BALTIMORE -- When Orioles vice president and general manager Mike Elias and Co. touch down in San Diego this weekend for next week's Winter Meetings, they'll arrive to a much different tenor than a year ago. Last year, Elias hadn't been on the job three weeks yet when MLB's annual offseason gathering hit; he spent most of it narrowing down managerial candidates before eventually hiring Brandon Hyde, but Elias left with his roster largely unchanged.
This year, the potential is there for Elias to maneuver more on the player acquisition side of things. It's already been a transformative offseason for the Orioles, who've turned over nearly a quarter of their 40-man roster and this week traded top performers Jonathan Villar and Dylan Bundy. More change feels inevitable, whether in San Diego or in the months to come. After actively shopping Bundy and Villar for weeks, the O's are expected to gauge offers on Mychal Givens and Trey Mancini, among others, and they have holes to fill all over the field.
But above all else, the Winter Meetings present Elias' best chance outside of June at procuring his top priority: prospects. Years from now, we may look back at these Winter Meetings as when the Orioles' rebuild began truly building steam.
Club needs: Prospects, above all else. The Orioles are fully focused on bolstering a farm system that now ranks above average; any deals they swing will be made with an eye toward improving it even further. They also need short-term solutions for 2020 in the middle infield and on the mound, and they will be in the market for catching depth.
A few months ago, Givens seemed the most destined to be dealt. He fits that mold again now that the O's have flipped Villar to the Marlins (for left-handed prospect Easton Lucas) and Bundy to the Angels (for four right-handed pitching prospects). The Orioles will undoubtedly want to gobble up more young talent in any potential deal for Givens or anyone else.
The question is how Givens is valued in the midst of seemingly two opposing forces: his down 2019 season and this winter's shallow free-agent market for relievers. The Yankees, Phillies and others had interested at the Trade Deadline last July; both would seemingly be in the business of bolstering their bullpen again, because who isn't? Any team that targets Givens would likely do so for a setup role, rather than the closer/fireman role Givens struggled in last season.
All told, Gievns went 2-6 with a career-high 4.57 ERA in 2019, converting 11 of 19 save opportunities. He owned a 3.12 ERA from '15-18.
As for Mancini, he's coming off an excellent year and is growing into the face of the franchise. Still, the Orioles will listen. But they are less likely to trade him at this point unless they are overwhelmed.
"We're not going to alter what we feel are the appropriate levels of return we might seek for any players remaining, especially those who are under longer-term commitments," Elias said. "We will be careful to see the right return if we move anyone else, but there is no guarantee we will be moving anyone else."
Prospects to know: The Orioles are not in a position to deal prospects. They are only looking to add to a group that includes top blue-chippers Adley Rutschman, Grayson Rodriguez, DL Hall and Ryan Mountcastle.
Rule 5 Draft: The Orioles finished with the Majors' second-worst record in 2019, which means they get the No. 2 pick (behind Detroit) in the Rule 5 Draft on Dec. 12. The O's currently a 40-man roster spot vacant and are expected to make a selection, as they have every year since 2006. They scooped up Richie Martin with the first selection last year, and Baltimore has also acquired Anthony Santander and Joey Rickard in recent Rule 5 Drafts.
There seems to be no consensus top pick in this year's crop, though those expected to hear their name called include Rangers prospect Eli White, the Padres' Buddy Reed, Jordan Sheffield of the Dodgers and Brewers righty Zack Brown.
Payroll summary: After saving roughly $15 million by trading Villar and Bundy, the Orioles have only around $54 million in commitments for 2020, one of MLB's lowest totals. That number would be reduced further if Givens and/or Mancini were traded, and it already sits well below the club's '19 Opening Day payroll of $80 million. They had a $148 million Opening Day payroll in '18.
The Orioles are not expected to be major factors in free agency, perhaps spending incrementally to replace Villar and maybe take a low-risk flier on a pitcher. Besides that, Elias is expected to target mostly Minor League deals.
One question: Will Elias keep dealing?
It remains to be seen, but it feels likely. Elias was able to bring back a larger return for Bundy than he was for Villar or Andrew Cashner, both veterans on either an expiring contract (Cashner) or about to be (Villar). Givens has two years of club control. Mancini has three. The Orioles have other controllable assets in Alberto, Renato Nunez and even John Means. Elias is on record saying nobody is untouchable at this point in the rebuild, and he's proved he's not afraid of making unpopular moves that may make things a bit easier to stomach in 2020. That said, surprises might be in store.
"I want to see a playoff team at Camden Yards, and there is only one way to get there," Elias said. "Given where we're starting from, we all know the strategy the process, this is not easy or something we want to happen again. But coming into the organization, with the roster construction where it was, this was the only path."