For five years, it worked nearly perfectly.
From the fractured ruins of the Buck Showalter-Dan Duquette era of Orioles baseball — which was a byproduct of managing partner Peter G. Angelos having plenty of opinions on how the team should be run and growing desperation for a World Series in his latter years — emerged the leadership of Angelos’ son, John. His selection of executive vice president Mike Elias to rebuild and unify baseball operations in a progressive and modern way has been an unqualified success.
Gone were the meddling ways of the elder Angelos. John Angelos mostly left the baseball operations department alone, giving Elias a shoestring budget but also autonomy to pursue what to this point has been an expertly executed vision. Elias built an elite talent pipeline and, ultimately, a contender via scouting, player development and the players he inherited.
It all came with a caveat — one Showalter had effectively barred from the Orioles’ lexicon — about the difficulty of competing, given the Orioles’ apparent lack of resources, in a megawealthy and extremely smart division. To draft and develop, make smart trades and maximize value at every turn was the only way for the Orioles to compete, Elias said. Buying talent was not an option.
Not anymore. Everything is about to be different.
With the anticipated sale of the Orioles to a group led by Baltimore native David Rubenstein, there are no clearer before-and-after distinctions imaginable. The first five-plus years of Elias’ tenure were in many ways the most frictionless and seamless application of a data-driven, collaborative baseball philosophy around. The Orioles accomplished great things simply for a lack of interference with a smart and talented collection of people.
To note that is simply to point out how different their potential new world is from the old one, and the level of changes that could come in what should be a much different era under Rubenstein’s group.
John Angelos had been involved in the Orioles, to varying degrees and during various periods, for years before consolidating power after that 2018 season. He did so at a time when the Orioles’ payroll had swollen to chase a championship at his aging father’s blessing. The next generation of the family felt the team spent beyond its means and sought to cut back. As such, the next few years featured Orioles rosters full of castoffs from other clubs making the league minimum or close to it. Many of them wouldn’t have been in the majors other than with the Orioles.
They lost a lot, attendance plummeted, and many people kind of seemed OK with it. The losing wore on the players and baseball operations staff — many of whom had nothing to do with the direction the team was taking and wouldn’t be around when the investments Elias was making in scouting and player development came to fruition.
Meanwhile, the parts of the business where John remained engaged never flourished. He talked about creating a better fan experience but rarely came through — and the result wasn’t always major league or anywhere close. We used to have a running press box game in which we guessed how many Instagram followers the musicians performing pregame acoustic sets on Saturday evenings had. Some had hundreds. A few had five digits. None was very good.
Angelos said it himself, perhaps unintentionally, in spring training last year: His priority was the concerts, then the lease and finally the development deal (that never came together). Baseball was the realm of others. Those others, particularly in this new front office, seemed to enjoy that. Who wouldn’t? Armed with autonomy, Elias and his staff undertook one of the most significant rebuilds in baseball history. While they fielded a historically poor major league product for several years, they had free rein to build a baseball operations department on the data-informed methodologies they believed in and produced a 101-game winner in Year 5.
Yet the question remained. Would John Angelos actually let them spend, if that’s what it would take to keep the team competitive — or get it over the hump in the playoffs? The Orioles’ payroll was among the lowest in the league last year, and it will remain so this season despite the advantaged position of an organically grown 101-game winner for them to build on this winter.
This sale will likely not be codified in time for new ownership’s wealth to show itself in free agency this time around, but it will be utterly fascinating to see how it plays out going forward. Under the Angelos regime, the Orioles would run their forecasts and models and look at how attractive someone like Blake Snell might be, with his swing-and-miss stuff and Cy Young résumé — then look at the cost column, recognize they couldn’t compete with that, and move on with their lives.
Not only could they not afford it on the budget given, but the premium required for a free agent would probably make it a bad deal in the long term, according to their projection models. No testing the boundaries of their value-driven methodologies here.
But what about next year, when Rubenstein is in charge? Instead of a touch-free owner who gives them no money and has no opinions on how the baseball side is run, they might have an owner who wants said top free agent arm and doesn’t care how bad the deal could look in 2030. Does OMAR — the Orioles’ data forecast platform — win, or does Rubenstein? Or, more pointedly, does it even have to be a debate?
If the Orioles are a properly funded baseball operation, all it takes is a couple of keystrokes to change the financial structure of their valuation model and, all of a sudden, top free agents might look more reasonable because they’re, coincidentally, deemed affordable.
It’s fortunate for the Orioles that these are conversations for next fall and winter. In the interim, Rubenstein and his team would be well served to follow Angelos’ lead and leave baseball operations alone — albeit with a large bucket of money to make those daily contract extension calls with Gunnar Henderson and Jackson Holliday’s agent, Scott Boras, a little more interesting, and secure Adley Rutschman’s prime and early free agent years as well.
He has plenty to occupy his time with the business aspects of the organization. Angelos, by all accounts, was much more likely to exert his whims and wishes in those areas and, perhaps not coincidentally, the club is challenged in those areas. MASN has never been optimized. The O’s don’t have a plan for using the $600 million the state offered to refurbish Camden Yards — let alone developing land nearby. Rubenstein and his partners were able to buy the team because they know how to make money; presumably, they will now apply that knowledge to the operation they purchased.
Given the Orioles receive tens of millions of dollars in shared revenues simply for turning on the LED lights at Camden Yards and fielding a baseball team yet operate in a manner that suggests that’s the only money coming in the door, those money-making insights are an early way for Rubenstein and his team to make a meaningful difference.
Whether it’s revenue generated from a well-run baseball franchise or the wealth of Rubenstein and his partners, the Orioles are likely to have money to spend — perhaps soon. I personally believe this front office, armed with the information it used to make decisions based on the idea that it couldn’t spend money, will adjust its thinking and improve the Orioles in the short term and the long term on what is expected to be a vastly improved budget.
That was never going to be a consideration under Angelos, at least not on the path things were for the last five years. The Orioles had to stretch every dollar they could put toward the field. Tuesday brought the potential for that to be different in the best way possible.
Truly, everything is about to change.