MEOLI: Another difficult Orioles offseason shows the road to rebuilding isn’t for everyone

JON MEOLI
The Baltimore Sun (TNS)
Mike Elias

This time of year used to be when things would pick up for the Orioles.

The free-agent market would settle down to the point in which they could pursue the leftover targets and try to improve the club. FanFest would bring thousands downtown to see the returning stars, meet the team’s legends and have their fears calmed about the lack of offseason activity by the team’s brass.

When the Orioles last held FanFest in January 2019, it was a smaller affair, but a hopeful one. The team’s new front office touted its methods and promised a better future, though they were clear even then that that future wasn’t imminent. And in the back of their minds, they knew the goodwill from such promises wouldn’t last forever.

Two years on, the goodwill is indeed in short supply.

With four months of the offseason now past, the team has added no one significant and gotten rid of productive — if not long-term — players in José Iglesias, Renato Núñez and Hanser Alberto. According to multiple reports, including MASN, breakout outfielder Anthony Santander has been pursued in trade talks. And The Athletic reported this weekend that the Orioles sought unique salary deferrals to Santander and Trey Mancini in the salary arbitration process, further signs of cost-cutting around the team.

The team letting go of popular announcer Gary Thorne among a series of reported releases in the booth, including mainstays Jim Hunter, Tom Davis and Mike Bordick, is yet more change fans are being forced to contend with this winter.

Even in an offseason in which the team’s prospect base is growing in recognition with five players in Baseball America’s Top 100, including No. 2 overall prospect Adley Rutschman, plus an outlay of over $5 million in Latin American amateur signing bonuses on what executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias called a “landmark” day for the organization, come up light when weighed against what’s happening on Orioles’ proverbial front porch this winter.

Long-term strategy: Of course, Elias wasn’t brought to Baltimore from the Houston Astros to win in 2021. He was brought here to build the kind of drafting and player development machine that he contributed to for the Astros en route to their World Series championship, and the progress on that front is strong even after a 2020 season with a shortened draft and no minor leagues.

Elias and assistant general manager Sig Mejdal brought a lot from that organization. They brought Chris Holt to revamp their pitching development program, which he has. They brought a data-driven method of evaluating amateur and professional players. They also brought some experience that truly worked, and Elias likely pitched all of that when he met with John and Louis Angelos in the fall of 2018 to get this job.

One of those experiences was a terribly lean stretch at the major league level as the work of drafting and developing took place. In Elias’ old boss Jeff Luhnow’s second season in charge in Houston in 2013, the Astros’ payroll was just over $26 million. They weren’t ready to win, so they weren’t going to spend anything to try. If the Orioles didn’t have Chris Davis and Alex Cobb on the books for nearly $25 million in present-day money, they’d be attempting the same thing — whether the revenue streams of baseball teams were as impacted as they claim by the COVID-19 pandemic or not.

Patience required: The transition from the Orioles’ mid-2010s heyday under Dan Duquette and Buck Showalter happened with a few understandings. One was that patience was going to be required before they get back to those heights again. Another was that, with uncertainty looming over how much they’d have to pay the neighboring Washington Nationals in rights fees during their legal dispute over revenue from MASN, committing $161 million to Davis was a mistake.

But acknowledging realities don’t necessarily change the past, so fans who are still smarting decades later over Jon Miller leaving the Orioles’ broadcast booth will feel like history is repeating itself with Thorne and the other familiar voices who have left in the past few years. Those who are sick of watching Davis play and who don’t like his contract will hold him responsible for a lack of spending on the club, which would probably be happening regardless.

And those who have watched far more highly regarded Orioles pitching prospects than can be listed underwhelm, if they even make it to the big leagues, won’t trust anything they can’t see with their own two eyes on a big league field, no matter the promise this generation of young players actually have.

It all challenges the belief that there’s a turnaround to come, though pretty much everything involving the franchise is riding on a significant one. They can only hope the relative lack of goodwill toward the major league team’s direction before things swing back upwards doesn’t wholly drain the team’s loyalty reserves and ground the operation before it even begins.