The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Orioles’ rebuild is behind them. Uncertainty is not.

Orioles ownership declined to extend the team’s lease at Camden Yards for five years. (Patrick Semansky/AP)
7 min

BALTIMORE — On Friday morning, as frigid wind whipped around the frozen field outside the window of the warehouse at Camden Yards, Baltimore Orioles General Manager Mike Elias made a quiet but earnest declaration.

“I believe our rebuild is behind us,” Elias said. He admitted that this, the start of his fifth spring training as head of the Orioles’ baseball operations, is the first he will begin “standing here talking openly about the playoffs.” Before, the Orioles hoped their baseball revival was coming. Now, after a surprising 83-win season engineered by a roster they didn’t necessarily expect to provide it, they believe that revival has arrived.

Elias and Co. have every reason to believe that what happens this year on the field will be transformative for the organization, the beginning of a golden era — a turning of the page into the better future he promised when he arrived. But what happens around Camden Yards, in courtrooms and at negotiating tables in the greater Baltimore area threatens transformation of a different kind.

As its baseball officials beam at the possibilities before them, the Orioles’ ownership group is wading through off-field uncertainty. On Monday, the Orioles’ owners, the Angelos family, ended a particularly messy chapter when brothers Louis and John Angelos and their mother, Georgia, agreed to end eight months of public grievance-airing by dropping their lawsuits against each other, according to a document filed in the Circuit Court for Baltimore County that appeared in its online records. The Baltimore Sun first obtained the document, in which both parties agree to dismiss the lawsuits with prejudice — meaning they cannot be filed again.

But while the family will avoid what might have been an unflattering midsummer trial, it still has questions to answer for the city and the franchise. Last week, the Orioles declined to extend their lease at Camden Yards for five years by the Feb. 1 deadline, meaning it expires at the end of 2023, according to a team official.

That decision does not necessarily validate long-standing speculation that chairman and CEO John Angelos desires to move the team to his second home in Nashville, where his wife’s entertainment company is headquartered. In fact, he seemed to go out of his way to suggest the opposite in a statement the Orioles issued last week — something he has done repeatedly in his few public statements in recent years.

“I am looking forward to continuing to collaborate with Governor [Wes] Moore, his administration, and the Maryland Stadium Authority in order to bring to Baltimore the modern, sustainable, and electrifying sports and entertainment destination the State of Maryland deserves,” Angelos said in the statement. “We greatly appreciate Governor Moore’s vision and commitment as we seize the tremendous opportunity to redefine the paradigm of what a Major League Baseball venue represents and thereby revitalize downtown Baltimore. It is my hope and expectation that, together with Governor Moore and the new members and new chairman of the MSA Board, we can again fully realize the potential of Camden Yards to serve as a catalyst for Baltimore’s second renaissance.”

In some ways, prioritizing a longer-term deal makes sense. A Maryland law passed last year authorized the Maryland Stadium Authority to borrow up to $600 million each for improvements to Camden Yards and nearby M&T Bank Stadium, a clear attempt to keep the Orioles and the NFL’s Ravens in Baltimore for the long term. But five years would hardly be enough time to take full advantage of the remodeling opportunities afforded by those funds, let alone the finished improvements.

But Angelos, who now runs the team in place of his ailing father and longtime Orioles owner, Peter Angelos, could have decided to pick up the option anyway, then negotiate a longer deal with the Maryland Stadium Authority without the specter of departure hovering over Eutaw Street all summer. Declining the extension imposes a deadline that means the 2023 season will be played amid questions about the franchise’s future that a news release does not definitively answer. The Angelos family, after all, is not known for measured predictability.

Despite ever-changing uncertainty in their ownership group — chaos that also includes John Angelos suggesting a reporter with the Athletic was out of line for asking about the team’s future during a news conference on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, then promising to open the team’s books and answer those questions soon (he hasn’t) — the baseball side of the operation appears downright functional.

Elias said he got everything he wanted this offseason. This is the prudent thing for any head of baseball operations to say, lest he suggest his bosses did not provide the resources he needed.

But Elias’s roster is loaded with young talent, and more is on the way. The Orioles did not endure years of futility just to block the talent they accumulated just as it graduated. Adley Rutschman established himself last summer as one of the game’s best catchers as soon as he made his long-anticipated debut. Gunnar Henderson seems ready to star on the left side of the infield, where Ramón Urías surprised with a Gold Glove in 2022. Ryan Mountcastle, who will start the season at 26, has a 30-homer season under his belt and owns a career .774 on-base-plus-slugging percentage despite what the first baseman/left fielder considered a down year in 2022.

The team also expects its stable of young starters to improve and for long-heralded prospects DL Hall and Grayson Rodriguez to make an impact this year. Baltimore traded for Oakland Athletics lefty Cole Irvin to provide experience as it gets settled in. The bullpen, one of the best in baseball last year, is largely intact absent breakout closer Jorge López.

So it is downright believable that the $10 million the Orioles gave to innings-eater Kyle Gibson and the $8 million they bet on a bounce-back year from second baseman Adam Frazier, plus the portion of catcher James McCann’s $12 million salary they agreed to take on when they acquired him from the New York Mets, leave the roster near where Elias hoped it would be.

Even so, the Orioles play in one of the most harrowing divisions in baseball, one that will no longer be surprised by their relevance. They are betting on young players who have not yet proved they can live up to expectations or do so consistently. The rebuild is over, but in this sport, on-field uncertainty never really ends.

“We also live in the reality of our business. You know, we approach things very carefully. We have a lot of really smart and experienced people in our front office working on our plan, and that includes growing the team over the next few years, managing our payroll, trying to get into contracts that make sense for the long haul,” Elias said. “ … It’s something that, I think, you know, a team like the Orioles in particular has to be careful about. There’s a lot that goes into it. The bottom line is we want to do the best that we can in our situation, and we want to win.”

Their “situation” remains complicated by playing in a small market in the free-spending American League East, by uncertainty over ownership’s plans for the franchise and its city and by the fact that despite John Angelos’s assurances to the contrary, widespread speculation swirls that his family may not plan to own the team for the long term. The Orioles’ rebuild is behind them. The question now is what lies ahead.