It’s too bad they don’t give out championships for general manager performance. Mike Elias would be getting fitted for a ring as we speak.
When comparing Baltimore’s resources to its big market rivals, it’s hard to produce a team that can win at the big league level. But, as of Friday, the Orioles — who have the second-lowest payroll in baseball — were leading the AL East, which Elias fairly called “arguably the strongest division of all time.” In the other important part of his job — loading the farm system with top prospects — Elias is besting the competition as well, sitting on a minor league stockpile many consider to be baseball’s best.
The normally buttoned-down executive couldn’t suppress a smile Friday afternoon when asked if he thought the Orioles are “ahead of schedule.” He may lead one of baseball’s most savvy front offices, but he’s not Nostradamus. “I’d like to say I set out to be in first place five years from starting, especially given everything we went through, but I never sat down and wrote that out.”
Although it is a triumph for the Orioles to be sitting pretty as the AL’s best team and to have the highest-rated farm system at the same time, both of those superlatives cannot hold. No matter how a franchise tries to win in the present without sacrificing the future, there comes a time when a team has to choose one at the expense of the other.
Here’s the thing: This regime may never get a better shot to win the Orioles’ first World Series since 1983 than now, at 63-40 with nearly two-thirds of the season behind them. They don’t have to push every chip in on the 2023 season — but they ought to be willing to push in a lot of them.
You can’t get good players without giving up good players. You want a left-handed starter like the Cardinals’ Jordan Montgomery? Or a knockout reliever like the Padres’ Josh Hader? You need to be willing to listen for packages that include Joey Ortiz, Heston Kjerstad and Coby Mayo, as painful as that might sound.
Right now, Baseball Reference gives the Orioles a 4.9% chance to win the World Series, which seems perhaps like a small number, one squeezed by playing in a tough division. But it’s the third-best odds in the AL, behind only Texas (16.2%) and Tampa Bay (15.5%). The Orioles should be thinking of ways to tick up those percentage points any way they can.
OK, so Shohei Ohtani is off the board (and let’s face it, he was probably never on the board in the first place). What about the Padres’ Blake Snell, the lefty veteran who has pitched in the World Series? Or Hader? Or the Cubs’ Marcus Stroman?
Guys of this caliber have a price tag. Was it painful for the Cubs, the owners of Baseball America’s top farm system in 2015, to give up Gleyber Torres to the Yankees for Aroldis Chapman? Sure, but the franchise’s first title in a century helped salve that quite a bit — and Torres wasn’t the one on the mound forcing Game 7 in the World Series.
There are rational limits, of course. Elias unquestionably shouldn’t field any interest in 19-year-old Jackson Holliday, the top prospect in the minors today. He’s been cruising against Double-A pitching in Bowie — the illness that has kept him out of the lineup lately is the only speed bump he’s hit so far.
Almost everyone else? Let’s hear the offer.
If you believe the Orioles, they have a relatively bloodless analytical process that doesn’t favor their prospects over anyone else’s. Elias said he’s not going to hold onto players he’s picked over the years out of sentimentality.
“Obviously it was time and hard work, and not just good first-round picks and good player development, but also good fourth-rounders and some international guys,” he said. “That’s not going to make us hug those guys more than we should because we did a good job scouting.”
But the track record speaks, to put it mildly, of a tight-fisted approach with prospects. Elias hasn’t traded a top-10 guy in his tenure.
For the Orioles, this approach makes all the sense in the world. Baltimore is never in the mix for the biggest free agents, so the high-level talent has to be homegrown. Draft picks mean more to the Orioles than they do for the Yankees or the Dodgers, for instance, so hoarding them is not just smart — it’s a necessary survival tactic.
But the cup runneth over, and that has implications. There’s a bit of a traffic jam in Triple-A, particularly when it comes to Ortiz, and it could take time for Kjerstad or Mayo to get the call-up as well. As much as people would like to see more of these young players reach the majors, the reality is many of them will be sitting on the lot like unsold sports cars, glistening with promise but not hitting the highway.
Other teams can see an oncoming backup as well. The Orioles may never be at a stronger position to package prospects for a helpful postseason player than they are now — as time goes on, the depth of their farm system hitters and the inability to play all of them could hamper their trade leverage.
They could use a systemwide restock on pitching. In fact, this seems to have been the Orioles’ strategy for many of their drafts under Elias: focus on hitters they know they can develop and get more proven arms later. The glut of hitters should make it easier for the Orioles to surrender a few for pitching, which is a weak point even Elias acknowledged Friday.
Most pressing is middle relief, where every team feels it could get stronger. Shintaro Fujinami, the reliever the Orioles plucked from the Athletics, could be an answer with a live arm and an upside he showed in a standout series against the Phillies. The Orioles have arguably the best closer in baseball in Félix Bautista, but that doesn’t mean they can’t add late bullpen arms. And their young starters, though they’ve pitched career bests, are also reaching career highs in innings counts and will be pressed to pitch their best in the postseason. If the Orioles can add a top-of-the-line starter, they undoubtedly should.
Where it seems to get sticky is who has the power as the trade deadline approaches. Elias somewhat grumbled that, in the year his Orioles finally became buyers, it’s a seller’s market. When asked if he would place emphasis on adding players with postseason experience, Elias shrugged.
“Are you gonna pass on a trade that you like because the guy hasn’t pitched in the playoffs yet?” he said. “Doesn’t seem like it’s in the cards the way this market’s shaping up.”
Sure the Orioles don’t want to get swindled in 2023 in a way that hurts them in 2024 or 2025. But, while we like to think of development as a steady upward climb, teams rarely experience absolute linear success. Just because the Orioles are a contender now — fielding young stars such as Adley Rutschman and Gunnar Henderson who hopefully will be around for a long time — it doesn’t guarantee they’ll keep growing next year, or the year after that.
Injuries happen. Tommy John surgeries happen. Contract disagreements and trade requests happen. Although the Orioles’ incredible success in one-run games speaks to their ability to wrestle out the close ones, it also speaks, in part, to some luck that might not go their way next year.
The deadline will also test the Orioles’ financial commitment. So far, they’ve managed to top the field by spending less on contracts than all but one other team. Although that may indicate a measure of shrewdness, it’s not a great sign to be one of MLB’s cheapest teams forever.
“We have latitude to make baseball moves, and possibly those are adding payroll rather significantly,” Elias said. “But it doesn’t mean we’re going to do it.”
Would the front office, for example, be up to taking on the remainder of Max Scherzer’s $43 million this season? Maybe not, but if they determine that the 39-year-old could help them, money shouldn’t be an object to getting to the World Series.
Elias will be patient and won’t jump for a bad deal, which is a good trait for a GM to have. The best sign is he said he’s shooting to win now, too. But not only now.
“We want to make a deep playoff run. We want to get in the World Series – whatever you want to call it, we want to do that,” he said. “But unless we have information that the world is ending in November, a big part of my job is worrying about the overall health of the team over the next several years.”
But this year’s championship window is no less an opportunity to win it all than future years — and it may be the best it gets. And while the world may not be ending this November, being in first place is no time to say, “There’s always next year.”