Image credit: Mike Elias (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
There are no consolation prizes to lessen the sting of the Orioles’ playoff sweep at the end of a 101-win, division-winning season.
If Orioles executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias was looking for them, the offseason acknowledgements—in the form of the Baseball America MLB Executive of the Year award—both for the 2023 team and the years of work that went into building it would certainly provide a silver lining.
“We had a tremendous regular season. There’s nothing to feel short about in the regular season, but our playoff goals have not been reached by any stretch,” Elias said.
“There’s still a lot of work that we can do to improve the Orioles, but (this award is) really meaningful and a really nice recognition, I think, of what was a hard job of rebuilding not just the roster but the organization.”
Elias was hired in November 2018 to overhaul a baseball operations department that had fallen behind in so many facets. The honors coming his way this winter are viewed through a multi-year lens and reflect the scope of the Orioles’ turnaround in his time in Baltimore.
Orioles ownership, he said, empowered the baseball operations to think and act differently.
Before he took over, Elias said the organization had been “relatively skewed towards external free agents, without any particular niche in player development, without really any international activity other than Asian free agents (and) kind of small, after-market signings in Latin America.”
Today, Orioles baseball ops fires on all cylinders, with a strong scouting and player development effort and a thriving analytics program
“It’s just a very different operating model, and it was necessary,” Elias said.
“I think our group’s experience and expertise enabled the Orioles to make that transition in a relatively tight window—with a global crisis in the middle of it. I think that’s the part that I’m most proud of, that we were able to pivot the capabilities of the organization and the philosophies of the organization. But it was a lot of hard work.”
The 2023 Orioles are a product of all that. Their lineup was a combination of carryover players, such as Anthony Santander, Cedric Mullins II, Austin Hays and Ryan Mountcastle, who improved through extended major league experience the lean years afforded them and upgraded hitting instruction.
Elias inherited 2018 first-rounder Grayson Rodriguez and traded for Kyle Bradish, but the two righthanders thrived in the Orioles’ pitching development system and emerged as top-end starters as the season progressed.
The moves to improve the 2023 team in the previous offseason were modest. Kyle Gibson, at $10 million for one year, was the top addition to the pitching staff, while second baseman Adam Frazier ($8 million) provided an experienced lefthanded bat.
Most of the improvement came from within. A full season of Rutschman, the No. 1 prospect in baseball entering 2022, helped tremendously behind the plate as he made his first all-star appearance and led the team with 5.1 wins above replacement, according to FanGraphs.
Henderson wasn’t far behind him. He ranked as the No. 1 prospect heading into 2023 and finished the year as American League Rookie of the Year. Those two were the first- and second-round picks in Elias’ first draft in 2019 and set a foundation for where the Orioles are now.
“I couldn’t have asked for better outcomes with those two picks,” Elias said. “Adley was at the forefront of the conversation (to be drafted No. 1 overall out of Oregon State) for over a year, so that wasn’t a surprise. But we obviously developed the requisite comfort with him.
“I think we correctly identified him as somebody, apart from his baseball and catching skills, who we wanted to entrust with being the face of our culture change, too. He’s done that.”
The Orioles also held the top pick in the second round, which they used to select Henderosn out of high school in Alabama.
“With the 42nd pick, you don’t know who is going to be there,” Elias said, “but to get a high-upside high school shortstop—which is always a great way to kick off any rebuild—to do that in the second round . . . we did a lot of good work, but it also was a lot of good fortune.”
However Elias decides to supplement the Orioles going forward, the strength of their scouting and development infrastructure beyond that 2019 draft will fuel their growth.
First-round college outfielders Heston Kjerstad (2020) and Colton Cowser (2021) debuted last year and are primed for larger roles in 2024. Shortstop Jackson Holliday, the No. 1 overall pick in 2022, emerged this season as the game’s top prospect, while potential young stars Samuel Basallo, the first gem from their revamped Latin American program, and Coby Mayo give the next wave of Orioles farmhands significant upside.
Elias’ goal was always to build a healthy, sustainable organization to help the Orioles compete on an annual basis in the AL East, a division that is often the game’s most challenging.
This winter presents opportunities, be it through trades or free agency, to further supplement the team’s pitching staff, especially with all-star closer Felix Bautista out for all of 2024 after having Tommy John surgery.
The success of 2023, however, has changed the Orioles’ expectations.
“We’re pretty measured with this stuff, because we’re realistic and we’re humble and we don’t want to thump our chest about things we haven’t done or can’t do,” Elias said.
“But now that we’ve won the division in 2023, we’re the defending division champs in 2024, and we’re going to talk like it.”