Tuesday, December 7 2021

BALTIMORE — The plan is working, says Mike Elias, and the process trustworthy.

That sentiment was perhaps an easier sell in Year 1 of the grand Baltimore Orioles teardown, hatched after Elias was hired in November 2018 to rehabilitate an organization that, as a 115-loss season indicated, had fallen badly behind the times.

It is now Year 3 under Elias’ stewardship, and the Orioles’ executive vice president and general manager can rightfully point to a rejuvenated farm system and gains made in player development as points of pride.

Yet the major league product under Elias’ watch has stagnated at best and regressed at worst. A 108-loss campaign in 2019 gave way to a mildly encouraging 25-35 effort in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, making it fair for Orioles manager Brandon Hyde to wonder if 2021 would reveal a light or another oncoming train looming at the end of this indefinite tunnel.

The past two weeks have provided the answer, in grim and historic fashion.

Friday night, the Orioles lost their 16th consecutive game, 3-0 to the Atlanta Braves, continuing a tailspin that has cast a significant pall over recognition for their now No. 2-ranked farm system, and doubt over how many of their current players might be worth keeping around for brighter days that Elias insists will come.

For those at field level, suffering through a losing streak that’s seen the Orioles outscored 141-42 and losing by an average of 6.2 runs per game, that’s growing harder to fathom. The Orioles’ 16-game losing streak is second in franchise history only to the infamous 1988 club that lost the first 21 games of the season.

Elias hired Hyde to shepherd a rotating mix of rookies and fringe veterans through the lean times, and Hyde has worn the losses with aplomb. But even Hyde has his limits.

“We’re just not in many games right now, and that’s very, very hard,” Hyde said after consecutive loss No. 14, 8-4 at Tampa Bay on Wednesday.

“We’re playing really good teams, teams that have added. We’ve subtracted for three years.”

A four-game sweep at the hands of the Rays prompted Elias to address the media, putting a front-office face to a team that would be 38-83 by night’s end. The Orioles’ .314 winning percentage puts them on pace for a 51-111 season — right between the 108-loss club in Elias’ first year and the 115-loss team he inherited.

Regrets? They have truly been few.

“I cannot envision any other strategy or approach that would have been viable or realistic or possible,” Elias said before Friday’s game, “in the realities of our circumstances but to do this drastic rebuilding of the franchise that we’ve been doing.

“And that’s been going along very well.”

Baltimore Orioles manager Brandon Hyde during an Aug. 17 loss to the Tampa Bay Rays.Baltimore Orioles manager Brandon Hyde during an Aug. 17 loss to the Tampa Bay Rays.

Baltimore Orioles manager Brandon Hyde during an Aug. 17 loss to the Tampa Bay Rays.

There’s tangibles, for certain. The Dan Duquette regime left Elias some parting gifts, most notably high school pitching draftees who are now top-100 prospects — DL Hall (21st overall pick, 2017) and Grayson Rodriguez (No. 11, 2018), the latter now the No. 8 overall prospect in the game. All-Star outfielder Cedric Mullins, an AL MVP candidate if he played for a playoff-viable club, was a 2015 draftee.

That 115-loss 2018 season enabled Elias to draft catcher Adley Rutschman first overall in 2019; Rutschman is now the consensus No. 1 prospect in the game and should surface in 2022.

The international scouting department now exists, even if it may take years to bear fruit. A modernized and expanded analytics department should make the Orioles a more efficient operation.

Yet while the Orioles hired Elias away from the Houston Astros to replicate that club’s tremendous rebuild, and Elias squired away assistant GM Sig Mejdal from Houston, it hasn’t been so simple as sprinkling orange and blue fairy dust on the operation.

The hangover

The Astros and Chicago Cubs beat the baseball world to the punch on tanking, reaping years of top-end picks and payroll savings to burn when the kids were ready. The Astros-Orioles comp only goes so far: Like Duquette, outgoing Astros GM Ed Wade lost more than 100 games in his final season, and incoming GM Jeff Luhnow followed that with 107- and 111-loss seasons in 2012 and ’13.

Luhnow’s Year 3, though, was when the Astros trended upward, going from 51 to 70 wins. In fairness, three franchise cornerstones — Jose Altuve, Dallas Keuchel and George Springer — were inherited from Wade’s regime, and the Astros have long excelled in the international space.

But Luhnow by Year 3 had pulled off the sort of quiet coups that help build a powerhouse on the cheap. Collin McHugh, one of the first beneficiaries of the Astros’ pitching lab, and future All-Star reliever Will Harris were claimed off waivers. Brad Peacock, who’d go 13-2 and strike out 161 batters in 132 innings of their 2017 championship season, was acquired in a trade.

Elias? It’s not like he hasn’t been trying. Friday, the club claimed pitcher Chris Ellis off waivers from the Rays. He will be the 54th Oriole to take the field this season.

Yet in an era where everyone works the waiver wire like a mad scientist, and analytics departments use similar metrics and methods to evaluate players, finding an edge in 2021 is a little different than it was in 2014.

“We had a hangover effect with the major league roster,” Elias said of coming out of the Duquette-Buck Showalter era where all-in runs at contention resulted in little remaining talent in the high minors. “We’re in the division we’re in and we’re not among the biggest economic engines in the division.

“Plus, the industry adapting in the last 10 years, in a lot of ways, and this team was playing catch-up when we came in in a lot of those regards.”

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Still, despite favorable waiver claim positioning and a willingness to trade veterans, Elias has yet to find his Max Muncy or his LaMonte Wade Jr. or even a reliever such as the Rays’ Pete Fairbanks, one of many hard throwers Tampa Bay has unearthed.

Instead, the Orioles are last in the major leagues with a 5.82 ERA, the third consecutive non-pandemic season in which they’ll finish 30th in that department. As Elias noted, veteran Matt Harvey — brought in on a minor-league contract — is the only hurler making more than $1 million this season.

That’s an awful lot of bad options for Hyde to juggle, and when asked about his manager Friday, Elias delivered a four-and-a-half minute, 550-word assessment of their landscape.

“He and I have a great communication at all times, whether it comes to day-to-day roster management or big-picture stuff,” says Elias. “I stress the big-picture stuff all the time. He came into this project from the outset with me and Sig and (scouting director) Koby Perez and everyone who’s here. At the risk of repeating myself, it was a historically challenging situation. We knew this was going to be tough and take a while. And he knew that, and we understood that.

“We have a flexible landscape going forward with our major league roster and finances. We have a top-of-the-league type of farm system, all of that infrastructure is updated and up and running and allowing us to perform and operate as the type of franchise that we are.

“All that being said, I hoped that we would be able to avoid stretches of play like the one we’re in right now. But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t know it was a possibility at the beginning of this project or the beginning of this season. Whenever it happens, it always causes me to self-reflect on things I could do better, moves I could’ve made.”

Hard times are here again

After a winless seven-game home trip, Elias and Hyde hoped a return home would pep up the lads. Yet what awaited them was the sort of mismatch on paper that gave way to a too-predictable result. The defending National League champion Atlanta Braves, galvanized by multiple trade deadline acquisitions, started former 17-game winner Max Fried against Keegan Akin, who brought in an 8.16 ERA and has remained in the rotation because the Orioles literally have no further options in the high minors.

Akin pitched credibly but Fried needed just 90 pitches to toss a four-hit shutout against a lineup that included a former Rule 5 pick starting at shortstop (Richie Martin), a recent waiver claim making his third career start in right field (Jorge Mateo), a February waiver claim starting at second (Ramon Urias) and, at third base, a scrap-heap veteran signed to an $800,000 deal less than two weeks before Opening Day (Maikel Franco).

Still, the 3-0 defeat beats 16-2 or 10-0, to name two of the Orioles’ recent indignities. In fact, the first 15 losses in their streak were all by multiple runs, a modern era record.

“I felt like we played a major league baseball game tonight,” said Hyde.

The Orioles’ $53 million payroll exceeds only Cleveland, and most of that goes to now-retired first baseman Chris Davis, who’s due $23 million this year. That cash doesn’t go far in the AL East, not over 162 games or on a nightly basis.

But that’s Hyde’s daily reality, far removed from the big-picture chess pieces moved around by the front office. Within that climate-controlled sanctum, eyeing 2024 for contention instead of 2023 may not sting too bad.

The ground-level conditions can make that tunnel seem never-ending.

“I think the state of play in this losing streak,” says Elias, “is not reflective of our large-picture goals that are very much way on track, in my assessment. And so we’re going to continue to grind through it. This is what Brandon and I talked about when things get tough like this. You see aspects of hope and progress coming that will eventually be at his disposal.

“But this has been a very trying couple of weeks for everyone in that clubhouse. Including me.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Orioles losing streak hits 16, but GM Mike Elias says rebuild on track

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