The buzzword first slipped past Mike Elias’ lips in August, shortly after trading away two key pieces of the Orioles unexpected push toward contention. The executive vice president and general manager said Baltimore was in for a “liftoff from here,” which quickly turned into a beacon of hope for a vibrant offseason.

But “liftoff,” it turns out, was misconstrued as spending.

While Elias looks at how to build the Orioles, he sees an opportunity to supplement here and there. But he isn’t likely to make a splash with a long-term deal for a top-quality free agent, and that’s where the differentiator comes — a small tweak in diction that more accurately categorizes Baltimore’s offseason plans for this year and beyond.

It’s not a liftoff. It’s an “upward arc,” as Elias put it during the winter meetings last week. And like an arc, the trajectory is gradual — it doesn’t include a rapid increase in spending to prepare for a 2023 season, even as Elias insists on an increase in payroll and envisions the Orioles taking a further step toward making the playoffs.

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When Elias first uttered the word “liftoff,” the context was important. Elias traveled to Texas to speak with the team and reporters to address the apparent white flag he waved at the trade deadline by dealing Jorge López and Trey Mancini. He gave a vote of confidence to the 2022 squad, and then vowed to reach new heights in 2023 and beyond, leading the mind to think of a shift in organizational philosophy to push for relevance through offseason additions.

Yet at its core, the message followed the slow-burn mantra that has helped Baltimore reach this point in Elias’ fifth offseason. Not much — if anything — has changed.

Elias spoke of player development, bringing in players, such as right-hander Austin Voth as a waiver claim, and getting the best out of them through coaching and analytics. He spoke of maintaining a strong minor league system into the future, the pipeline of talent that will continually refresh the squad in Baltimore.

“That’s the way that successful teams run themselves these days, especially with our market size,” Elias said in August.

At the end of the season, Elias said the Orioles would “invest in the major league payroll in a different way than I have done since I’ve been here,” but he also measured that promise to increase payroll with a caveat.

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“We just want to keep stacking good players and good drafts and good international development so that we’re able to use our players, because we don’t have the same amount of money as the Yankees, you know?” Elias said. “There’s going to be times when our richness in players is going to be what we have to lean into in order to win out here.”

Baltimore has proven that it does not have as much money as 28 other teams in the major leagues — or, more precisely, that the organization and ownership group aren’t willing to compete in even the lower echelons.

According to Cot’s Baseball Contracts, the Orioles are projected to spend $53.5 million on their 2023 opening day 26-man roster, with only the Oakland Athletics lower. Baltimore could double its payroll and still not crack the top half of the league, and the Orioles won’t get near that level with a hesitation to offer long-term contracts to free agents.

While Elias targets another starting pitcher to join right-hander Kyle Gibson (who signed for one year and $10 million), they’ve avoided joining the race for top-end starting talent as they weigh years and total value. The next tier of starters could be more open to one- or two-year deals, such as right-hander Noah Syndergaard.

But the Orioles missed out on left-hander Sean Manaea. While it’s unclear whether the Orioles officially offered Manaea, a source told The Baltimore Banner the club was interested in Manaea, who instead joined the San Francisco Giants on a reported two-year, $25 million deal with an opt-out clause.

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Baltimore also missed on right-hander Chris Bassitt, who ESPN reported agreed to a three-year, $63 million deal with the Toronto Blue Jays. The move leaves the Orioles as the only team in the American League East to not sign a free agent to a multi-year deal this season.

The importance of adding another starting pitcher this offseason outweighs any other position. When looking at Baltimore’s farm system, there’s a surplus of position-player talent, especially infielders, after choosing a position player with each of their last five first-round picks. Beyond right-hander Grayson Rodriguez and DL Hall — both of whom were drafted by former general manager Dan Duquette — there’s scant up-and-coming starting pitching potential.

But as Elias revisited what “liftoff” meant to him, those bigger swings seem out of the realm of possibility this offseason.

“[It was] not a specific proclamation for, ‘We’re going to do it all at once at the 2023 winter meetings,’ but that the next several years of baseball in Baltimore is going to be excellent, and I think that the team is going to continually improve, and we’re going to build the business of Baltimore baseball back up over the next several years,” Elias said last week. “We’re on the upswing, that’s what I mean when I say that. It’s a very exciting time for us. It’s been a long time coming and a lot of work getting to this point, but to be on the upward arc of where we’re at regardless of what we do or don’t do this winter, I think is very encouraging for all of us in this organization and for the fans and for the players.”

The encouraging aspects can be hard to see from the outside, when teams across baseball continue an arms race for talent while Baltimore stands pat. There is no liftoff, that’s clear. The upward arc, instead, appears to be a slow incline devoid of major spending.

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When Elias looks back on his five offseasons in Baltimore, he begins with the mess he inherited. The heavy contracts, the lack of minor league talent and infrastructure, a front office without analytics-based research — Elias and his team had to develop it all. They’re still developing certain areas, such as the Orioles’ academy in the Dominican Republic.

Elias, therefore, doesn’t feel he can “flip the switch” in one offseason, even though the team on the field pushed toward the playoffs in 2022 and could take a further step as its rookies continue to develop.

“We’re ahead of schedule on the baseball side, but we have realities we need to take into account so we don’t put ourselves back in an unhealthy position like we were in 2018,” Elias said. “Baseball’s set up the way it is set up. There are teams and markets out there that are hard to keep up with. But there are other teams and markets that look the way Baltimore does that have really healthy and successful programs, and it might involve us looking a little bit more like those, at least in the short term.”

So for the short term, the Orioles will watch as high-level free agents go to rivals. That’s an “upward curve,” at least at this stage.

Andy Kostka is an Orioles beat writer for The Baltimore Banner. He previously covered the Orioles for The Baltimore Sun. Kostka graduated from the University of Maryland and grew up in Rockville.

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