Mike Elias’ challenge: Add supporting pieces to the Orioles without blocking the path for top young prospects

Baltimore’s slow and steady rebuild is entering a new phase but that doesn’t mean the approach will change dramatically.

Published 12/5/2022 10:43 p.m. EST

CLEVELAND, OH - AUGUST 31: Gunnar Henderson #2 of the Baltimore Orioles hits a solo home run off Triston McKenzie of the Cleveland Guardians for his first career hit during the fourth inning of his Major League debut at Progressive Field on August 31, 2022 in Cleveland, Ohio.

SAN DIEGO — In the middle of the summer, when Mike Elias uttered the word “liftoff” just after the Orioles traded away two pieces at the trade deadline, some minds floated toward the possibility of free-wheel spending. Of eye-popping splashes. Of going from zero to 60 in the span of one offseason.

But the reality, despite the illusions that a “liftoff” might include a major increase in payroll, is a steadier approach more in line with the way Elias, the executive vice president and general manager in Baltimore, has gone about developing a franchise since 2018.

The proverbial launchpad Elias spoke of in Texas wasn’t one that needs to be built through offseason spending. It was already built by a farm system he and the Orioles front office have spent four years cultivating through the draft and trades, stockpiling prospects, taking a patient approach that included plenty of losing.

Now they’re here.

This isn’t an offseason in which the Orioles need to buy to become relevant. They became relevant on the back of the best farm system in baseball, winning their most games since 2016 during an unexpected push toward the postseason. All that’s left for Elias is supplementing the talent that has already arrived — and the talent still on its way — with experienced options.

That’s liftoff. And that’s what is happening this week at the winter meetings in San Diego.

“We’re on the upswing, that’s what I mean when I say that,” Elias said inside a hotel suite at the Manchester Grand Hyatt. “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.”

Baltimore finished the 2022 campaign with the best record of any American League team that didn’t make the playoffs. The Orioles showed, with timely promotions, that the long-endured rebuild had a light at the end of the tunnel.

Before catcher Adley Rutschman arrived as the top prospect in baseball, the Orioles were eight games under .500. With Rutschman, Baltimore finished 67-54. Infielder Gunnar Henderson, who took Rutschman’s place as the sport’s top prospect, joined the Orioles at the end of August and quickly found his footing in the big leagues.

There are others on their way, such as right-hander Grayson Rodriguez. That’s the base Elias relies on, and particularly for his position players, he’s reticent to block their way through lengthy — and expensive — free agent deals for veterans when they have homegrown talent at their disposal.

“We see a lot of the players that are already in the organization as forming a core,” Elias said. “And not just any core. I mean, these are guys that play up the middle, defensive premium positions, and we’ve got a lot of those guys in the organization already. So I think it puts us in a position where we’re kind of looking to build around and supplement that group in the short term, not block too many of those guys as we see where exactly their career arcs go over the next year or two.”

That allows Baltimore to be more “choosy,” Elias said, when it comes to adding free agent position players. Still, he envisions there being playing time behind Ryan Mountcastle at first base, especially in the form of a left-handed hitter. Ramón Urías could be in line for much of the second base action, yet there’s space for an additional infielder. Perhaps there’s room for a corner outfielder and a DH.

Those positions are ideal for short-term deals, giving time for additional prospects to develop and break through.

“We’ve got a roster and a payroll that we can custom build over the next few years because right now, we don’t have any long-term contracts to build around,” Elias said.

There’s a slightly different approach with the starting rotation, which saw right-hander Kyle Gibson join on a $10 million, one-year contract to be a veteran option. Elias is still in the market for another starter, with the chance of an addition through a trade rather than free agency a “wide-open possibility.”

The Orioles have met with about eight starters via Zoom and don’t expect to stop there, pitching the pitchers on what’s being built in Baltimore. The young core is part of that discussion, particularly with Rutschman behind the dish. Elias said the Orioles have offered multiple deals that are longer than one year already.

But even then, as the top free agent pitchers draw major deals — such as Jacob deGrom with the Texas Rangers and Justin Verlander with the New York Mets — Elias won’t be pulled into overspending.

There’s a calculated approach to this all. It began when Elias was hired, when he implemented an analytics-based scouting and coaching network, when the Orioles farm system began to swell with talent.

“I think that this team is going to continue to get better from this point forward,” Elias said. “[It was] not a specific proclamation for, ‘We’re going to do it all at once at the [2022] winter meetings,’ but that the next several years of baseball in Baltimore is going to be excellent.”

That’s liftoff.

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