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“Wait and See,” Sure, but Elias & Ownership on Notice

Mike Elias on his laptop.
photo: Reddit/orioles-official
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Following one of the most surprising seasons in recent memory, the Orioles entered the offseason as a team that everyone was watching. Many people felt the Orioles were ready to spend money and put themselves into legit playoff contention.

To compound matters, Mike Elias talked about how the team was ready to “lift off” and that was interpreted, by many, to mean that the team was going to spend more money. You couple that with Elias’ remarks in the past that ownership is committed to winning and most people just assumed that a few big contracts were on the horizon.

I think that was fair to assume. Fans see a team with an incredibly low payroll, loaded with players who will not make any real money for several years. They see a team coming off an 83-win season that has a few glaring weaknesses and the conclusion is, the team can easily spend a lot more money be in better position to win.

I feel all of that is fair and, generally speaking, Orioles fans have a reason to have beef here. Elias has done a poor job of articulating things at times and then you see him, in December, essentially giving up hope of winning the division and it pisses fans off.

Elias still seems to be in shock that the team did so well last year and just won’t trust them to keep it up. Why are we accepting this? Why not spend? Why not take advantage of that momentum?

The Orioles will be sending out season ticket invoices soon, if they haven’t already. They are already starting their campaign for new season tickets. Yet they are telling fans that they won’t do what it takes to field a division winner unless it happens by mistake.

How is that going to help with ticket sales?

I have talked about this before, but most tickets are sold before the season ever starts. Season tickets and group tickets make up the large majority of ticket sales. The Orioles average about 3K per game in terms of walk up sales. Basically, by Opening Day, the Orioles can ballpark their attendance and be pretty accurate. So, if the team is playing well and you see 10,000 fans on a Friday night and the team, players and media are wondering why…well, this is why.

If the tickets aren’t sold in the next three months or so, they don’t get sold. That’s just how it works.

The reason I mention this is because the Orioles don’t seem to understand the concept of spending money to make money. The Angelos family ownership has always struggled with this. Now, Peter would spend money on the MLB product, but he didn’t care about how to properly build an entire organization, and he largely spent poorly. John seems to understand what it takes to build a foundation, but he doesn’t want to complete the house.

Basically, we have had two extremes with this family when what you really need an the owner who wants to do both.

We don’t have that in Baltimore. Maybe John will evolve into this?  Who knows…but I wouldn’t count on it.

When the Orioles won in 2012, it was a huge surprise. They had made a few cheap signings that went well (Wei-Yin Chen is arguably the best FA contract in franchise history), had a lights out pen and an excellent defense. The team got a bigger defensive boost when they brought Manny Machado up, and they ended up being the surprise team of the year. They went on to have a solid five-year run.

They did that without a true ace. They did it with Chris Davis getting suspended, Manny having two different knee surgeries and Matt Wieters having Tommy John surgery.  Those teams fought through adversity, but because they were oustanding at run prevention, they were able to win.

Now, did those teams spend money? Yes, they did but a lot of the increase we saw in payroll between 2012 and 2017 was due to arbitration raises. They did sign the occasional FA but no one got a monster contract. You could argue that not signing that top guy is why they never made it to the World Series. That’s possible, but baseball isn’t usually a sport where you are just one player away.

I think, in a lot of ways, Elias is trying to repeat that type of success. No one is really excited for the Kyle Gibson signing. While he is a better pitcher than Jordan Lyles, there is no guarantee that he is better than Lyles was in 2022. ERA isn’t a good stat to use overall but when comparing one season to another, you can use it relatively effectively. Gibson only has three seasons in his 10-year career where his ERA was better than what Lyles posted in 2021. His peripheral stats, statcast numbers, etc. are largely better than Lyles, but the difference isn’t overwhelming.

So, why is there so much hope that Gibson is a definite upgrade? Well, it’s because of the new left field wall and the Orioles team defense. Again, run prevention.

I think part of Elias’ thinking is that he can sign “lesser pitchers” to “lesser contracts” but get the same (or similar) production. It’s the old 80/20 theory. Get 80% of the production at 20% the cost.

An example is Sean Manaea. Now, I am not interested in Manaea. I wanted them to get better pitchers. That said, would it really be surprising if Manaea had a better season, pitching in OPACY, than Chris Bassitt or Nathan Eovaldi? Would it be surprising if Manaea posted a 3.8 ERA in 2023? Let’s say you felt that Manaea would give you a 3.8 ERA and Bassitt would give you a 3.4 ERA. Would you offer two or three more years and another 50+million for that slight improvement?

I truly think this is what Elias is grappling with. I think the team is willing to sign guys to two-to-three year deals. I do not think they will go four or more years.  I largely agree with them when it comes to that strategy because I just don’t think the pitchers who are left are good enough for that, with the exception of Carlos Rodonbut he brings his own set of issues that could cause someone to not to want to pay him.

As I talked about before, Elias comes from a Houston organization that does not spend big money on free agents. They just signed Jose Abreu to a 3/60 deal and that represents the most money they have given to a FA since this dominant run started. They have only given out one four-year contract to a FA – that was Josh Reddick and his AAV was “only” $13 million.

This is where Elias learned. This is what he will do here. This particular aspect of things has nothing to do with ownership. This is very likely how Elias views free agency (and he’s right to do so, in my opinion).

Now, what is the difference? The difference is Houston has taken on money through trades and they have kept their home-grown talent. The Orioles have yet to show they will do either, but I suspect that this is what Elias is building towards. If they don’t take this approach, this is where I think ownership is at fault.

From 2011-2013, Houston was terrible, winning 56 or fewer games for those three seasons. The 2014 team jumped to 70 wins and the 2015 team went to 86 wins. My thought is that Elias was thinking the 2022 Orioles would mirror the 2014 Astros and the 2023 Orioles would be in position to have an outside chance at contending, a la the 2015 Astros. In his mind, the Orioles are ahead of that pace. The Astros’ 2014 payroll was $50 million and the 2015 team had an Opening Day payroll of $72 million (these numbers according to COTS).

Now, I know what people are thinking: why does this matter to us?

Why should we care what the Astros did?

We are an organization that, for most of the last quarter century, has been a laughing stock. Why can’t we just spend and get better?

That’s all fair and valid but I think the answer is simple and while people don’t want to hear it (and for good reason), its simply because they aren’t ready to do it, and don’t want to accelerate their blueprint.

Now, this team will spend some more money this offseason. The payroll is currently looking like it will be in the $50-55 million range. My guess is that, when it’s all said and done, it will end up closer to $65M-75M. They will add another pitcher and they will add a bat or two that can play immediately. They will add a new backup catcher.

However, for the most part, what you see is what you get. That’s exactly how it should be given the talent on hand.

Will that be enough? Maybe, maybe not. This team will only go as far as the young guys will take them. Some players will see regressions from surprising 2022 seasons. Some players will be better. Some are simply just now going to be here for a full season and are so good that they should really take off this year. The issue I have is that Elias is giving himself a smaller margin for error.

Spending money now could solve that. It would allow for a greater margin for error if players deal with injuries. The Orioles are not likely to have that margin in 2023.

Fans are upset at Elias and I think they have the right to be. I also think those same fans are being completely over the top. I am actually seeing people say Elias should be fired and that is possibly the dumbest thing I have seen on Twitter (when it comes to the Orioles), which is saying a lot.

What he has done and what he is building, is exactly what this organization has needed. The best organizations win by building from within. Building a strong farm system, being heavily involved in the international market, scouting, player development, etc. The Orioles are excelling in most of these areas and are making big strides in the international market. This is absolutely the best thing they could be doing.

However, just because you are doing those things right doesn’t mean you ignore the big league club. After all, none of that other stuff matters unless the big club wins. That is the purpose to all of this. The purpose isn’t to win an award from Baseball America that you have the best system. I think that gets forgotten in the Warehouse…or at least that’s the impression they give publicly.

I got a lot of flak last year when I said the team needed to do more and try to win in 2022. I have been wanting them to add talent for a while now. There is and has been no excuse not to. People said they weren’t ready. Well, they were wrong. People said, you don’t acquire talent a year early because it’s wasted. Again, they were wrong. Now, as it turned out, they did win in 2022 but if they had done more, maybe they win those four extra games and end up in the playoffs.

I want them to spend and I want them to win but I also believe in how Houston does things. I also believe in Elias that he knows what he is doing. I can say that there has yet to be a trade or a FA signing that I wish the Orioles had beaten (with the possible exception of Abreu, but with the lack of state tax in Texas, the Orioles would probably have had to go higher than I’d have liked.)

I think “lesser” players are going to slip through cracks and sign better deals and give the same or similar production as the guys who have already signed their dumb deals. When the Orioles pass on those guys and fail to make any smart trades (I feel they must get rid of some of their infield surplus), I will be first in line to bash them.

For now, I am taking the wait and see approach, and hoping that Elias does the right thing and upgrades the top of this roster.

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