BALTIMORE -- When Mike Elias was pegged to lead the front office a year ago, it marked a new era of Orioles baseball. Elias soon unveiled his three-pronged approach to rebuilding the Orioles into a sustained winner, with plans to build an “elite talent pipeline” through scouting, analytics and player development. Coming off a franchise-worst 115-loss season, Elias did not run from how massive a task that seemed at the time, and has not since.
Flash forward one year, Elias admits there is still “a long ways to go as a team and as an organization.” But the warehouse offices at Camden Yards are a beehive. The Orioles are in the process of infusing more than two dozen new employees into the organization for the 2020 season, a wave of hiring that capped a year defined by transition.
When it's complete, the entirety of the organization's baseball operations will have been overhauled, the approximately 65 fresh faces in scouting, player development and analytics brought in with an eye toward modernizing the way Baltimore does business on each of these fronts. Under Elias, the Orioles’ previously bare analytics and international scouting departments have grown tenfold and fivefold, respectively. Their domestic scouting operations are in the process of drastic restructuring, and overhaul on the player development side, from philosophy to personnel, will soon be plain to see.
After it began in earnest with a round of dismissals in September, Elias framed the reshaping through the lens of a “very large wave of change going on around baseball” with regards to the data-driven processes organizations now adhere to. Keeping up with metaphor, the Orioles are an iceberg -- rapidly changing but in ways mostly under-the-surface and out of public view.
“I’m proud of the organizational progress we’ve made in terms of setting up our staffing, infrastructure and capabilities for what we need them to be now and in the next couple of years,” Elias said. “Things are still moving in the right direction but it's still relatively early in my tenure, and we still have more than half the offseason left and a long ways to go as a team and as an organization.”
So, let’s peek under the hood. What’s changed? What hasn’t? What will? What won’t? We’re using the anniversary of Elias’ hiring to take an organizational snapshot of where the Orioles’ rebuild stands, one year into his tenure:
• Added: EVP/GM Mike Elias, manager Brandon Hyde, entirely new Major League coaching staff
• Retained/Elevated: Kevin Buck
• Dismissed: Dan Duquette, Buck Showalter, Tripp Norton, Brady Anderson, Joe McIIvaine, Matt Haas, Lee Thomas, Jeremy Kapstein
The most visible changes came on the baseball side, where Elias and Hyde replaced Duquette and Showalter, and the Orioles cycled through 58 players in 2019. Nearly 40 percent of the current 40-man roster wasn't with the organization a year ago.
Hyde hired five new coaches, and three more in 2020 will replace the remaining holdovers from Showalter’s staff. The club also dismissed longtime executives Norton and Anderson and several special assistants. It could look to hire an assistant GM and/or at least a couple more director-level positions in the coming months.
• Added: Assistant GM Sig Mejdal, analysts James Martin III and Michael Weis, developers Peter Ash, James Daniels
• Retained/Elevated: Di Zou
• Dismissed: None
When Mejdal arrived with Elias from Houston, he inherited an analytics department with one full-time member. That number has since swelled to five. Five additional interns effectively give Mejdal a daily team of 10 people with quantitative backgrounds, making analytics the organization’s fastest growing department on the baseball side.
While the hiring focus will be in other areas this winter, analytics is looking to add an additional developer and one fellow. Mejdal also indicated there will be opportunities for interns to graduate to full-time status throughout 2020.
“It’s dramatically different than when we came here,” Mejdal said. “We progressed more quickly than I would have thought a year ago, and that goes to the credit to the persons we hired. The skills coming out of universities today are markedly improved compared to just a few years ago. They were able to hit the ground running.”
The manpower allowed the Orioles to build software infrastructure systems that Mejdal estimated are about a year away from matching those he left with the Astros – who famously feature one of the largest and most advanced analytics department in the sport. Next comes expanding those databases to service what is a growing list of interested parties, from the Major League staff down the player-development chain, to amateur scouts preparing the Draft board and other areas.
Mejdal’s team was also integral in the implementation of various technology tools – Edgertronic cameras, Blast motion bat sensors, Diamond Kinetic swing trackers and others. They recently entered a partnership with the 3-D biofeedback company K-Motion they hope further advances those goals.
“We’ve seen how analytics and technology can help and it helps throughout the organization, from international scouting to player development to in-game strategy,” Mejdal said. “The buy-in has been wonderful. The days of such extreme skepticism and pushback are gone. This is such a part of baseball now, if you are in an organization that didn’t prioritize this, you knew or must have suspected you were missing out on something.”
• Added: Director of PD Matt Blood, director of pitching Chris Holt, 20-25 Minor League instructors
• Retained/Elevated: Kent Qualls, Ramón Alarcón, Gary Kendall, Buck Britton, Kyle Moore, Kevin Bradshaw, Alan Mills, Mike Bordick
• Dismissed: Brian Graham, Don Werner, Dave Anderson, Ron Johnson, Nelson Norman, Ryan Minor, Justin Lord, Bobby Rose, Jeff Manto, Jack Graham, BJ Surhoff, Carlos Tosca, Ramon Martinez, Scott McGregor (reassigned), Milt May (retired), Dan Radison (retired), Len Johnston (retired)
The Orioles saw pitching improvement up and down their system under Holt, whom Elias brought over from Houston to be his Minor League pitching coordinator. Now as director of pitching, Holt will continue to oversee Minor League development while also contributing on the big league side. The Orioles spent much of 2019 without a farm director, until Elias hired Blood from the Rangers in September to replace Graham, and gave him an immediate task: wholesale hiring.
With Blood taking the lead, the Orioles are in the process of hiring more than a dozen new Minor League coaches (they added six last winter). They must replace the entire staff at Class-A Frederick, fill five newly created developmental coach positions (one at each affiliate), and are considering coordinators in fundamentals, strength and conditioning and player performance.
All told, between 15-20 new hires are being finalized on the player-development side as of this writing, many of whom were chosen via a collaborative interview process that effectively functioned as group tryouts. During these sessions, which sometimes numbered as many as nine individuals, candidates were asked to interact with players, coaches and analytics staffers to complete tasks that simulated real-life situations.
The focus will soon pivot to on-boarding new hires and creating a culture meant to “service and develop our players in a holistic and efficient way,” Blood said.
“We are looking for intrinsically motivated people with a demonstrated history of growth. People who like to work hard and have a growth mindset, humility, aptitude, willingness to collaborate,” Blood said. “Most of the people we’ve reached out to explain the vision, direction we are excited to go, have been excited about it and wanted to be involved. The people we are attracting are inspired by the challenge.”
• Added: Senior director Koby Perez, scouting assistant Michael Cruz, Dominican scouting supervisor Geraldo Cabrera, Dominican-area scouts Francisco Rosario and Rafael Belen, Venezuela-area scout Adel Granadillo
• Retained/Elevated: Luis Noel
• Dismissed: Cale Cox, Calvin Maduro
One of Elias’ first moves was recruiting Perez from the Indians to be his senior director of international scouting, giving the Orioles immediate credibility in a market they’d long eschewed. Perez inherited a skeletal operation: A year ago, the Orioles’ entire Latin American scouting presence consisted of one full-time international scout (Maduro) and one part-timer each in Panama and Venezuela.
They plan to head into 2020 with five full-timers on the ground in Latin America, including the recently hired Cabrera (DR), Rosario and Granadillo (Venezuela), plus another Venezuela hire to be made this month. The Orioles also are looking to bolster the development staff at their Dominican academy and are exploring infrastructure upgrades to the facilities there.
Given how the most highly coveted international prospects are often courted by teams years before they’re eligible to actually sign, the Orioles acknowledged from the start that it would take time before they played at the top of the market. They instead siphoned off much of their sizeable 2018-19 bonus pool in trades, then spent roughly $3 million of their 2019-20 pool on 27 players last July 2. Though the highest bonuses given out were between $400,000-$450,000, it still represented the largest international class in franchise history.
The hope is to be able to make seven-figure signings by 2021.
“We are on pace with where we thought we’d be. There are definitely improvements on what we had,” Perez said. “We are going to be in a much better spot this year than last year, as far as the higher-end talent.”
• Added: Trent Friedrich, Logan Schuemann, Alex Tarandek
• Retained/Elevated: Brad Ciolek, Mike Synder, Hendrik Herz, Chad Tatum, Doug Witt, Rich Amaral, Jim Richardson, Dave Blume, Rich Morales, Arthur McConnehead, Scott Walter, Scott Thomas, Brandon Verley, Dave Jennings, Thom Dreier, Ken Guthrie
• Dismissed: Gary Rajsich, Patrick Di Gregory, Kirk Fredriksson, Wayne Britton, Dana Duquette, Dean Albany, Nathan Showalter, John Stockstill, Ron Schueler, Jim Howard, Dave Engle, Adrian Dorsey, John Gillette, Dave Machemer, Mark Ralston, Dan Durst, Frankie Thon
It’s been a transformative year for the scouting department, and more change is imminent. Rajsich, the former director, left upon Elias’ arrival. Elias played a hands-on role in this year’s Draft, while tabbing Ciolek to handle day-to-day preparation duties on an interim basis. He then promoted Ciolek (amateur) and Snyder (pro scouting) to managerial and director positions, respectively, shortly after letting go 10 veteran scouts in August.
At the time, Elias said baseball ops and scouting would eventually see an overall increase in headcount by the end of the hiring cycle, and promised “more cross-pollination of amateur and pro scouting” to catch the Orioles up amid the sport’s shifting scouting landscape. Less than three months later, progress can be seen on both fronts. Herz and Tatum were promoted to newly created scouting analyst positions; Tarandek was brought in from Detroit to fill the same role.
The Orioles are also looking to make three to four more analysts hires and recruited Friedrich (Great Lakes/Ohio Valley region) and Schuemann (Four corner region) to bolster their number of field scouts to 14. There may be space to add two more scouts on the pro side before the winter is over.
“We’ve really beefed up the analytics and tech, there has been transformation here in that regard, in terms of our data infrastructure,” Ciolek said. “Also the culture – during my tenure here, I haven’t been part of a group that is more close-knit than the group here now. Everyone is on the same page and hungry to build upon the foundation.”
Added Elias: “Next year is going to be a big year. So much of what we’re doing and have done, unfortunately, is getting up to speed on all of the basics. Our hope is we’ll look up very soon and think this is a franchise that is set up well and run well and among the better equipped franchises for the type of market we’re in.”