There was no question five years ago this week why the Orioles hired Mike Elias to head up baseball operations and shepherd a rebuild that felt long overdue: for his scouting and player development acumen.
Orioles’ ownership said as much when Elias was introduced, on a day when he promised an “elite talent pipeline” that would support the organization’s goals for years to come. At the winter meetings the following month, Elias said he was brought to the Orioles — and brought assistant general manager Sig Mejdal with him — ”primarily for scouting and player development purposes,” adding that they boast “among the best track records” in that space from their time with the St. Louis Cardinals and Houston Astros.
During the ensuing lean years, that background provided hope in, and visibility of, the Orioles’ long-term goals, and their plan was validated with this season’s 101-win, AL East champion. Now comes not just sustaining it, but enhancing it, and even Elias admits the hands-on decision-making of doing so isn’t included on his resume.
So what is the inspiration or experience he is drawing from as the Orioles make a clear shift from building a contender through their farm system to whatever comes next? The answer will not only set the stage for the Orioles’ efforts this winter, but perhaps define how the next five years of Elias’ tenure running the Orioles are viewed.
“I think that’s a great question,” Elias said. “My experience leading up to the Orioles was pretty focused on scouting, player development, international scouting, so I don’t necessarily have direct experience with keeping a team at the top, especially one that has a small market and the challenges of the American League East.
“But I do look to the first place that I worked, which is St. Louis, as being a model of a very healthy franchise that has operated in a city much our size and shape, and kind of struck the right tone between responsibility but also operating with some urgency at times. I think the same methodologies and brainpower and people that have gotten us through this rebuild are very much equipped to tackle the project of sort of keeping the team at the top. The only thing that keeps us up at night is just how difficult the competition is in our division. But I think we have the people and front office in place to pull it off.”
Elias started his career in baseball with the Cardinals, first as an area scout in 2007 and later in a supervisory role. In the ensuing years, the Cardinals made a number of moves to build toward a title run. Among them: locking up star catcher Yadier Molina to a contract extension that paid him for his arbitration years and delayed his free agency, trading prospects for star outfielder Matt Holliday then signing him to a club-record contract to keep him in St Louis, and adding veteran slugger Lance Berkman ahead of that 2011 championship season. St. Louis won another National League pennant two years later.
This was all as the draft model Mejdal helped build and Elias was scouting for kept their farm system healthy and productive for a run that kept the Cardinals in the playoffs every year from 2011-2015 and with a winning record every season until 2023.
Of course, St. Louis did so with a payroll that has at least been in the top half of baseball every season this century and hasn’t dipped below $145 million since the 2015 season. That’s what makes them a different model, so to speak, than the ones CEO John Angelos gave last spring — the lower-budget Tampa Bay Rays, Cleveland Guardians, and Milwaukee Brewers. Those teams have consistently lower payrolls, typically shy away from big-ticket free agent signings, and have tried to sustain their success by trading players as they get expensive for younger players under club control for longer.
However the Orioles decide to build from this point on, Elias acknowledges that their success in 2023 has raised the expectations significantly. Winning the division, and the visibility toward a repeat, “puts us in a more aspirational mindset right now,” he said.
“It’s still going to be a grind, but you’re going to hear us talking openly about defending our division title this year as opposed to [saying] we just want to make the playoffs,” Elias said.
Despite the division title not providing the advantage the Orioles hoped in the playoffs — they lost presumptive Game 3 starter John Means to arm soreness before the ALDS started and were ultimately swept by the World Series champion Texas Rangers — it seems to be a platform to build from for future Orioles teams.
“Our goal going forward is going to be more division titles, hopefully more success in the playoffs to come with those,” Elias said. “I think it’s nice in the new rule system that there are more wild cards to fall back on, but we’re going to be gearing this team towards having a good chance to winning this division and regardless of how that happens, who’s involved, what the payroll is, it’s always something to be very, very proud of if you win this division because it’s really, really hard.”
To accomplish that in 2024, Elias said in an interview with MLB.com at the general manager meetings that the team could use another starting pitcher to help fill out the rotation and a reliever to help cover for the loss of Félix Bautista, who will miss the entire season after having Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery. There will also be the difficult decisions about how to best utilize the team’s considerable prospect depth, be it clearing space for them to play at the major league level or trading them to help improve the big league roster.
“It’s a little daunting, because the bar is now to, in order to have a better season, we’re going to have to win the division again, and/or make a deeper playoff run,” Elias said. “That’s a high bar, and now we’ve got a lot of players that there are higher expectations on. There’s higher expectations on the leadership in the organization. Health is health, and other than the Félix Bautista injury, we were relatively healthy last year. And it’s not going to be easy. We’re going to return toward what got us here, which is process, methods, hard work, and we’re going to trust that those will yield results as they have.”