BALTIMORE — Nearly a year ago, Baltimore Orioles general manager Mike Elias flew to Texas to share his vision and calm the nerves of his upstart, competitive team after he had just traded away two key players – All-Star closer Jorge López and team leader Trey Mancini – for more prospects.
That afternoon in the Texas Rangers’ visiting dugout, Elias uttered his much repeated and much debated quote to the Baltimore media, that it’s “liftoff from here.”
The quote was brandished like a switchblade by a disgruntled fan base plenty of times last offseason, when the Orioles’ 2023 additions were limited to one-year deals for Kyle Gibson, Adam Frazier and Mychal Givens and trades for Cole Irvin, James McCann and Ryan O’Hearn. Not exactly a rocket ship worth of talent to push the Orioles into the 2023 playoffs. Or so we all thought at the time.
Yet, here the Baltimore Orioles are, again at baseball’s trade deadline. And they hold, arguably, the most envious position in the game. They have the best record in the American League and the most stocked farm system in the minors.
Seemingly, the Orioles could take their pick of any of the game’s available rentals to help fortify the club’s rotation and bullpen, which both could use reinforcements.
But there’s a catch here. Elias has spent the past five seasons building an organization from the ground up with a focus on sustainability – on making the Orioles a consistent playoff team. And to do that, with a payroll that is currently the second lowest in baseball, he needs to keep drafting and developing quality prospects.
However, those prospects are what turn into credible rentals at the trade deadline.
“We’re trying to win. We’re in first place. It’s awesome. We want to make a deep playoff run. We want to get in the World Series,” Elias said. “We want to do that. But unless we have information that the world is ending in November, a big part of my job is worrying about the overall health of the team over the next several years. So, you just try to balance all those things.”
Help Wanted: Pitcher for Baltimore Orioles
Elias spoke to the Baltimore media Friday and made a couple things clear. Yes, he wants to add pitching. Several members of the starting rotation are approaching career highs in innings and the bullpen could use more depth, even with the recent acquisition of hard-throwing righty Shintaro Fujinami.
“If we are going to make additional acquisition trades, I would bet heavily they’re going to be on the pitching side of things,” Elias said. “I think it’s no secret that that would be the areas of the team where we could A., either use more depth or B., look for upgrades. So, we’re working on that right now.”
The other declaration worth noting: Elias said Friday he and his staff have full support of ownership, both the autonomy to make moves and the money to take on a contract if necessary.
“We’ve had a lot of high-level discussions, planning scenarios, and our baseball operations group has the wherewithal from the CEO/partnership group to make good baseball trades that could add to our payroll, if we find them,” Elias said. “I’m not going to make what I think is a terrible trade and force it just so we can point to something. But we definitely have the flexibility to do that. I think that’s great. And we’re going to be considering opportunities.”
The Baltimore Orioles should do more than just consider. Elias needs to pull the trigger and make this pitching staff better by 6 p.m. Tuesday. Because winning a division and making a deep run into the playoffs hasn’t happened in Baltimore since 2014.
Back then, the assumption was that the team, which lost in the ALCS to the Kansas City Royals, was poised for the next several postseasons. The Orioles haven’t won a playoff game since.
Frankly, none of us know when that competitive window will open or close. Sustainability is the proper goal, but it’s also sports’ Holy Grail. Few organizations can be a threat every year, even when swimming in money.
Look at the New York Yankees, who are in Baltimore this weekend for an important divisional series. They are baseball’s most recent dynasty, winning four World Series in five years from 1996-2000. They haven’t been to the World Series since 2009, and despite the second highest payroll in MLB, they are currently last in the AL East.
Making smart additions to 26-man roster
I’m not advocating the Orioles should burn their farm system down for a couple rentals. But they need to add to this 26-man roster. Now. The rotation has found its footing recently and could have club ace John Means return in September. But injuries happen. So does inconsistency with young pitchers. And inning management will be a real hurdle in September.
The bullpen has been solid, but what happens if closer Felix Bautista breaks down? That’s a 6-foot-8 domino that could crush the Baltimore Orioles’ playoff aspirations.
This is “What if?” time for a general manager in charge of a first-place team. Elias needs to answer those questions appropriately before they arise, as best as he can anyway.
There’s also the concept of the psychological boost that comes with being buyers at the deadline. It’s something that’s foreign to nearly every player on the Baltimore Orioles’ big-league roster. Outfielder Austin Hays, one of the club’s veterans, doesn’t know what it’s like to play on a buying club at the deadline.
“It’s still kind of the same mindset of, ‘We have the guys we have in this clubhouse and we’re gonna try and win with those guys every day,’” Hays said. “You let the GM make those other decisions.”
Baltimore Orioles manager Brandon Hyde has been riding a seller since he took over the team to start the 2019 season. Hyde, though, was a member of the Chicago Cubs coaching staff when that team was a World Series winner and made the postseason four consecutive times. He knows what a trade-deadline addition can do for a clubhouse.
“It’s a huge lift. When a team adds, there’s a lot of excitement that goes on in a clubhouse,” Hyde said. “This is summer, and you see where you are in the standings and see what you have left, and there’s still a lot of baseball left to go. But when you feel like you are getting help, that’s a big boost for a club, normally. We’ll see what happens.”
Elias mentioned the Orioles’ great chemistry Friday, and he must be careful not to damage that with the wrong purchase. For when someone is added, someone must be subtracted.
That’s worth considering, but the bottom line is the Orioles have ownership support, supposedly money to absorb a salary or two and a system full of promising players. And they are in a spot they haven’t experienced in seven years.
They could land a Jordan Montgomery or a Michael Lorenzen or even a Blake Snell, if he is available, without depleting the farm system. We’re not talking about shipping away Jackson Holliday or Gunnar Henderson or even Grayson Rodriguez here.
It might hurt to lose a DL Hall or a Joey Ortiz or a Connor Norby or a Samuel Basallo or a combination of any highly regarded prospects. But it will hurt a lot less if the Orioles go deep into the playoffs, led by a stronger rotation and a deeper bullpen.
The Baltimore Orioles may be ahead of schedule in one sense. But, in another, this is potentially their time.
To lift off. For real this time around.
Dan Connolly is an MLB Insider for Sportsnaut. Follow him on Twitter.