Prepare your champagne flutes (or a six-pack): on November 16th, it’ll be time to clink to the two-year anniversary of Mike Elias joining the Baltimore Orioles as general manager and executive VP. Entering the last two weeks of the Orioles 2020 season, it’s raining prospects, and it looks pretty good for now, especially for fans who expected 2020 to be a lost season with few new faces.
It’s been a tumultuous couple of years for this team since Elias came aboard—and that’s just on the field. In the winter of 2018, the Orioles were coming off of a disastrous 47-115 season. Ownership had decided not to renew the contracts of manager Buck Showalter and GM Dan Duquette once these expired in October. Orioles pitchers had put up an AL-worst 5.18 ERA, and there was no depth, with the Orioles’ farm system ranked in the lowest third of MLB teams.
Enter Elias. The first thing he did in a busy first four months on the job was go on a stockpiling binge: people like Jace Peterson, Zach Vincej, Josh Lucas, Ryan Meisinger, Rio Ruiz, Richie Martin, Drew Jackson, Austin Brice, Carlos Perez, Gregory Infante, Bo Schultz, Hanser Alberto, Jack Reinheimer, Jesus Sucre, Nate Karns, Eric Young Jr., Alcides Escobar, Josh Osich, Dwight Smith Jr., and Pedro Severino were all signed cheaply for cash or off the waiver wire. Many, obviously, didn’t stick.
Between December and March, Elias & Co. also shed pieces of the Showalter-Duquette Orioles. Exeunt Tim Beckham and Caleb Joseph (as free agents), Breyvic Valera (sold to the Giants), Mike Yastrzemski (traded to the Giants for Tyler Herb), and D.J. Snelten (waived).
That was Elias’ first offseason, and his control over the team, especially down in the minors, was far from established. So, after 2019, when the team record was a slightly-better 54-108 but the pitching, at a collective 5.59 ERA, was actually even worse, Elias went back to stockpiling and trimming deadweight.
Released in November were pitchers Pedro Araujo, Ryan Eades, Tayler Scott, Jimmy Yacabonis, Gabriel Ynoa, and Aaron Brooks. In two big trades, Elias sent Jonathan Villar to the Marlins in exchange for minor-league pitcher Easton Lucas, and moved Dylan Bundy to the Angels in exchange for four minor-league arms: Kyle Bradish, Kyle Brnovich, Isaac Mattson, and Zach Peek.
Then, even more pitcher signings: Rob Zastryzny, Rule 5 guys Brandon Bailey from the Astros and Michael Rucker from the Cubs in December, free agents Kohl Stewart and Cesar Valdez to fill out the bullpen, waiver pickup Travis Lakins, and veterans Wade LeBlanc and Tommy Milone. The defense, another Achilles heel in both 2018 and 2019, was fortified with the signing of veteran shortstop José Iglesias to a one-year deal in January. Elias also added outfielder Mason Williams, infielder Dilson Herrera, utility man Pat Valaika, catchers Taylor Davis and Bryan Holaday, and finally, picked up Ramon Urias and Andrew Velazquez off of waivers in February.
The revolving door didn’t stop during the 2020 season, however abbreviated and however lacking in trade pieces people had felt the Orioles to be. So, over the month of August, Elias dealt the well-liked lefty Richard Bleier to the Marlins for a player to be named later, picked up starter Jorge Lopez off of waivers, then, in a busy two-day span from August 30-31st, traded Tommy Milone to the Braves for two PTBNL, sent Mychal Givens to the Rockies for infielders Tyler Nevin, Terrin Vavra, and a PTBNL, and dealt Miguel Castro to the New York Mets for pitcher Kevin Smith and another PTBNL. He also picked up reliever Carson Fulmer and cut pitchers Ty Blach and Asher Wojciechowski, as well as mega-utility infielder Stevie Wilkerson.
Finally, most exciting for Orioles fans who’d written off 2020, Elias finally abandoned the caution he’d shown about promoting prospects and opened the floodgates for a bunch of them to make their majors debuts: Ryan Mountcastle (8/21), Keegan Akin (8/30), Dean Kremer (9/6), and Bruce Zimmermann (9/17), along with Ryan McKenna, recently on the taxi squad, though yet to make his debut.
I see two main takeaways from all these changes to the club and the farm. One, signing and trading for talent, even under the leadership of a gifted former scout, remains more art than science. The team has unearthed a few gems off the trade wire—Pat Valaika, Jorge Lopez (through all of seven games), Pedro Severino, and Hanser Alberto—but look at all the names that didn’t stick with the team. Of those who left, most aren’t ones Orioles fans regret losing, but wouldn’t everybody erase the deals that allowed Dylan Bundy, now in the Cy Young conversation, and Mike Yastrzemski, whose 2.2 WAR and .949 OPS would lead the Orioles, to walk?
Still, all this (sometimes seemingly pointless) coming and going points to a second, more encouraging, takeaway: the Orioles are doing a fantastic job of developing talent. The farm system is now ranked 8th in the majors, thanks to a combination of international pickups and smart, value-conscious drafting (many saw the Heston Kjerstad pick, for instance, at No. 2 overall, as a headscratcher, but some are now touting the dollars saved in a smaller signing bonus). But what stands out is player development, evidenced in particular by the fact that many of 2020’s breakthrough Orioles were part of the Duquette roster: Cedric Mullins, now playing some of the best baseball he’s ever shown; DJ Stewart, who’s found his power stroke; Anthony Santander, an offensive powerhouse before his oblique injury; John Means, who found a changeup in 2019 and has had to pull back his fastball velocity in 2020; Tanner Scott, finally a reliable bullpen arm; and especially newbies Bruce Zimmermann, who’s added 4-6 mph of velocity to his heater since joining the Orioles, Keegan Akin, who’s racked up 25 strikeouts in 18.2 big-league innings so far, and Dean Kremer, who has a 1.64 ERA and 1.00 WHIP in his first eleven innings.
For now, drafting and signing under Mike Elias has been throwing things at the wall and seeing what sticks, and it may continue to be. But that’s OK, because if the Orioles can take a pool of raw talent and turn it into a bunch of ballplayers who maximize their natural abilities and play to their strengths, fans might just be able to look forward to a string of competitive teams in the future.