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The evolution of Mike Elias

It’s been a long road from rebuild to trading for a Cy Young winner. The O’s GM proves that he’s tough to pin down.

MLB: OCT 08 ALDS - Rangers at Orioles Photo by Mark Goldman/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Orioles headed into this offseason as the toast of the sport. The team was coming off of a 101-win season, they boasted a young core that should keep them competitive for years to come, and even more prospects were on the way. There was plenty to be proud of in the Charm City. At the same time, there were legitimate concerns about the organization’s ability to act like a real deal World Series contender.

That would require them to prioritize winning above all else, splashing money in free agency, trading some portion of their prospect stash, and in turn putting the entire league on notice. As impressive as the O’s had been between the 2022 and ‘23 seasons, the front office had yet to go beyond drafting and developing their own players. The time for significant external talent had seemingly arrived.

That sort of headline-grabbing move finally came last week when the Orioles acquired starter Corbin Burnes from the Milwaukee Brewers in exchange for pitcher DL Hall, infielder Joey Ortiz, and the 34th overall pick in the 2024 draft. The long vacant hole atop the O’s rotation had been filled, and it was with a perennial Cy Young candidate. It felt like a seismic shift for the organization.

GM Mike Elias had come to Baltimore after the club’s disastrous 2018 season. The failings that saw the Buck Showalter/Dan Duquette era O’s fall from AL East champs in 2014 to the league’s worst record in 2018 were not isolated to the big league roster. There were flaws up and down the organization. Elias, a former lieutenant with the Cardinals and Astros, was tabbed to be the architect of a full-blown rebuild.

Since then, Elias has often spoken in measured, patient language. He has talked about sustainable team building, a talent pipeline that never runs run dry, and preaching logic over emotion.

Early on, the results from such a seemingly cautious approach were predictable. Between 2019 and 2021, the Orioles went 131-253, a repulsive .341 winning percentage. The most significant moves in that time were usually waiver claims or Rule 5 picks. The likes of Rio Ruiz, Hanser Alberto, and Pedro Severino became everyday players in Baltimore while they would have struggled to even stick on a 40-man roster elsewhere.

In 2022, the big league squad turned a corner. That coincided with the debut of top prospect Adley Rutschman, a rotation that improved from pitiful to competent, and a bullpen that (largely) held onto leads. But the team was playing above its head, outpacing its Pythagorean win-loss record and getting some lucky bounces. Rather than searching for in-season reinforcements, Elias traded off two fan favorites in Trey Mancini and closer Jorge López. It was frustrating to see such a fun team squashed by a pragmatic front office, although it did make more sense in the long run.

Expectations were heightened going into 2023. A second full season of Rutschman was a promising base, Gunnar Henderson hoped to build off of his late season call-up, and Grayson Rodriguez’s debut was imminent. Maybe if everything broke right, this team could challenge for a wild card spot, right? Wrong. Instead, they steamrolled the competition, won 101 games, and snagged the AL East crown.

But yet again, the front office wasn’t exactly ready to go “all in.” Rather than adding the ace the roster needed at the trade deadline, Elias brought in a depth arm in Jack Flaherty and took a flier on hard-throwing Shintaro Fujinami to supplement the bullpen. They were the sorts of moves focused on solidifying a floor rather than raising the ceiling. When the O’s eventually flamed out in the ALDS, the lack of a difference-making trade was an easy fault to point out.

That brought us to this winter. Elias had been transparent from the very beginning. He wanted a “front half” starter. It was known that he had been chasing White Sox ace Dylan Cease, and conversations had been ongoing with the Marlins regarding Jesus Luzardo among others. But there appeared to be relatively little movement there. With spring training just weeks away, it seemed that the O’s would head into the season with a similar roster to how they ended 2023. The ace would have to wait until the deadline—if at all. Yet another example of Elias being annoyingly patient and holding onto his prospects. The Orioles would be good, but felt a player or two short of World Series-worthy.

Then comes the Burnes trade. It completely upends the narrative around Elias and the Orioles. It’s not about the future. It’s not about extending their “window.” It’s about right now.

It also makes the goal of 2024 quite clear. The Orioles aren’t satisfied with competing. They want to win a World Series. There’s no other reason to go and get one of the league’s 10 best pitchers that also happens to be on an expiring contract. It is as aggressive of a move as a team can possibly make. That, paired with a new ownership group, should have the O’s fanbase over the moon with excitement.

Provided that the team plays well in the first half of the season, it will also paint the upcoming trade deadline in quite a different light as well. Half measures—similar to the Fujinami or Flaherty trades last year—in the lone season in which you have Burnes would make little sense.

That’s not to say Elias should abandon the principles that got him to this point. As he has said many times before, a team should not just make a move to say they made a move. But what this Burnes trade has shown us is that Elias is not a rigid decision-maker. His thought process evolves right along with the quality of his major league team. The Orioles will be as aggressive at the trade deadline as the roster tells them to be.