Image credit: (Photo by Tom DiPace)
Just after the 2018 All-Star Game, then-Orioles executive vice president Dan Duquette traded star shortstop Manny Machado to the Dodgers in a deal that ushered in a comprehensive rebuild and priority shift in Baltimore.
Duquette outlined a long list of areas the Orioles had neglected in favor of funding one last run at a World Series. Those neglected areas required significant attention in the organization’s rebuild: technology, international scouting, facilities, the draft, analytics, front office staff and expanded nutrition and wellness throughout the organization.
Those proclamations became provenance for an organizational overhaul led by Duquette’s successor, Mike Elias, who in his introduction as executive vice president and general manager that fall promised to build an “elite talent pipeline” to Camden Yards. Two years in, he’s well on his way.
“We, very early in our strategizing and very clearly in the messaging and tone that we wanted to send throughout the organization, knew that we were going to have to lay down a deep and wide pipeline of talent to set this organization up for years to come,” Elias said.
“We were coming off a really good run, but like all things in baseball, it had kind of run its course and come to an end, and it was time to move onto the next thing. We wanted to do it as strongly and as quickly as possible.”
Now, an Orioles farm system led by four recent first-round picks—catcher Adley Rutschman (2019), righthander Grayson Rodriguez (2018), lefthander DL Hall (2017), and outfielder Heston Kjerstad (2020)—has jumped from No. 22 in the Baseball America organizational talent rankings when Elias arrived to seventh just two seasons later.
Duquette’s trades were a starting point, but Elias’ early focuses were infrastructure-based, focusing on analytics, coaching and international scouting. The first two, in concert, quickly produced results.
Work done in those first few months by Sig Mejdal, who helped build the Astros’ vaunted analytics program and was hired by the Orioles as assistant general manager, and Chris Holt, another Astros staffer who came over as minor league pitching coordinator, helped every level of pitching in the organization take a leap in 2019.
Mejdal inherited an analytics department with one full-time employee. He’s added five full-time analysts and two developers since. And Holt, who spent 2020 as director of pitching and will be the major league pitching coach in 2021 in addition to that role, immediately changed the trajectory of the team’s longstanding pitching development issues.
Each saw improvements in their pitches and usage based on the instruction that data and technology reinforced. In the majors, lefthander John Means went from off the prospect radar to an all-star in 2019, and righthander Dean Kremer joined Akin as a rookie who impressed in the 2020 rotation.
“I really think it had an instant effect,” Elias said. “I couldn’t have known that was going to be so fast at the time I was interviewing for the job and getting hired.”
There was similarly quick progress in re-establishing the Orioles in Latin America, where they sat out of for years.
Less than two months into Elias’ tenure, lauded international evaluator Koby Perez was hired away from the Indians to be the Orioles’ senior director of international scouting. His first signing class from 2019 produced a group of exciting talent at their recent instructional league camp, and the delayed 2020 international class features the Orioles’ first two seven-figure bonus signings.
The coronavirus pandemic’s influence on the game lessened the chance for impact in some areas, even as the Orioles tried to make the best of it. While Rutschman and Kjerstad are the highlights of their system and could anchor the lineup for years to come, shortstops Gunnar Henderson (No. 42 pick in 2019) and Jordan Westburg (No. 30 pick in 2020) create the potential for multiple impact players in both drafts.
That top group of hitters could benefit in 2021 from a new set of hitting coaches and philosophies installed ahead of the 2020 season by farm director Matt Blood. Elias said the group of instructors is one he’s “really excited about” and made a real difference in challenging the prospects and preparing the major leaguers for promotions at the alternate training site in 2020.
Trade acquisitions like righthanders Kyle Bradish and Garrett Stallings (acquired from the Angels for Dylan Bundy and Jose Iglesias, respectively), lefthander Kevin Smith (from the Mets for Miguel Castro), and shortstop Terrin Vavra (as part of the Mychal Givens trade with the Rockies) have given the Orioles upper-minors depth as the recent draft picks deal with a lost 2020 minor league season.
And the major league team could see significant rookie contributions in 2021 from Akin and Kremer in the rotation, plus left fielder Ryan Mountcastle, second baseman Jahmai Jones and former top outfield prospect Yusniel Diaz.
Creating a robust player development system in which the Orioles scout and sign amateur talent well, maximize their returns in trades of major leaguers and develop those players with the most advanced methods possible is the way Elias sees the Orioles competing in a division where their four rivals are ahead of the Orioles in payroll capacity, player development experience or both.
“We’ve had the benefit of some big draft pools and high draft picks and making all these trades, but none of that means anything if you’re not keeping up with the player development advances that have gone on around the game,” Elias said.
“So many of the teams right now that have these admired farm systems. Not only are they drafting and signing internationally well, but they’re also at the forefront of pitching and hitting development. Getting to that spot for the Orioles is going to be priority No. 1.