As part of the inquest last month into the Orioles’ swift playoff exit and the potential causes of it, general manager and Executive Vice President Mike Elias was asked if he felt the team’s efforts at the trade deadline were enough.
He at once acknowledged that it wasn’t enough to get them a playoff series win, and that his goal at the time was to maintain the division lead, and the acquisitions of Shintaro Fujinami and Jack Flaherty accomplished that.
The playoff shortcomings, though, would inform how he and the front office think about improving this coming winter. And then there was a “but” — a caveat that felt more like a statement of intent and should be top of mind when viewing any offseason wish list or to-do list for Elias and the Orioles.
“But also,” he said, “this group and this front office, we use methodologies and philosophies — we’re constantly curtailing them and trying to make them better — but we use methodologies and philosophies that got us from the depths of despair to where we are right now as an organization, and we use them because they work. You don’t want to betray them too often, because I think we’ve proven that we’ve got good information and good guiding principles and good people.”
For the uninitiated, the methodologies and philosophies that got the Orioles from the depths of despair to where they are right now involved none of the following, save for what proved to be marginal moves at the deadline: trading top prospects for proven major league talent, adding major league payroll near the top of the market through free agency and trades, or keeping many of their arbitration-eligible players into and through those salary arbitration years.
That doesn’t rule out any of those things in the coming months. Perhaps, say, a decline in hard contact or swing decisions from a B-level prospect lowered the Orioles’ forecast of that prospect’s future value and made it more reasonable within their guiding principles of looking at moves through a value-in, value-out prism to put said prospect in a trade to add a top-line major league pitcher with a year or two of control left.
They could, in theory, count all the revenue from the City Connect hats and jerseys sold, increased ticket sales and their playoff appearance and decide there’s room for a 2024 payroll that’s $20 million to $30 million higher. And their guiding principles might indicate that many of their arbitration-eligible players are worth the raises they’ll get this year, meaning they’ll stick around.
And yet any conversation about how the Orioles will improve or maintain going into next year is probably one that will be had in measured phrases — the Orioles themselves are quick to support that.
Elias told MLB Network at this week’s general managers meetings that he was seeking one new face in the rotation and one in the bullpen, though the amount of teams “going for it” could increase the competition for a top-end starting pitcher.
That’s only really an issue because of the methodologies and philosophies that have defined the Orioles these last five years. They have avoided top-of-market contracts or those that might extend beyond a player’s useful contributing years both because they’ve had no reason to sign one and because they’re generally averse to deals they think can have negative long-term impact.
That is, for better or worse, the range of contracts that a top starting pitcher is going to receive in free agency. Even for the second tier, someone who can reasonably slot in around Kyle Bradish and Grayson Rodriguez in the front half of the rotation instead of ahead of them, you’re probably looking at a deal of three-plus years that, just because of the nature of veteran pitching, might deliver two years of value.
The Orioles simply need to be OK with that and stretch beyond their comfort level in spending if they identify someone they want. That’s always been the case, but the context of last month solidified that.
They’re fortunate that Bradish and Rodriguez emerged into the front-end starting pitchers they did, but they seem to need more. In many ways, the development of those two is a result of the patience, development practices and roster-building philosophies that Elias believes helped the Orioles get where they are.
Supplementing in free agency is something else entirely. It doesn’t seem to fit congruously within that belief structure. We’re about to find out the extent to which it does.