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Mike Elias revisiting “liftoff” throws cold water on the idea of a big Orioles move

“Liftoff” seems to have meant something different to the general manager than it did to you and me.

Toronto Blue Jays v Baltimore Orioles Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images

A few months ago, in the aftermath of unpopular-with-fans trade deadline activity that saw the Orioles ship off fan favorite hitter Trey Mancini and then-blooming closer Jorge López, general manager Mike Elias addressed assembled O’s media during a trip to Texas and proclaimed, among other things, “I think it’s liftoff from here for this team.”

This was an eyebrow-raising statement for me because it’s so much different than the kind of thing that Elias had been saying up until then. His first few years around here usually featured comments from him that talked up the building of his favorite phrase, “the elite talent pipeline,” and completely deflected or side-stepped any question that might have been aimed at eliciting an answer about when the Orioles might be good or even decent again.

On Monday at the winter meetings, Elias was talking with the O’s beat contingent about having had Zoom meetings with eight different pitchers while elsewhere in the building, Mets writers could ask about that team signing Justin Verlander and Phillies writers had stories to write about that team signing Trea Turner. A reporter asked him again about the “liftoff” comment and he offered a new spin on it that generated a number of snarky or bitter responses from Orioles fans on social media.

Let’s revisit the original statement that made every Orioles Grinch’s heart grow three sizes that day. MASN’s Roch Kubatko blared it from a headline at the time:

I think it’s liftoff from here for this team. And I think the decisions that we made (trading Mancini and López) were difficult in that regard. But we saw opportunities to bring starting pitching into the organization. We’ve got a program running where we bring players in, we see something we like, we give them information, we coach them up and that’s the way successful teams run themselves. Especially with our market size. It’s going to be the way we have to do it, but I see a homegrown team that we want to build around and supplement, and I think that’s going to start this year. There’s a lot of help coming from the minor leagues, and it’s going to start this year. And we’re just going to keep adding from this point forward.

Asked specifically about adding players in the offseason, he said, “We’re going to be signing players this winter. I’m very excited about it.”

Anyone who took from that liftoff statement a belief that the Orioles would walk into this winter and sign Aaron Judge, Carlos Correa, and Justin Verlander to free agent contracts was always destined to be disappointed. Still, I think it’s reasonable if you were expecting signings more exciting than Kyle Gibson and Franchy Cordero. A couple of weeks after making the “liftoff” statement, Elias gave a radio interview where he addressed the offseason that’s playing out now (transcribed by MASN’s Steve Melewski):

Our plan for this offseason has always been to significantly escalate the payroll. I think a lot of that is going to come through our own guys going into arbitration. Also we plan to explore free agency much more aggressively. We plan to maybe make some buy trades for some guys that are either on contracts that are kind in the tail end of their arbitration.

The phrase “significantly escalate the payroll” is another one that, devoid of context, could have inspired a lot of excitement. Even though Elias immediately followed it by talking about arbitration raises, he then added the possibility of signing free agents or trading for players who maybe have 2-3 years left until they are free agents. The team went on to finish 83-79. The rotation is the area of biggest need. Money and prospect depth are there to spend to get good pitchers. If it’s liftoff, it’s time to get them, right?

Now here’s the Elias of December being asked to revisit the “liftoff” comment. Viewing it through the lens of my previous life as a political science major, I wonder if this might be termed something of a walkback statement. As transcribed by The Baltimore Banner’s Andy Kostka:

It’s not... not what he said months ago that made me perk up my ears. The themes he is visiting are similar. It’s also a bit more measured, and more focused on praising the current young core and the coming internal improvements from the farm system, with other prospects lined up behind the two big ones who debuted in 2022, Adley Rutschman and Gunnar Henderson.

With nearer-term additions like Grayson Rodriguez, Colton Cowser, and Joey Ortiz and longer-term prospects like Jackson Holliday and the Orioles international signings building up, there’s plenty to be excited about going forward just from what’s already here.

I don’t think anyone who took something stronger from “liftoff” than “this team is going to continue to get better from this point forward” or “we’re on the upswing now” was wrong to do so. There’s a gap between what “we’re going to be signing players this winter” says and what “we can custom build over the next few years” says. Going from the first one to the second one is singing a different tune.

It does seem now that Elias may have had something else in mind and he probably wishes he’d said something more like he usually says. A cynic might think Elias said the “liftoff” thing on purpose to get people focused on something other than subtracting from a roster that was at that moment - and later continued - contending for a playoff spot. That cynic is not me, but I get it. If it wasn’t clear from the post-trade performance of those players that the Orioles sold high on them, I’d be more inclined to that viewpoint.

Some patience is called for. The Orioles 2023 Opening Day roster is not locked right now. It will not be locked by the end of the winter meetings. Unless every starting pitcher who might improve the team signs over the next two days, there will still be a free agent market out there, and even if all of the free agents sign, trade possibilities exist as well.

There are two-plus months remaining between now and when we have to start talking ourselves into believing in a full season of a rotation that includes all of Kyle Bradish, Tyler Wells, and Austin Voth. Elias’s winter meeting comments have not yet started to suggest that’s where things will end up, though if you are waiting for him to sign one of the remaining shortstops, that doesn’t sound like that will be happening.

If the current rotation situation is the situation as spring training games are beginning, there will be a larger number of people feeling bitter about the lack of “liftoff,” and understandably so. I hope they sign or trade for somebody whose acquisition would ward off that kind of gloom. Gibson sure ain’t that guy, and whoever they pick in tomorrow’s Rule 5 draft sure won’t be either.

The most recent experience for Orioles fans sitting around waiting for the necessary big move was in the Dan Duquette years, when the rotation went unaddressed in November and December, and then eventually there’d be unexciting additions like Ubaldo Jimenez, Yovani Gallardo, Andrew Cashner, and Alex Cobb. Those teams failed in part for lack of quality starting pitching.

Elias’s tenure has given more reason to believe in pitching development, but they still need some better dudes than what they’ve already got. Whatever Elias meant by “liftoff,” that doesn’t change what it’s going to take to actually lift off. I hope that in a year’s time we can look back on this little kerfuffle as having been much ado about nothing.