Orioles Target of Unfair Scorn

Mike Elias is rebuilding this club the right way. They hasn't stopped national media from dogpiling

The Orioles are often the target for national scorn, one way or another. Whether it comes from the media or from Major League Baseball itself. As a fan, I just get used to it. Baltimore generally and the Orioles specifically never get any respect.

The last two days, however, the national criticism of the Orioles rebuild has reached absurd levels.

In The Athletic, Ken Rosenthal used the Orioles as the foil to make Giants President of Baseball Operations Farhan Zaidi look like the second coming:

They were hired 10 days apart in November 2018, Farhan Zaidi to run the San Francisco Giants, Mike Elias to run the Baltimore Orioles. Both were inheriting difficult situations, which usually is the case when teams bring in new leadership. Zaidi took over a 73-win team with a top-heavy payroll, Elias a 47-win team with a meager infrastructure.

Today, their respective clubs could not be in more different positions. The Giants still operate with a top-heavy payroll, but their 71-41 record, stemming largely from the revivals of their most expensive veterans and Zaidi’s superior work filling out the rest of his roster, is the best in the majors. The Orioles, continuing their methodical process under Elias, own the league’s second-worst record at 38-72, and their streak of losing seasons that started in 2017 appears unlikely to end anytime soon.

In some ways a comparison between the two executives and their respective franchises is unfair. The Giants’ $149.5 million Opening Day payroll was the 11th-highest in baseball. The Orioles’ $57 million sum was the fourth lowest. The difference in resources, however, is not as much of an advantage for Zaidi as it might appear.

Read the whole thing (it’s paywalled, but you can get a free preview usually). While no doubt it is impressive that Zaidi has gotten the Giants in contention, the premise that Zaidi is an improvement over Elias is flawed.

This morning, Buster Olney (with whom I have a longstanding beef) piled on:

Guessing it isn’t coincidental that both Rosenthal and Olney used to be beat writers in Baltimore.

The criticisms by both Rosenthal and Olney is predicated on the fact that the Orioles are not signing free agents. Olney, with his typically political tinged language, calls this “non-competitive behavior.” Of course, it takes two to tango in a free agent deal and there are some good reasons why the Orioles are not signing free agents.

First, the Orioles at this juncture need to overpay for free agents. Players looking to cash in are going to have no desire to play for a team that is rebuilding. The Orioles have a bad history of overpaying for players when they were bad and trying to be less bad for a little bit. The 2000’s are littered with guys like Javy Lopez, Mike Gonzalez, Sidney Ponson when he came back, and others who were not that great but got paid. Even when the Orioles were competitive in the 2010s they wound up overpaying for guys. Looking at you Ubaldo Jimenez and Chris Davis.

Even when they were in the running for good players, players and their agents used the Orioles as a bargaining chip to get better contracts from other teams. This includes guys like Vladimir Guerrero (when he signed with the Angels), Carl Pavano, and even hometown Marylander Mark Texeira.

There’s little doubt that if the Orioles offered big money to free agents today that one of those two scenarios would play out.

The second issue is that the Orioles just don’t have a need for high-dollar free agents right now. The Mike Elias plan is the same as it’s always been: completely revamp the organization from the ground up with better scouting, better analytics, a better development program, investments in international scouting and signings, and so on. These things don’t happen overnight and they don’t happen without a significant financial commitment. The more money the team spends on free agent signings just for the sake of making free agent signings, the less money the club has to spend on revamping the organization now. It also would hamstring the organization’s potential to add free agent talent when the team is ready to compete.

And speaking of hamstringing the organization from competing, the third issue is that damn rights fee regarding the Nationals. Major League Baseball screwed over the Orioles when allowing the Montréal Expos to relocate to Washington. Major League Baseball, the Orioles, and the Nationals agree that MASN would be 90% owned by the Orioles and 10% by the Nationals, with the Nationals equity increasing to a cap of 33%. After 2011, the Orioles and Nationals would negotiate a rights fee. Here’s a full timeline, but the bottom line is that the Orioles and Nationals couldn’t come to an agreement, it went to an arbitration hearing that the courts found was slanted against the Orioles, and the dispute remains unsettled. One court has suggested the Orioles owe nearly $300 million to the Nationals (despite the fact that it was the Nationals and Major League Baseball that screwed the Orioles) and it still hasn’t all be sorted out.

I bring up all of this to point out that it’s hard for the Orioles to commit to long-term contracts with a potential $300 million legal Sword of Damocles hanging over their heads.

So yes, the Orioles are not spending as much money as the Giants. It’s a lot easier to spend money if you’re the Giants when you’re already closer to competing, have existing infrastructure, have no legal disputes pending, and when the second team in your market is about to decamp to Las Vegas.

The entirety of this line of thinking from Rosenthal and Olney ignores the riches of the minor league system. Adley Rutschman is the best prospect in all of baseball. Grayson Rodriguez is one of the best pitching prospects in all of baseball. The O’s have six prospects in the top 100 and have gone from the ranked dead last in minor league system rankings to seventh. In less than three years. All on Mike Elias’s watch.

It’s not exactly like the Orioles current team is totally barren of players that will be on the next competitive team. Cedric Mullins has become a superstar. Trey Mancini is a great feel good story. Ramón Urías has played surprisingly well at shortstop. After a slow start, Ryan Mountcastle is building upon his rookie year. John Means, when he’s on, is an ace. Even a guy like a guy like Jorge Mateo, a recent waiver claim, is generating excitement for his lightning speed and his potential.

No, the team is not good. But you can see glimpses of hope while future stars are on their way from the minors.

I get why some people would think the Orioles are bad for the competitive balance of the game. A lot of times, it’s very frustrating as a fan and a season ticket holder to watch the team play so poorly. But to say that Mike Elias is being outperformed by Farhan Zaidi or that what the Orioles doing is “just wrong” is intentionally ignoring the context of what’s going on in the organization by guys who are paid very well to know better.