The comparisons are right there, in plain sight, between the project that is in Baltimore and the project that was in Houston. The linking piece, of course, is Mike Elias, a central figure in both organizations’ push from mediocrity to superiority.

With the Astros, Elias built an elite farm system through scouting, drafting and player development as the club’s director of amateur scouting. With the Orioles, as general manager, Elias has followed a similar path by stockpiling high draft picks. He filled his staff here with those he trusted from Houston and then built the best farm system in baseball.

And, pretty soon, the Orioles were on top of the American League East.

The move Elias and the Orioles made Thursday night, however, is perhaps the closest link yet. It could also unlock the next step for Baltimore, just as it did for Houston.

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That is, in 2017, the Astros traded for former Cy Young winner Justin Verlander to reignite their rotation, and the club went on to win the World Series. And now, in 2024, the Orioles traded for a former Cy Young Award winner in Corbin Burnes — and who knows what’s next?

“This is all part of the arc that we’ve been on, starting from a really tough spot, and we built the foundation of a great organization,” Elias said. “And now we’re out looking for opportunities to improve the team, and this, thankfully, this opportunity aligns.”

On Friday afternoon, Burnes sat in front of his computer for his introductory news conference with local media members. Behind him on the wall hung his 2021 Cy Young Award, earned during his best season among a dominant stretch as a Milwaukee Brewer. Mere moments into his first answer, World Series aspirations were evident on his mind.

Burnes’ reputation precedes him. He is one of the sport’s top arms, and after Elias secured a trade for the right-hander, he said “Corbin Burnes is exactly what we needed.”

In that same vein, Houston required a major addition midway through the 2017 season. Another rebuilder-turned-competitor, that organization broke through in 2015 with a postseason berth yet didn’t solidify itself as a World Series champion until the waiver trade deadline acquisition of Verlander.

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By that point, Verlander already had a Hall of Fame résumé. What he didn’t have after more than a decade with the Detroit Tigers was a ring, so he waived his no-trade clause to join the Astros.

He was seen as the missing piece.

“Justin Verlander’s going to get you to the World Series,” former Tigers general manager Al Avila told former Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow, according to Ben Reiter’s book “Astroball.” “And you’re going to win it.”

They did, the first of two championships in a five-year span.

Burnes did not have the luxury of a no-trade clause. Now, in his final year of arbitration eligibility, he is set to make $15.6 million with Baltimore.

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The pursuit of Burnes was long. Elias said it began as soon as the offseason started, and while the Orioles engaged many teams regarding possible trades, there were few players the club coveted as strongly as Burnes.

“Our wish list going into the season was a rotation upgrade, and I certainly think that the Cy Young winner, and with his body of work, qualifies as that,” Elias said. “We couldn’t have found a better upgrade, and now we’ve just got to go play the games.”

Corbin Burnes pitches last season, when he was 10-8 with a 3.39 ERA and 1.07 WHIP for the Brewers. (Gene J. Puskar/AP)

That’s exactly what Burnes is looking forward to. In the 24 hours since joining Baltimore, his mind has shifted from the immediacy of shock to an all-encompassing excitement. Burnes knows what it’s like to be on a winning ballclub — since his debut in 2018, the Brewers have won three division titles — but this Orioles team is “arguably better and is going to probably win for years to come.”

“Having won over 100 games last year, it’s a good, young group,” Burnes said. “Lots of young guys who have come up and done well the last couple years, and I’m looking to kind of put my mark and help those guys and do whatever I can to help them get to the World Series. They were an exciting team last year that was a couple wins away from getting there.”

The main pieces — Gunnar Henderson, Adley Rutschman, Grayson Rodriguez and an experienced starting outfield — are in place.

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Baltimore added right-hander Craig Kimbrel earlier in the offseason to help replace the injured Félix Bautista. Now the Orioles have Burnes as a marquee starting pitcher, one who pitched nearly 200 innings for a second year in a row and did so with a 3.39 ERA.

Looking around the rest of Baltimore’s pitching staff, there’s no one who comes close to Burnes’ 709 1/3 career innings or Kimbrel’s 417 saves. They know what it takes to pitch in the postseason (in 19 postseason innings, Burnes has a 2.84 ERA), although Burnes’ addition feels even more pivotal after the shaky starts that helped derail the Orioles’ 2023 postseason.

It’s not quite the same as Verlander. This wasn’t a midseason deal, an acquisition required for extra firepower heading into October.

The Orioles have followed a similar path to the Astros for much of their rebuild; this is just another parallel — a splash in the trade market to supplement an otherwise largely homegrown roster.

“It’s certainty not a necessity that you have a Cy Young-caliber ace at the top of your staff,” Elias said, “but it sure is nice.”

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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