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An early report card for Mike Elias

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Several weeks into the season, what have we learned about our new GM?

MLB: 2019 Spring Training Media Days Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Six weeks into the Great Rebuild of 2019, it’s way too soon to start judging the performance of our new GM. And yet … heading into the 2019 draft, it’s been on my mind, so let’s do just that.

In his very first press conference, Elias pledged to make the Orioles front office a little more “transparent.” He started on a good note, winning over a lot of fans with a November 19 Reddit session where he confessed that he would rather fight one horse-sized duck over a hundred duck-sized horses.

Elias’ first hire was former NASA engineer and blackjack dealer Sig Mejdal, who built the Cardinals’ analytics department back in the ‘00’s when only Billy Beane was doing it. The Dodgers have an analytics staff of 20; last season, the Orioles had one. On December 13, Elias selected Brandon Hyde as head coach, followed by infield coach José Flores and bench/catching coach Tim Cossins, old buddies of Hyde from Chicago, and hitting coach Don Long from the Reds and pitching coach Doug Brocail, who Elias knew from the Astros in 2011-13.

Some of Elias’ most important roster moves in the winter and spring were offering contracts to arbitration-eligible Dylan Bundy, Mychal Givens and Jonathan Villar and nixing Tim Beckham and Caleb Joseph. New faces in spring training included pitcher Josh Lucas, outfielders Eric Young, Jr. and Dwight Smith, Jr. and infielders Drew Jackson, Hanser Alberto, Richie Martin, Rio Ruiz, Jack Reinheimer and Zach Vincej. Elias signed the righty Nate Karns and catcher Jesus Sucre in February, picking up Pedro Severino at catcher and demoting prospect Chance Sisco the week before the season started. In April, Elias signed Dan Straily, DFA’d the struggling Mike Wright and picked up Shawn Armstrong off of waivers.

Let’s break these moves down by category and time horizons.

The short term: roster management. Grade: B

Some people thought Elias would hire a veteran manager to hold things together in what figure to be a rocky first few seasons. In fact, he went the opposite way. Yet Hyde, who Trey Mancini said he would “run through a brick wall” for, has made Elias look good. I’ve had issues with Hyde being the anti-Showalter, pulling pitchers a little soon (viz., the David Hess no-hitter, pulling Paul Fry for Miguel Castro last week against Chicago) and fiddling too darn much with the defensive alignments, but day in and day out, he’s fielded as competitive a roster as you can imagine right now.

Elias has said that there’s “no shortcut” to winning, but there is definitely a “win now” mentality on display in the short leashes given to struggling players. The Orioles have made 41 transactions so far and used 23 different pitchers, the most in the Majors. Some of the fiddling has paid off: Armstrong has been solid, and Gabriel Ynoa is proving a valuable mid-innings stopper. Other moves, like the debuts of the Joshes—Lucas and Rogers—haven’t paid off.

The medium-term: player development. Grade: C+

Mike Bordick said on air one time that under Elias the message has been “not quite sink or swim,” with the team willing to give some guys “extra opportunities.” For those getting playing time even outside their natural positions—Stevie Wilkerson, Alberto, Mancini, Joey Rickard—this is true, although I’m not sure team cuts like Sisco, Cedric Mullins, Drew Jackson, or Mike Wright would agree. On other hand, Chris Davis’ turnaround (.288/.351./.519 in the last month) suggests that Don Long does know how to coach guys through tough stretches.

So far, though, it’s not at all clear that the “new analytics approach” is paying off for pitchers. Now, it’s not fair to blame the coaches when the players are a dud—Cobb and Karns’ disastrous starts can be chalked up to injuries and rust. But I’ve been disappointed with the performance of players like Wright, Miguel Castro, and Jimmy Yacabonis, whose stuff you’d think would play well with new analytical tools. This team’s historic susceptibility to the long ball may, as the catchers and pitchers have said, be a matter of bad execution, not a bad game plan, but it’s still been a team-wide trend.

The long term: building a talent pipeline. Grade: too soon to say, obviously, but B+.

Elias was described by his baseball coach at Yale as “off-the-charts smart.” This is certainly good news for the O’s. Elias spent 5 years with the Cardinals as a scout, and 6 years with the Astros as director of scouting and assistant to the GM, where he helped handpick talents like Carlos Correa, Dallas Keuchel, and Alex Bregman. Since 2012 the Astros have drafted more MLB players than any other team. Here’s Houston’s record in every season following Elias’ arrival:

55-107 (2012)
51-111 (2013)
70-92 (2014)
86-78 (2015)
84-78 (2016)
101-61 (2017)
103-59 (2018)

Not too shabby. So has it translated to Baltimore yet? There haven’t been a ton of hiring changes down on the farm, although the new faces are filling key slots like player development and pitching.

In a limited sample size, Elias has shown he’s got a good eye for talent, with key acquisitions like Dwight Smith, Jr., Rio Ruiz and Pedro Severino. Elias’ hand-picked pitchers have been something of a letdown, but you might say there wasn’t a ton of choice this offseason, either. Until the O’s can develop homegrown talent, Dan Duquette-style dumpster diving is a fact of life.

Elias’ big chances to shape the future team are coming up with the Draft and midseason trades. As to the former, as Camden Chat’s own Nick Cicere points out, it seems like Elias has got a layup with Adley Rutschman, but the latter could prove trickier. It’s probably best not to hold your breath for a huge payout this season on “trade chips” like the injured Mark Trumbo and Alex Cobb, but Andrew Cashner could be dealt to a contender, as could Mancini, although this would break a lot of fan hearts, including mine. Elias described Bundy and closer Mychal Givens early on as part of “our future core,” but they could go, too.

Elias had his work cut out for him in winning back a disappointed fanbase and rebuilding the farm system. Although it’s early, the fans are rewarding him with confidence in his leadership. And while, as Elias knows, building up a “elite talent pipeline” “doesn’t have a lot of shortcuts,” so far, our silver fox looks pretty assured.

Early Season Grade: B.