O's remain focused on laying future foundation

March 2nd, 2020

SARASOTA, Fla. -- The future was the focus for general manager Mike Elias, assistant GM Sig Mejdal and manager Brandon Hyde during the brain trust’s first season in Baltimore, and that hasn’t changed heading into 2020. But that future appears to be getting more clear by the day.

Now coming off consecutive 100-loss seasons and without several veterans from a year go, the Orioles remain focused on the long-term rebuilding process they hope has entered a new phase. That’s what Elias promised when he arrived from Houston two Novembers ago, and with one MLB Draft (and one No.1 overall pick) under his belt, the wheels are in motion. The question is where does it go from here.

“We are worried about the development of the individual players,” Elias said. “We know where we are at this year. We’re realistic about our chances in the AL East this year. I think everybody is … but we are mindful of making sure a player gets enough development time and is meeting his development goals. We also don’t want guys to stagnate and spend too much time at one level, get sloppy or get discouraged. Right now we are in the mode of making decisions for our prospects that are oriented toward their development goals first rather than the goals of the Orioles' roster.”

What's the goal?

While Year 1 of the rebuild was evaluation, Year 2 becomes more about implementation -- of the philosophies, practices and culture the front office hopes to make synonymous with Baltimore. That’ll range from continuing to build up infrastructure, analytics and international scouting operations to further bolstering the farm through the MLB Draft, to streamlining the development principles those drafted players encounter once they hit the system.

Elias and Co. will readily admit they spent last year playing catch up in a lot of areas. This year they can begin to truly carve out a new organizational footprint. At the Major League level, the idea is to give what should be one of several prospect waves the bandwidth to blossom. The hope is they set the foundation for the next contending Orioles team that will be supplemented with talent from last year’s Draft and others to come.

How do they get there?

The first part will be hitting high in the Draft, as the O's earned the No.2 overall pick with their 54-108 record from a year ago. After trading Jonathan Villar and Dylan Bundy this winter, they’d be delighted if rebound years from Alex Cobb and Mychal Givens turn them into viable trade chips come July, when they could perhaps look to flip José Iglesias as well. Finding a deal for Trey Mancini could be controversial, but it would probably jibe with their rebuilding goals. The bottom line: The Orioles are going to continue prioritizing the future with an eye toward stockpiling as many prospects as they can.

The whole process would be expedited if some of the blue-chippers set to arrive in 2020 bloom into Major League mainstays. Half of the club’s Top 30 prospects, per MLB Pipeline, have a chance to reach the bigs this season, from Austin Hays and Hunter Harvey by Opening Day to Ryan Mountcastle and Keegan Akin probably a bit later, to Dean Kremer and Yusniel Díaz by the second half. All of them were all acquired by the old regime, but they are integral in Elias’ effort to transform the O’s back into contenders.

“What’s great about this year is, if you look at our prospects lists, a lot of those guys have a chance to make the team out of Spring Training,” Elias said. “If they don’t, they will be at Triple-A, so they will be knocking at the door. Then you have our younger guys, Adley Rutschman and a bunch of other players. I think we’ll be seeing more and more of that and it’s a good indication that the future is bright.”

What could go wrong?

The Orioles could whiff at the top of the Draft, stay silent at the Trade Deadline and determine the arriving prospects still require more seasoning. Losses could wear on the clubhouse and culture throughout the summer, as it did some in 2019.

Hays, Díaz, Mountcastle and Co. don’t all have to develop into All-Stars, but if too many of them stagnate, it’ll delay the Orioles’ competitive timeline even further. The O's aren’t ready to turn the competitive corner just yet, but having young players up and producing would represent progress. If they aren’t closer to the cusp by next winter, something will have gone wrong.

Who might surprise?

This was a team with so many unknowns at this point last year, the spring roster’s last pitcher (John Means) grew into its ace, while a four-times-DFA’d utility man (Hanser Alberto) competed for the batting title. This time around, bigger surprises may lie within.

Maybe Chris Davis? He’ll have to prove his simmering start to spring isn’t a mirage, but anything even near league-average production would be a surprise from Davis given his fall in production the past few years. Elsewhere on the roster, Cedric Mullins seems primed to get a second chance after his nightmare 2019 season, probably as a useful extra outfielder. Having a healthy Harvey should benefit Givens immensely, and Miguel Castro and Tanner Scott look like breakout candidates in the bullpen.