With the possible exception of the Mariners -- who always seem to give their fans just enough hope to make them even sadder when they fall just short -- I'm not sure there's any team it has been more frustrating to be a fan of the last few years than the Orioles. Baltimore was the winningest team in the American League from 2012-16, a statistic that's more remarkable the more you think about it, but there was always a sense they were doing it with smoke, mirrors and Buck Showalter.
Then, in the cruelest irony of all, Showalter, the miracle worker, kept Zach Britton in the bullpen in the 2016 AL Wild Card Game, and that was that. The Orioles lost 87 games in 2017 and totally bottomed out in '18, losing 115 games -- the most in franchise history. What was perhaps most worrisome to O's fans about all this, though, was that it was unclear who was implementing a long-term vision. Was it executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette? Was it vice president of baseball operations Brady Anderson?
Now, though, Orioles fans know. With the hiring of Mike Elias and Sig Mejdal, from the Astros' organization, Baltimore gave its fans something they've been desperate for: A clear direction. What the O's are going to try to do over the next half-decade might work, or it might not. But at last the Orioles are playing the same game everybody else. And they are doing it right.
Tellingly, Elias has been forthcoming and transparent in his dealings with fans over his first week in the new job, most notably in an epic Reddit AMA in which he expressed unbridled enthusiasm for the Orioles' upcoming No. 1 Draft pick, his affection for orange ties and whether he'd rather fight a hundred duck-sized horses or one horse-sized duck. (His choice, to fight the horse-sized duck, was the correct one, so know that you are in good hands, O's fans.) Elias has even been rumored to still be hanging around, lurking, answering questions on other Baltimore fan Reddit board sections; for a fan base desperate for access and accountability, he has been refreshingly straightforward. Orioles fans have to be thrilled.
But that's the easy part. The hard part is, well, fixing everything wrong with this franchise right now. Here are Elias' (and Mejdal's) most pressing issues to solve. And know that this is an incomplete list.
1. The Draft
The last time the O's had the No. 1 overall pick was when they picked Ben McDonald in 1989, over Frank Thomas and Mo Vaughn. They have another one now, in what's widely considered to be a particularly strong Draft class. Elias said in his AMA that, "I can tell you, we will do very well with this pick," and, no pressure, but whoever he picks will simply be the focus of every Orioles fan's hopes and dreams over the next 10 years.
The obvious pick is high school shortstop Bobby Witt Jr. -- Elias even said he was "biased toward infielders" -- but the Orioles' issues, of course, go far beyond just the first pick. Elias' job is to build toward a better future, and that always starts with the Draft. Every pick will be obsessed over by O's fans for years to come.
2. Chris Davis and the payroll in general
Many fans winced when the Orioles signed Davis to that massive contract in January 2016, and it has only gotten worse since then. For the first four months of last season, Davis was arguably the least productive player in the game. (The final two months, he was merely bad.) Somehow, that contract is still on the books through '22.
Elias won't be able to get rid of that contract, obviously, but he might be able to do something with, say, Alex Cobb. More to the point: With Mark Trumbo finally off the books after this season, the Orioles' payroll situation isn't all that bad moving forward, even with Davis. The O's had a $164 million payroll in 2016, a reasonable amount for a team that wants to contend, even in that division. When's the next year that Baltimore should spend that much? '21? '22? All the money the O's save on payroll in the next few years while they're rebuilding should, theoretically, be poured back into the team when the foundation is secure enough to spend again. The Orioles will be rebuilding for the next few years, but at least they won't be expensive and bad.
3. The timeline
Ask any Orioles fan and they're realistic about this: They're far more concerned about 2022-25 than they are about '19-21 right now. That's a gift for Elias and company, and they're going to need it, because there's a lot of work to do. Baltimore's analytics department has long been considered one of the smallest in the sport -- that's, presumably, what Mejdal is there to fix -- but that's just the start of it. The O's are notorious for ignoring the Latin American market, though that has started to change this offseason.
Elias has a mountain of work to do just to get the Orioles back up to where everybody else is. That's going to take time. But how much time does Elias have until people start getting antsy?
4. The Yankees-Red Sox problem
This is always the problem in the AL East. No matter how smart you get, no matter how savvy you are, the looming monsters in Boston and New York are just as smart and savvy, plus they can spend more money. Can Elias be Tampa Bay, but with more money to spend? And isn't that sort of like the Sox and Yanks? What's the old joke about Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers? Ginger had to do what Fred did, but backwards and in heels? The Orioles have to do what the Red Sox and Yankees do, but backwards and in heels.
5. Getting the fan base to trust again
It is exciting for Orioles fans to see this smart young general manager and his team digging their teeth into this new challenge. This is what they've wanted: Fresh blood and eager young minds with a history of success. The O's have a plan now, and that's all the fans have ever wanted. But the team has to stick to it. Baltimore can have a new tomorrow. It's finally pointing in the right direction. Elias just needs to make sure everybody lets him follow the job through. Also, look out for those horse-sized ducks.