its All-Star break, what could be more fun than discussing a team that’s seemingly ahead of schedule?
Elias, who is now in the middle of his fifth season as the Executive Vice President and General Manager of the Baltimore Orioles, may not have had a timeline in mind when he took the job, a challenge not meant for the faint of heart. Elias was hired in November of 2018 and Baltimore was coming off a 115-loss season. Whether he prefers to talk about time, then or now, is irrelevant. How far the Orioles have come in what seems like a relatively short amount of time, however, is impossible not to notice.
At the All-Star break, Baltimore sits at a handy 54-35 and possesses the second-best record in the American League. The only team with a better mark is Tampa Bay, the Orioles’ divisional foe. Despite the Rays historically hot start to the season, only 2.0 games stand between Baltimore and the top spot in the AL East, one of the most ruthless divisions in all of professional sports. They sent four players (catcher Adley Rutschman, outfielder Austin Hays and relievers Félix Bautista and Yennier Cano) to Seattle for the Midsummer Classic. The last time the Orioles could boast that many All-Stars was in 2016.
With 73 games remaining in their 2023 season, and still holding residence in baseball’s toughest division, where no team has a losing record, the Orioles haven’t “officially” done anything yet. Considering where Elias and the Orioles began, simply being competitive – especially in the AL East – is an achievement in and of itself. But even the idea of being competitive was never accompanied by a specific date or season.
“(Not talking about a timeline) was very deliberate,” Elias said two-days prior to the 2023 Major League Baseball draft. “You never know. There’s so much in our sport that’s dependent on luck and health and things that are just totally out of your control, that it’s rather fruitless to put a timeline on a rebuild.”
Rebuild is another term that few in professional sports willingly want to discuss, but it’s a term that doesn’t – or didn’t – seem to scare Elias. With the Astros from 2012 to 2018, Elias witnessed firsthand what he now calls an “extreme” rebuild.
“I recall when Jeff Luhnow took the (Astros) general manager job, and the Houston situation was considered pretty bleak. There were people saying it would take six or seven or eight years, and the team got back to the playoffs in four. So that kind of taught me that these things are hard to forecast.”
Baltimore had real issues, too. In retrospect, the problems that plagued the Orioles almost seem unfathomable in 2023. In essence, the franchise lacked many things that are now considered commonplace among modern major league teams.
“There were a lot of problems in the organization,” Elias said. “There was not really an analytics department. There was no real international scouting department. That made me perhaps a little cautious that this might take longer than the Astros did.”
Despite the shortcomings, there were plenty of reasons to like the opportunity at hand for Elias, who grew up in northern Virginia, back when the Senators weren’t playing in D.C. and the Orioles were essentially the local team. But it was more than boyhood familiarity or the chance to take one of the only 30 general manager jobs in the majors. The challenges that faced the Orioles matched up well with Elias’ career path, a somewhat serendipitous, 17-year climb that saw valuable stops in St. Louis and Houston.
Elias can still list the obstacles that he viewed as attractive: “Number one, being a rebuild. Number two, scouting and player development emphasis. And number three, needing to jumpstart an international and analytics program right away. (It all) really felt like an overlap with my resume.”
It might have been his confidence in ownership, however, that made him most comfortable with an opportunity many might not have viewed so favorably.
“John Angelos, who is running the team, was very, very clear and consistent that he supported a rebuilding approach, that he wanted to see a fresh perspective to the way that the team ran its baseball operations, that he was basically open for our vision,” Elias said. “And so that’s huge to have that support from ownership.”
Nothing in baseball happens overnight though. Plans take time, and few involved know exactly how much of it. In his first year on the job, the team –under the guidance of new manager Brandon Hyde – Baltimore won 54 games. In year two, as if the Orioles needed any more bumps in the road, the pandemic struck; Hyde’s team went 25-35. The 2021 season, at least from the outside, looked like a step backwards, as the Orioles only managed 52 wins.
But in 2022, the tides seemed to turn. For the first time since 2016, the O’s finished with a winning record at 83-79.
“It wasn’t a playoff season, but it was a winning season in year four,” Elias said. “And I don’t know that I would’ve predicted that.”
In Seattle, during baseball’s only break until the World Series is over, the Orioles are the talk of the town. If anyone had a timeline for the Orioles resurgence, it wasn’t this one. Trying to return to respectable in the mighty AL East, where the No. 2, 7 and 14 ranking payrolls compete, would be no easy task. Even the oddsmakers were fooled by the bizarre AL East this season, as the preseason odds to compete for an American League Pennant looked nearly opposite of the standings at the season’s unofficial midway point.
According to SuperBook Sports, the official sports betting partner of the Orioles, the O’s came in at +2000 to win the pennant, which put them at the 8th best. By comparison, the Yankees were +325, the Blue Jays were +500 and the Rays were just ahead of Baltimore at +1000.
Today, those odds at SuperBook are as follows: Rays +225, Blue Jays +800, Orioles +900, Yankees +1000 and Red Sox +4000.
For any fanbase watching its team emerge from the darkness, the unsettling news is that there’s a lot of baseball still to be played. As the odds might indicate, the AL East, along with AL wildcard spots, are still very much up for grabs.
The good news, however, is that the success in Baltimore, a reflection of Elias’ vision from the start, appears to be sustainable. The Orioles farm system is ranked as the best in the majors and has maintained that ranking since 2021’s mlb.com midseason rankings. Per the site: “The Orioles retain the top spot in the MLB Pipeline Farm System Rankings for the fourth consecutive time between preseason and midseason lists. Since Pipeline began ranking systems in 2015, only one other organization has claimed No. 1 four times in a row.”
Elias believes what the Orioles are building – and how they are building it – is a sustainable model. He doesn’t attribute a lone factor for the success taking place on the farm.
“It’s a blend of a lot of things,” Elias said. “First of all, we did have four high picks in a row when we were rebuilding, and it looks like we’ve done well with each of those picks so far, so that helped. I think the previous administration drafted pretty well and we’re still enjoying some of their draft picks. So, that’s always nice to inherit good drafts. I think we’ve got a good scouting department, obviously we’ve got a great analytics department.
“But I think our minor league coaches really deserve so much credit. We’re just so confident that when we take a player in the draft, and we see some things that he can improve upon, our minor league coaches really do everything they can to implement those improvements. That’s a big reason why you see a Gunnar Henderson kind of reach his potential – or a Colton Cowser make some adjustments on his way up the system.”
On July 6 against the Yankees, Henderson became just the 3rd Orioles rookie to post 4 hits and 5 RBI in a game since RBI became official in 1920. And he did it in just four innings. Cowser, the No. 5 overall pick in 2021, began the season in Triple-A Norfolk and, in 56 games through July 4, he slashed .330/.459/.537 with 10 doubles, one triple, 10 homers and 40 RBIs before being called up by the Orioles.
The Orioles’ farm system is loaded with talent knocking on the door of the major league clubhouse. The latest additions will come in the form of this year’s draft class, a work in progress over the All-Star break. At No. 17, Elias snagged Enrique Bradfield Jr., an outfielder blessed with multiple skill sets.
Managing the ample development throughout the system has become a welcome job for Elias and Hyde.
“Player promotions, whether it’s in the minors or the majors, is always a little bit of an art,” Elias said. “Generally speaking, we want our guys to feel challenged at the levels they’re playing. We don’t want them to stagnate, but we also don’t want to rush them such that they’re overwhelmed. So, we kind of have to thread the needle of guys feeling like they’re playing against competition that’s better than they are, but also not destroying somebody’s career by promoting them too fast.
“And then when it comes to the majors now, we’ve got to worry about winning games up here.”
That, undoubtedly, is a welcome concern in Baltimore, whether it’s ahead of schedule or not.
“I’m glad we never got caught up in timelines,” Elias said. “Our process had always been to work as smart and work as hard and work as fast as possible – and sort of let the chips fall after that. And that’s kind of how baseball is.”
And baseball in Baltimore, above all else, is fun once again.