But with those things, particularly the faith in Elias — their 36-year-old, first-year general manager out of Alexandria’s Jefferson High, Yale University and the Houston Astros — you can convince yourself there are better days ahead for a franchise that hasn’t made a World Series appearance since 1983, when Elias was less than a year old, and has seen its annual attendance reduced by nearly two-thirds in the past 23 years.
A rebuilding project that began in July 2018 with the trades of Manny Machado and others, leading to a bottoming-out at 47-115 last season, has accelerated in the 10 months since Elias was hired to replace Dan Duquette atop the Orioles’ baseball operations, resulting in a vast restructuring of the organization’s hierarchy and a complete reshaping of its guiding philosophy — from one grounded in tradition and old-fashioned scouting to one predicated upon data and technology.
Evidence of progress is scarce at the big league level, where the Orioles are on the verge of finishing 50-plus games out of first place in the American League East for the second straight season and where home attendance plummeted to 1.3 million in 2019 — an average of a little more than 16,000 per game — the lowest in Camden Yards history and lower than that of every team in the majors this season besides the Tampa Bay Rays and Miami Marlins.
“It’s daunting,” Elias said near the dugout railing one afternoon on the season’s final homestand, “and will continue to be so.”
It’s in the farm system, particularly at the lower levels, where you can begin to see a future — one that includes something other than 100-loss seasons and seas of empty seats — for the Orioles.
Progress has manifested itself in ways both subjective — such as Baseball America’s minor league talent rankings, where the Orioles have shot up from 22nd entering the 2019 season to ninth this August — and objective, with the team’s affiliates in the rookie-level Gulf Coast League (Sarasota), short-season Class A (Aberdeen), low Class A (Delmarva) and Class AA (Bowie) all leading their respective leagues in ERA. Every Orioles affiliate above rookie level saw its pitching staff raise its strikeout rate, and Delmarva, where the team stashed many of its top young pitching prospects, set a South Atlantic League record for strikeouts.
Adley Rutschman, the Oregon State catcher taken by the Orioles with the first pick of the 2019 draft, is already rated the fifth-best prospect in the sport by Baseball America, just 130 at-bats into his professional career. (The 2019 Orioles, however, will be edged out by the Detroit Tigers for the No. 1 overall pick in 2020, based on the lower win-loss record.)
“We absolutely have a lot of internal parts in this system,” Elias said, “that will be part of the next playoff team here.”
If the Orioles’ methodology — lose 100-plus games for multiple seasons, accrue high draft picks, hoard prospects, cultivate strikeouts by pitchers and implement an analytics-based player-development model — sounds familiar, it’s because the Astros used it to go from 324 losses over the 2011-2013 seasons to the World Series title in 2017. And their scouting director (and later assistant GM) during that period, which saw the Astros draft future superstars such as Carlos Correa and Alex Bregman, was none other than Elias.
“The trends you see in the modern game, I think we developed ways of teaching that stuff that was extraordinarily successful in Houston,” Elias said. “We are attempting to do similar things here.”
The Astros’ rise did not come without some tumult and a disquieting human toll. Under GM Jeff Luhnow, the organization fired scores of scouts and minor league staffers, replacing them mostly with data and video analysts and new-school coaching disciples — along the way earning the scorn of the industry and a reputation for ruthlessness — as it built what would become the industry standard for a data-based approach. This month, the Astros became the second team this century to post three straight 100-win seasons.
The widespread fears around the Orioles organization that a similar bloodletting would come to Baltimore were confirmed recently when Elias, in two waves, dismissed more than two dozen employees from the scouting, player development and front office staffs — including some who had been employed by the organization for more than three decades and at least two members of the Orioles Hall of Fame (rehab pitching coordinator Scott McGregor and special assignment instructor B.J. Surhoff).
While the mass firings cost the Orioles untold decades of institutional knowledge and subjected Elias to a wave of recriminations, the new GM argued they were necessary to shift the organization’s model and position it to compete in the modern game. Left unsaid was this: When the institution in question is the Orioles, who have had twice as many 95-loss seasons (six) as playoff appearances (three) in the past 20 years, how valuable is institutional knowledge anyway?
In so many words, Elias implied the ax fell along philosophical lines: Those who embraced the new paradigm were retained; those who didn’t were dismissed.
“First of all, I think we have a lot of institutional knowledge remaining,” Elias said. “The vast majority of the organization is still here. A lot of people had terrific seasons for us in the minors — coaches who really took a step forward. We feel really good about that. We want this organization to use all the information and technology available to us, that our analysts tell us has predictive ability, from the coaches on the field trying to make in-game decisions, to the draft room where we’re trying to decide which college pitcher to draft, [and] to the player-development side where we’re trying to decide whether [a pitcher] needs to add a pitch or whether he should be throwing his change-up more.”
Without divulging specific numbers, Elias said most or all of the newly opened positions would be filled, though not necessarily with the same job titles or descriptions.
The Astros, for example, lists positions such as “front-end developer” and “senior architect, research and development” among its front-office staff. Several years ago, the Astros employed a “director of decision sciences” named Sig Mejdal, a former biomathematician for Lockheed Martin and NASA who essentially built out the Astros’ database and analytics systems. When Elias left Houston for the Orioles job last November, Mejdal was the first person he tabbed — as assistant GM — to go with him.
While the Orioles won’t reveal how much they have spent on beefing up their analytics and technological capabilities, they have invested heavily in high-speed cameras and GPS-driven tracking units across the organization, and the analytics department, which had one employee when Elias took over, currently lists six — with more hires to come.
“I think the difference this year is there’s a plan,” said 26-year-old rookie left-hander John Means, who has been in the organization since 2014. “On the analytics side, we were never really taught that coming up through the organization. We were always pretty far behind, and I think a lot of guys are starting to catch on to it and take advantage of it.”
Means, a former 11th-round draft pick who blossomed into an all-star this season, is perhaps the most obvious success story for the Orioles at the big league level as management attempts to sift through all the talent it inherited and acquired in search of pieces that could be part of a contender several years down the line.
“You see the young guys coming,” said outfielder/first baseman Trey Mancini, citing Means, outfielder Anthony Santander and reliever Hunter Harvey. “I think you’ll see more of that next year and the year after.”
First-year manager Brandon Hyde, who worked for the Chicago Cubs from 2012 to 2018 — a period that saw that organization use the rebuilding model to go from three straight 90-loss seasons to a World Series title in 2016 — said the Orioles’ rebuild is already ahead of that of the Cubs in one important aspect.
“What we have here that we didn’t have in Chicago is the young pitching coming,” Hyde said. “We didn’t have any young pitching [with the Cubs] to hang our hats on. We mostly had to go out and [acquire] it. We have some really high-end prospects here. That’s what I’m excited about.”
But Hyde doesn’t sugarcoat the plight of his 2019 Orioles, particularly a pitching staff that set a major league record for homers allowed.
“We’ve been very competitive and played a ton of close games. My frustration sometimes is we can’t finish games,” he said. “What’s beating me up a little bit is I wish I could help them a little more. … I feel bad for our players sometimes. We deserve to win those [close] games, you know? And they don’t get to experience that.”
Perhaps the biggest takeaway from Year 1 of Elias’s blueprint is that, by all appearances, he has been given the leeway and resources to execute it in the first place — from competing for top talent in international markets (which the Orioles had largely ignored in the past) to pushing aside longtime favorites of owner Peter Angelos. Among them: Brady Anderson, who had risen to vice president under Duquette, with a strong voice in personnel matters, but now serves only as a strength and conditioning consultant.
Those changes are widely viewed as further evidence of the reduced role in the team’s operations of Angelos, 90, amid reports of his declining health, and the ascension of his sons, John and Louis, to the day-to-day control of the franchise. The Angelos brothers did not return messages, both directly to them and through an Orioles spokesman, seeking comment for this story.
“The support and trust from ownership has been terrific,” Elias said. “We all went into this with the same plan, [to make] some frankly overdue investment in the infrastructure of the organization — the farm system, international scouting, areas that had not been particularly emphasized in the past. We’re in a lot of ways playing catch-up. But the direction is there. The support is there.”
Does Elias’s authority to execute his vision extend to the Chris Davis situation? He wouldn’t answer directly. But it certainly appears he will be stuck carrying Davis’s onerous contract — a seven-year, $161 million pact signed in January 2016 that still has three years and $93 million guaranteed remaining (with $42 million of it deferred) — for the foreseeable future. As much as Elias might wish to walk away from the deal, chalking it up as a sunk cost and turning first base over to Mancini and prospect Ryan Mountcastle, that appears to be one decision that remains above his pay grade.
“We’re going to do whatever we can to get him to snap out of this,” Elias said of Davis, the two-time home run champ who was hitting just .178 with a .593 on-base-plus-slugging percentage this season entering Thursday. “It’s not easy. We’ve been trying stuff. But that’s where our focus is right now, and until that changes for some reason, it will continue to be the case.”
Perhaps that is one reason, when given a chance to tout 2020 as the year the Orioles’ rebuild turns the proverbial corner, nobody took the bait. Among the major issues facing the franchise is the prospect — more likely now than ever in the wake of a recent court ruling in New York — of losing the years-long dispute with the neighboring Washington Nationals over rights fees from the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network (MASN), which could end up costing them tens of millions of dollars.
“I don’t know,” Elias said about 2020. “I know the direction. I know we’re going to try to get there as quickly as possible. But there are so many factors — in health and luck and player performance — that are so unpredictable, there’s no way to put a timeline on it. We’re in the toughest division in sports, and we’re in a market that’s on the smaller side, so it presents a lot of challenges.”
Asked whether the Orioles were ready to make a jump in the standings the way the Cubs did in the mid-2010s, Hyde said: “I think we’re still going to be growing our prospects [in 2020]. The Cubs teams jumped because — yes, we had some first-year guys in the big leagues — but [the front office] went out and traded for [Dexter] Fowler, traded for Miguel Montero, signed [Jon] Lester and [John] Lackey. I don’t think Mike is going to be surrounding our young guys with big-time free agent, veteran guys at this point.
“I think when he feels like he’s ready, that will happen. But probably not anytime soon.”