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What does Mike Elias mean by “liftoff” for the Orioles?

The GM had a noticeable shift in tone following the trade deadline. That could mean a whole lot of changes coming to Birdland this winter.

New York Yankees v Baltimore Orioles Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

According to Orioles’ GM Mike Elias, the team is about to enter into a “decade-long window” of winning. It’s the type of comment that some will take as bloviating to cover up for a trade deadline in which Elias chose to sell rather than supplement the best Orioles team in six years. But others that have fully embraced Elias’ vision for the club will view it as a shift in tone that indicates changes on the horizon.

In that same press conference, Elias explained that he expects the team to make significant additions to the roster, believing that “it’s liftoff from here for this team.”

That sort of language was new for Elias. Leading up to this season he had been rather transparent about the goals of the franchise, and they did not include winning at the major league level in the short term. He did obfuscate ahead of this past trade deadline, saying in mid-July that “We do everything from a very global, very thoughtful perspective of what is the right thing to do for the health of the Orioles’ franchise...we’ll see what happens.”

The switch from “we’ll see what happens” to impending “liftoff” in a matter of weeks is significant. And it makes for great fodder of fan speculation and blog topics over the next few months.

Minor league, now

If a team is going to liftoff, it probably helps to know exactly who you have on board first. Building up the minor league system has been a hallmark of Elias’ tenure. He receives high marks from just about every public scouting outlet, and that is likely a fair reflection of how the industry regards the team’s youngsters.

A strong minor league system often correlates to a strong major league squad in the years ahead. But it isn’t 1-to-1, and the players that are going to succeed are not always clear. The Orioles are in a position to learn more about some of their young players before the 2022 season ends.

The club felt Kyle Stowers was good enough to earn a promotion for one series in Toronto as Anthony Santander’s replacement. Since then, he has been back in Triple-A, where his output looks quite similar to what he did prior to the promotion, an .892 OPS in July and .951 OPS so far in August.

Gunnar Henderson has split his season between Bowie and Norfolk. A slow start in Triple-A has now faded away. The infielder ended July on a 12-game hitting streak, and has begun August going 8-for-24.

D.L. Hall has had a rockier season than the other two, often oscillating between fantastic and forgettable. He is striking out 14.75 batters per nine innings at Norfolk while also walking 5.71 in the same time.

Those three seem to have the right combination of talent and minor league seasoning to garner a promotion with an eye towards a long term role in the big leagues. It would be helpful to know sooner rather than later if any of them is as good as we hope. If not, their expected production will need to be replaced.

When to spend

The Orioles have not been a particularly active team in free agency with Elias at the helm. It’s fair to say that this past winter was his most successful in that regard, when he added Jordan Lyles, Rougned Odor, and Robinson Chirinos. At the very least, the Orioles have gotten what they hoped for out of those players as Lyles has eaten innings, and both Odor and Chirinos have provided the “vibes.”

But the level of player coming in this coming offseason will need to jump up in order to qualify as “liftoff.”

Starting pitching has to be a priority, even if prospects like Hall or Grayson Rodriguez live up to the hype. The team needs more depth and quality in the rotation. Both of those should be available in free agency, but they often cost a premium on the open market. Jacob deGrom and Carlos Rodón are two of the more tantalizing options.

There are fewer clear upgrades on the infield, but they do exist, particularly at the top of the market. Carlos Correa could opt out of a lucrative player option to add on years. Trea Turner will hit free agency for the first time in his career. And there is José Abreu if you are after a middle-of-the-order bopper.

The Orioles aren’t about to build their roster out of free agent additions. But they should complement their in-house talent with a high-end player or two from this avenue in an area of need.

Trades incoming

A significant trade or two feels like almost an inevitability for the Orioles this winter. What that trade will look like in practice is much more ambiguous, though.

The outfield is an area where the Orioles have a glut of talent at or near the big leagues. That could lead to trades of any number of prospects, including 2021 first-round pick Colton Cowser if the price is right. Or perhaps the front office looks to make room on the major league roster for these young outfielders by a deal involving one of Anthony Santander, Cedric Mullins, or Austin Hays.

What the team targets in return could shift as the offseason evolves. But starting pitching once again feels like the most relevant. If the Orioles could add a top-of-the-rotation arm with several years of control it could be too good to resist. Shane Bieber and Pablo López are the two players that have popped up the most often in theoretical swaps.

It has been remarkable to see just how good the Orioles have been this year despite a middling starting rotation and an infield with significant issues on the offensive side of things. The combination of intriguing promotions from the minors and an influx of external talent could be what pushes them from the fringes of the wild card discussion into a run at the pennant. That would certainly qualify as “liftoff.”