Baltimore Orioles have a lot of catching up to do to be competitive again
Which American League team won the most games from 2012-16?
That would be the Baltimore Orioles, believe it or not. The Orioles averaged nearly 89 victories over those five seasons and made the playoff three times.
But it was not a sustainable model. Baltimore succeeded because general manager Dan Duquette was adept at finding low-cost talent and manager Buck Showalter had the ability to get the most out of those players.
As the Red Sox, Yankees, Rays, Astros, and other teams were investing in analytics, player development, and sports sciences, the Orioles were working the margins with a No. 2 pencil and scrap paper.
It was destined to fall apart, and it did. The Orioles lost 87 games in 2017 and a shocking 115 a year later, finishing 61 games out of first place behind the Red Sox.
When there is a good crowd at Camden Yards these days, half are usually rooting for the other team.
The Orioles also have a farm system with little projectable talent, in large part because of ownership’s stubborn refusal to invest in Latin American talent.
Now 36-year-old general manager Mike Elias is rebuilding one of the cornerstone franchises in the game one full-stack developer at a time.
“We have a very clear idea of what we need to do here,” Elias said. “We need to add talent to the organization, update our capabilities across baseball operations, and invest in organizational infrastructure.”
That’s where the full-stack developers come in. They are computer engineers familiar with all layers of software development. They can take a concept and turn it into a database of information accessible to executives, scouts, managers, coaches, and the medical staff.
The Orioles now have two of them, which is two more than they ever had before. It’s a start.
The organization also needed hardware, tools such as tablets, laptops, and high-speed video cameras to analyze pitchers. They also had to invest in improving their player development facilities, particularly in the Dominican Republic.
Elias is in the process of adding scouts, both domestically and internationally, and equipping them with the right technology.
He hired Koby Perez away from the Cleveland Indians to run international scouting and charged him with giving Baltimore a presence in a market the franchise largely ignored for years.
“We have a lot to do,” Elias said. “But we’re getting up to speed. I feel like we’ve made good progress in the [Dominican Republic]. I feel good where we’re at relative to when I stepped in here in November.”
Elias played four years at Yale and got into baseball as a scout with the St. Louis Cardinals in 2007. He gained an appreciation for using data to drive decision-making while working for Jeff Luhnow in St. Louis.
When Luhnow became general manager of the Astros in 2012, he hired Elias as his amateur scouting director. Elias then rose to assistant GM in 2016 and oversaw player development.
When Elias jumped to the Orioles, he named former Cardinals and Astros analyst Sig Mejdal as his top assistant.
A former college player with a background in scouting and who is steeped in analytics is essentially the template for the modern GM.
That Orioles owner Peter Angelos and son John Angelos recognized that was the organization’s first step toward contending.
“I value the human side of things and the subjective side of things and where those two areas should be balanced with analytics,” Elias said. “I’m a person that when there is an objective, verifiable steam of information with some predictive power, that’s what we want. We want to use that.”
Elias and Mejdal were with the Astros when they rose from 111 losses in 2013 to winning the World Series in 2017. They arrived in Baltimore knowing what had to be done.
“The experience of going through a pretty extreme build like that is good because it gives us something to think back on,” Elias said. “It also gives us some confidence.”
But, as Elias noted, the Astros were among the outliers under Luhnow in how they used data to rebuild the organization. Other franchises have caught on since.
“Operating in an analytics-oriented fashion was still pretty unique at that time,” Elias said. “Now it’s par for the course. So advantages like that no longer exist to us. But we’ll be looking for other areas.”
The neighborhood is tougher, too. The Orioles have to overcome financial powerhouses in the Red Sox and Yankees, one of the smartest teams in baseball in the Rays, and a sleeping giant in the Blue Jays, who have an excellent farm system.
The Orioles have the first pick of the June draft and must get it right.
Oregon State catcher Adley Rutschman and high school shortstops C.J. Abrams and Bobby Witt Jr. are considered the top prospects, along with Cal first baseman Andrew Vaughn and Vanderbilt outfielder J.J. Bleday.
“It’s a rare opportunity, the most important decision we’ll make,” said Elias said, who has personally evaluated the players Baltimore will consider with the first pick.
As the Orioles prepare for the future, they will suffer in the present. Their roster is thin and sure to get further depleted by the trade deadline.
Their best hitter, outfielder Trey Mancini, could return a good package of prospects. The same is true for closer Mychal Givens, who turns 29 on Monday and will likely be past his prime by the time the Orioles are ready to contend again.
Elias readily admits he’s focused more on the rebuilding process than the standings. But he still suffers.
“Every win that we have lifts me up and every loss lowers me,” he said. “It’s part of the job. Our broad strategy right now is not tied up in wins and losses, but I still root for these guys. We’re trying to win as many games as we can.”
New manager Brandon Hyde, who was the bench coach of the Cubs, is dealing with the same emotions. His job is to win games but also to put young players in a position where they can be evaluated to determine if they fit into the future.
“Going into this I just wanted our team to be prepared, compete every single night to win, and play as hard as they can,” Hyde said. “We’ll improve over the course of the year by having that mind-set.
“You’re big-picture minded. Sometimes I’ll play a guy for a particular reason or not pitch somebody, and that’s tough to do. I do have the best interests of the players at heart — and the organization.”
As Elias discussed the future of the Orioles, he looked out from his private box behind home plate and saw a small crowd at Camden Yards for a recent game against the Red Sox.
Elias grew up in Northern Virginia and visited the park as a young fan back when sellouts were commonplace. He saw the reverence fans had for Cal Ripken Jr. and what the Orioles meant to that part of the country.
That fan base is still out there waiting for a good reason to return.
“This is a good baseball town. I remember very vividly what this park is like when it’s supporting a playoff-caliber team,” Elias said. “I want to get back to that.”
PLEASE COME TO BOSTON
Sox are seeking All-Star Game
It’s probably not going to happen any time soon, but the Red Sox are preparing a bid to bring the All-Star Game back to Fenway Park for the first time since 1999.
Team president Sam Kennedy is gathering information about MLB’s process for obtaining the game and will work with local officials about putting together a proposal.
The game will be played in Cleveland this year and at Dodger Stadium in 2020. The only other park selected after that is Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia for 2026 as part of the celebration of America’s 250th birthday.
(That’s the semiquincentennial, by the way. Use that word to impress your friends.)
The Sox are hoping to host the game in 2029 to mark the 30th anniversary of the last time. But they’re flexible on the year.
Hosting the game is dependent more on available hotel rooms and areas to host other MLB fan and sponsor events than the actual ballpark. Fenway handled the World Series more than adequately last fall.
The 1999 All-Star Game was a memorable one. The All-Century Team was introduced before the All-Stars gathered on the field to greet Ted Williams prior to his throwing out the first pitch.
Pedro Martinez then struck out five of the six batters he faced.
The Sox tried to bring the Army-Navy football game to Fenway, but that didn’t work out because of hotel issues involving housing the thousands of cadets and midshipmen from the schools.
That game is traditionally held close enough to one of the academies — usually in Philadelphia — that hotels are not a problem.
A few other Red Sox observations:
■ Steve Pearce got a lot more than a pickup truck for being named MVP of the World Series. The Sox gave him a $6.2 million, one-year contract two weeks later.
That’s not looking too good. Pearce, the oldest player on the team at 36, went into the weekend hitting .111 with one extra-base hit in 60 plate appearances.
The Sox correctly value having a righthanded-hitting first baseman to platoon with Mitch Moreland. But that’s a role Michael Chavis could fill and leave Pearce expendable.
The Sox will face a roster crunch once Dustin Pedroia and Brock Holt are ready to come off the injured list. They can drop one of the extra relief pitchers they’re carrying to create one spot. Another move won’t be as easy.
■ Righthander Ty Buttrey, one of the prospects sent to the Angels for Ian Kinsler last season, allowed two runs over 18 innings in his first 18 games and struck out 22 with three walks. Buttrey’s fastball has averaged 97 miles per hour and he has an above-average sinker.
Buttrey could well be a significant loss. But the Sox needed a second baseman at the time and Kinsler was a competent defender. He also started eight of the 14 postseason games.
■ Mookie Betts averaged 25.8 stolen bases from 2015-18. But he went into the weekend with one steal in three attempts. He had eight steals at the same point of last season.
That is a product of hitting second. Betts is running less with a power hitter at the plate than he was as a leadoff hitter last season when contact-hitting Andrew Benintendi was behind him.
■ Christian Vazquez on his improvement at the plate: “I’m not moving around as much as I used to. I had a double-tap with my front foot before and my timing was off. I needed to have better balance. I feel like what I’m doing works for me now.”
Multiple hot seats in the NL East
We’re just about to the point in the season when an impatient team will become the first to fire its manager.
Look to the National League East, where Mickey Callaway of the Mets and Dave Martinez of the Nationals are already under pressure to turn around slow starts.
I foolishly predicted in the Globe’s baseball preview section that the Nationals would benefit from the lack of Bryce Harper-related drama. They have instead lacked for offense and continue to make the same mental mistakes they did a year ago.
The Nationals even lost seven of the first eight games Max Scherzer started despite his 3.78 ERA.
There’s an impression around the game that Martinez is overmatched, particularly in how he uses the bullpen. He has not won over fans still sore over the firing of Dusty Baker in 2017.
Washington is notoriously impatient with managers — Martinez is its sixth since 2011 — and figures to make another change.
General manager Mike Rizzo has backed Martinez, but he has to worry about his own job security.
In New York, Callaway was in trouble the second Sandy Alderson stepped down as general manager and was replaced by Brodie Van Wagenen. New GMs always want their own managers; it’s a matter of when they make the move.
Callaway and Van Wagenen were summoned into a meeting with chief operating officer Jeff Wilpon on Friday. That’s a sign of heightened tensions.
The Mets made a number of offseason roster improvements and expected to contend. Their fans are instead seeing the season slip away.
Don’t discount the Marlins in this race. There have been so many other personnel changes in that organization under chief executive officer Derek Jeter that Don Mattingly can’t feel safe.
Is Jeter cold-blooded enough to fire the man he replaced as captain of the Yankees?
“There shouldn’t be a person in this building that’s happy with how we’ve played,” he said earlier this month.
Take away three games against the Red Sox and the Rays averaged only 11,623 fans over their first 16 home games. The Rays won 90 games in 2018 and have been in first place since March 31 this season. They’re also a fun team to watch. The Rays believe that a new ballpark will solve their attendance issues. But maybe baseball just doesn’t work in that market . . . Vladimir Guerrero Jr. has not yet been the hitter the Blue Jays hoped. But he was involved in a cool little bit of trivia. His first run batted in came on May 4 when he singled to left field to drive in Justin Smoak. Smoak’s first career RBI came on April 27, 2010, when his sacrifice fly scored Vladimir Guerrero Sr. . . . Best wishes to Ron Darling. The former St. John’s of Shrewsbury, Yale, and Mets pitcher is being treated for thyroid cancer and has taken a leave of absence from his television work . . . Happy 39th birthday, Felipe Lopez, who played four games for the Red Sox at the end of the 2010 season and was 3 for 5 with a home run off A.J. Burnett of the Yankees in Game 162. The Sox were out of contention with they signed Lopez on Sept. 25. But Theo Epstein knew Lopez would become what was known as a “Type B” free agent at the time and that once he signed with another team, the Sox would get a supplemental first-round draft pick. Alas, Lopez was only able to get a minor league deal from the Rays and the Sox did not get a draft pick . . . Bob Heise is 72 on Sunday. He played 95 games for the Sox from 1975-76.