Does Mike Elias face a tougher rebuilding task with the Orioles than with the Astros? - BaltimoreBaseball.com
Paul Folkemer

Does Mike Elias face a tougher rebuilding task with the Orioles than with the Astros?

Photo courtesy Baltimore Orioles

This isn’t Mike Elias’ first rodeo.

The Orioles’ new executive vice president and general manager is joining the club to spearhead a full-scale rebuilding effort. Elias, who previously served a variety of roles with the Houston Astros — most recently, assistant general manager under Jeff Luhnow — was an integral part of the Astros’ transformation from perennial losers into 2017 World Series champions.

How does Elias’ rebuilding task in Baltimore compare with that of Houston? Are the present-day Orioles in better or worse shape than the Astros were when Elias arrived? Let’s go to the tale of the tape.

Recent team success

Elias joined the Astros after a 2011 season in which they posted the worst record in baseball (56-106) and the worst in their franchise history to that point.

Elias is now joining the Orioles after a 2018 season in which they posted the worst record in baseball (47-115) and the worst in their franchise history to this point.

What can you say? The guy likes a challenge.

If you go back a few years in each case, though, the Orioles have the better recent history of success. The Orioles are just two years removed from their last postseason appearance, when they claimed the second AL wild card slot in 2016. That capped a stretch of five straight seasons in which they made the playoffs three times and finished .500 or better each year, holding the AL’s best cumulative record during that span. Nine Orioles currently on the 40-man roster have played for at least one postseason club in Baltimore.

The Astros, on the other hand, were long removed from their past glory by the time Luhnow and Elias were hired. They’d finished under .500 in four of their previous five seasons and hadn’t made the playoffs in six years. They had only four players on the roster at that point who had played for a winning Houston team, and only two who’d been on an Astros’ postseason club.

While the Orioles and Astros were both at the bottom of the abyss by the time Elias got there, the two clubs got there in different ways. The Astros skidded down the cliff’s edge at a steady pace, scraping every rock along the way, until hitting bottom. The Orioles, meanwhile, sprinted straight off the cliff — Wile E. Coyote style — before plummeting straight down. But hey, they stayed aloft longer than many people expected.

Advantage: Orioles

Major league assets

The 2011 Astros finished the season with one of the most threadbare rosters you’ll ever see.

They’d traded away two outfielders in their prime, Hunter Pence and Michael Bourn, during the season, leaving 35-year-old slugger Carlos Lee as their only big bat. Only two Astros who had a Baseball Reference WAR of 2.0 or higher in 2011 — Lee (3.9) and lefty Wandy Rodriguez (2.7) — were still with the club when the new administration took over in December.

Still, that’s better than the Orioles, who don’t have a single active player who posted a 2.0 WAR or better in 2018. The best mark was reliever Richard Bleier’s 1.6 in an injury-abbreviated season, but as a 31-year-old journeyman who doesn’t blow hitters away, his trade value isn’t particularly high. Among position players, Jonathan Villar, who performed well in 54 games after the Orioles acquired him July 31, could entice some interest on the trade market. So too could Mychal Givens, who acclimated himself well to the closer role after taking over in late July.

The Astros ultimately traded Lee and Rodriguez within two years, along with veteran pitchers Brett Myers and Bud Norris and a handful of others. Will Elias be able to find as many trade partners for current Orioles? It won’t be an easy task.

Advantage: Astros

Minor league depth

It’s hard to remember now, with the Astros having produced many talented, homegrown players in recent years, but their farm system was in shambles when Elias first arrived in Houston. After the 2011 season, FanGraphs ranked Houston’s system as the fourth-worst in baseball. Just two Astros’ prospects made FanGraph’s top 100 list: first baseman Jonathan Singleton at No. 58 and outfielder George Springer at No. 70.

The Astros’ minor league depth improved almost immediately under the new regime. With the first overall pick of the 2012 amateur draft, they selected 17-year-old shortstop Carlos Correa — largely on the suggestion of Elias, who had scouted him in Puerto Rico. Correa, of course, developed into a star, and kicked off a renaissance for Houston’s farm. By the start of 2015, the Astros’ system was rated sixth-best in MLB by FanGraphs, and by 2016, it was second.

Elias will have similar heavy lifting to do with the Orioles. Despite the club’s flurry of sell-off trades in 2018 under previous executive vice president Dan Duquette, which landed the club 15 new players, the Orioles’ minor league system is still considered one of the weaker groups in baseball. FanGraphs rated them No. 28, ahead of only the Boston Red Sox and Seattle Mariners.

Although the Orioles have a few promising prospects — headlined by outfielder Yusniel Diaz (ranked No. 52 among MLB Pipeline’s top 100) and third baseman Ryan Mountcastle (No. 63) — their system is lacking in frontline talent. Few pundits anticipate the Orioles’ top prospects to emerge as future stars, but rather as solid regulars or complementary players.

The Orioles, like the Astros years before, have a chance to provide a huge jolt to their farm system next summer, when they hold the No. 1 pick in the 2019 draft. Time will tell whether Elias can strike gold again as he did with Correa.

Advantage: Orioles

Financial flexibility

Most rebuilding clubs tend to slash payroll, casting off overpaid veterans and rebuilding the roster with inexpensive young players. That allows the front office to reallocate some of those funds into infrastructure, player development, scouting and other essential departments.

That’s certainly the approach that Luhnow, Elias and other Astros’ decision makers took after arriving in Houston. Their trades of Lee, Myers and other veterans over the next two years helped whittle down the club’s financial commitments. By 2013, the Astros had “an Opening Day payroll of about $26 million, roughly half that of any other club’s,” according to Astroball, Ben Reiter’s account of the Houston rebuild.

The Astros were successful at trimming the payroll largely because even their most high-priced players had tradeable deals. They weren’t saddled with any contracts that were completely exorbitant and unmovable.

Which brings us to the Orioles…and Chris Davis.

Davis, as Orioles fans are painfully aware, is coming off one of the worst offensive seasons in the history of baseball, setting a dubious MLB record for the lowest batting average by a qualified player (.168). He still has four years and $92 million remaining on the seven-year contract he signed with the Orioles in Jan. 2016.

There’s no chance the Orioles will be able to get that money off the books, barring an unexpected Davis retirement. Even if the club took the unprecedented step of releasing Davis outright, they’d still owe him every dollar. Elias said at his introductory press conference that he intends to get involved in Davis’ offseason routine in hopes of helping him improve. It’s the Orioles’ only choice for trying to get some value out of the considerable money they’ve spent.

For as long as Davis’ contract is on the books, the Orioles probably won’t have as much financial flexibility as the Astros did. Still, they’ve already begun shedding payroll in other ways — most notably, Duquette’s salary dump of Darren O’Day in last July’s Kevin Gausman trade with Atlanta — and there’s surely more to come.

Advantage: Astros

Ownership support

No rebuilding process can be successful, of course, without the support of ownership. Not all owners are willing to swallow a scenario in which their club will be purposefully terrible for several years before sniffing contention.

The Astros’ owner, Jim Crane, had no such reservations. After purchasing the Astros from Drayton McLane on Nov. 22, 2011, one of Crane’s first acts was to hire Luhnow, knowing full well what plan his new general manager had in store. Crane was intrigued by Luhnow’s analytics-driven strategy for success, and threw his full weight behind the rebuilding strategy. He allowed Luhnow to hire his preferred staff — Elias included — and enact his plan without interference.

Will Elias receive the same support in Baltimore? The early indications are promising. John and Louis Angelos — who have assumed club operations from their father, Peter —said all the right things during last week’s press conference, emphasizing that they’ll give Elias free reign to make all baseball decisions. Peter Angelos, by contrast, long carried a reputation as a meddling owner who often obstructed or vetoed decisions made by his baseball people.

However, the sins of the father sometimes fall upon the sons, even if it’s not deserved. As long as John and Louis have the last name Angelos, some Orioles fans may remain skeptical about whether they’ll truly stay in their lane and let Elias operate without complications. So far, at least, they’re off to a great start.

Advantage: Astros

Conclusion

Overall, the Orioles face many of the same obstacles in 2018 that the Astros did in 2011 — and, in fact, might be a little worse off. Still, Elias was part of the front office team that helped the Astros rebuild from scratch and reach the height of baseball glory six years later. Few people are better prepared to handle the challenges that the Orioles must overcome.

30 Comments

30 Comments

  1. boss61

    November 27, 2018 at 8:20 am

    These are additional reasons the O’s selected well in Elias. Thanks for the insightful analysis.

    • Paul Folkemer

      November 27, 2018 at 1:30 pm

      Glad you enjoyed it. Yes, Elias certainly seems like a perfect fit for what the Orioles need right now.

  2. VICTORTEE

    November 27, 2018 at 8:44 am

    You don’t mention the biggest disadvantage he faces here. The dominant AL East vs the mediocre AL West. There were no Red Sox and Yankees (100 game winning teams with DEEP pockets) in the AL West.

    • DevoTion

      November 27, 2018 at 9:05 am

      Great point. Sure rebuilding the club is a huge challenge, but having to deal with our division rivals makes it an even tougher job. Obviously it can be done, as we had a few good years, but the Yankees and Sox are set up for the future much better than they were 8 years ago

      • Boog Robinson Robinson

        November 27, 2018 at 9:30 am

        Devotion … did you miss the line in this article that stated the O’s minor league system was rated slightly ahead of … ahem … The Red Sox? How does this translate to future success for them? Maybe we should take these little nuggets wherever we can get ’em?

        • DevoTion

          November 27, 2018 at 1:31 pm

          Boog, True the Sox’s system is rated lower than ours, but they have a very strong team now and for the foreseeable future and they are always willing to make big trades and sign players to big contracts. As much as I hate the red Sox, they deserve a ton of credit for putting together good teams almost yearly. But maybe by the time the Os are getting better, the Sox will be dropping.

    • Paul Folkemer

      November 27, 2018 at 1:32 pm

      That’s true, the Yankees and Red Sox will always be a constant thorn. Even they have their down years, though, and there are opportunities to overtake them if the O’s play it smart. And with two wild cards, you don’t necessarily need to win the division, either.

  3. SpinMaster

    November 27, 2018 at 8:50 am

    Paul: It has to be a tough task, for Elias when both the major league club and the farm system are both in bad shape. I know that it is “water under the bridge” but it is too bad that our previous regime let the farm system (including the drafts and player development) get to the point where we almost have to start from scratch. That seems to be the price we now must pay for keeping so much of the team together after the 2014 season. Kind of reminds me of the post 2000 Super Bowl Ravens.

    • Paul Folkemer

      November 27, 2018 at 1:33 pm

      There’s no question that in recent years, the Orioles took a win-now approach over building for the future. Sooner or later it was going to come back to haunt them, and it happened sooner than they expected.

  4. Boog Robinson Robinson

    November 27, 2018 at 9:33 am

    So the O’s new mantra shoud be something like … “Just Lose Baby”?

    • Paul Folkemer

      November 27, 2018 at 1:42 pm

      There will be a lot of losing, no question. But at least this time it feels like there’s a larger goal, as opposed to 2018, when the O’s just lost without much of a plan.

  5. Stacey

    November 27, 2018 at 9:54 am

    I came out of the introductory press conference just as impressed with the Angelos brothers as I was with Mike Elias. Maybe I’ll be burned in the end, but it really feels different this time.

    Good story!

    • Paul Folkemer

      November 27, 2018 at 1:44 pm

      Thanks, internet friend! It definitely feels much different this time, starting with the press release announcing Elias’s hiring, which specifically stated that he’ll have “full autonomy to build his staff and make all decisions on baseball matters.” The press release announcing Dan Duquette’s hiring in 2011 had no such language.

  6. Orial

    November 27, 2018 at 10:30 am

    Excellant in depth analysis. It has been mentioned but yes playing in the AL East is very demanding. Though the Sons seem to be very cooperative compared to their father do they have deep enough pockets,especially with the looming MASN dispute,to compare with Astro ownership. Just curious but where did the Astro’s farm system rank in 2011 compared to the O’s in 2018?

    • Paul Folkemer

      November 27, 2018 at 1:48 pm

      Thanks, Orial. It remains to be seen what the Orioles’ budget is going to be under John and Louis. It certainly won’t be much for the next couple years, but will they open the checkbook for free agents when the Orioles have a core that’s ready to win? I think they will, but we won’t know for a while.

  7. Jbigle1

    November 27, 2018 at 10:56 am

    28th ranked farm? That’s harsh. Other sites are a good bit higher. The O’s are typically in the 19-22 range somewhere. I agree we don’t have any high impact players down there but ranking us below the royals and marlins? behind the dbacks and cubs too. That’s crazy at this point.

    • Paul Folkemer

      November 27, 2018 at 1:51 pm

      Keep in mind, that’s just one site’s ranking. Others might have a different opinion and a different methodology for ranking farm systems.

  8. Lookouts400

    November 27, 2018 at 10:58 am

    The “meddling owner” question is a valid one. But, my guess is that as part of the negotiations, Elias stressed that he needed full autonomy in the front office. Not in a “Julius Caesar” type way, just that the rebuild, indeed, no business can have more than one leader. Elias is smart and astute enough to solicit opinions, but to also stress the buck stops with him. I’m sure even Sig also knows that. And there might very well be a clause that states that if the owners due get involved, Elias can leave. In the past, John and Lou, at least publicly, haven’t shown the desire to get as involved as was their father and while I am sure certain things must have ownership approval, this appears to be Elias’ ship to run. Why else hire him?

    • Paul Folkemer

      November 27, 2018 at 1:54 pm

      I do believe the Angelos sons intend to let Elias operate freely, but there are different types of “meddling” or interference. For instance, if Elias comes to ownership and asks for Chris Davis to be released and the O’s to eat his salary, and ownership says they’re not comfortable with that, is that “meddling”? Maybe not, but it would make Elias’ job a little more difficult.

  9. Hallbe62

    November 27, 2018 at 11:33 am

    So Elias may have had a better climate in Houston than Baltimore for his 1st rebuild.

    We’ll have to wait and see if the 2 sons in Charm City will ensure that Elias has all the resources he needs to bring the birds back.

    Time will tell, and that’s part of the intrigue. Witnessing the O’s steps & stumbles along the way is about all true O’s fans can do for the time being.

    Oh, and attend the games when you can. That will also help. Patience

    • Paul Folkemer

      November 27, 2018 at 1:57 pm

      Yes, the rebuild will certainly require patience. The next couple of years aren’t going to be pretty, record-wise, but as long as fans can see that there’s real progress being made in the organization, I think they’ll stick with them.

  10. Hallbe62

    November 27, 2018 at 11:34 am

    So Elias may have had a better climate in Houston than Baltimore for his 1st rebuild.

    We’ll have to wait and see if the 2 sons in Charm City will ensure that Elias has all the resources he needs to bring the birds back.

    Time will tell, and that’s part of the intrigue. Witnessing the O’s steps & stumbles along the way is about all true O’s fans can do for the time.

    Oh, and attend the games when you can. That will also help. Patience

  11. Raymo

    November 27, 2018 at 11:58 am

    If Chris Davis was an honorable man with any sense of decency and self respect, he would retire immediately to save himself and the Orioles the certain embarrassment of the next 3 or 4 seasons. Of course that’s not gonna happen, though it should.

    • Stacey

      November 27, 2018 at 12:07 pm

      It’s not Chris Davis’s fault the Orioles gave him such a dumb contract. They are the ones to blame for this debacle, not him.

    • Paul Folkemer

      November 27, 2018 at 2:01 pm

      What Stacey said. Nobody forced the Orioles to sign Davis to that contract. There’s nothing dishonorable about Davis continuing to serve the contract that both sides agreed to. Were the Orioles being dishonorable when they paid Davis only $3 million to hit 53 home runs in 2013?

      This is just how baseball economics work. Players get extremely underpaid (relative to their production) in their first 4-6 years in the league, and then earn the opportunity to cash in once they reach free agency. Davis did exactly that.

    • Raymo

      November 27, 2018 at 8:05 pm

      I don’t disagree in any way, but shouldn’t a man take pride in his work and admit to himself that he just can’t do it anymore? That his presence is actually detrimental to his teammates?

      • Paul Folkemer

        November 27, 2018 at 9:04 pm

        I think he does take pride in his work, and that makes him all the more determined to bounce back from his horrible season.

        Will he actually do so? I’m not exactly banking on it. But he made a seven-year commitment to the Orioles, and I think he wants to try to live up to that commitment until the Orioles don’t give him the opportunity anymore. It’s very rare for players to walk away from the game in the middle of a contract — not just because they’d be giving up the money, but because they don’t want to be labeled as quitters.

  12. BirdsCaps

    November 27, 2018 at 7:49 pm

    I wonder how much of an impact the international market will play in the rebuild. Watching the mess up of the Mesas and Gaston makes me wonder how much having almost no international presence will hurt the birds. Did Elias have much of an international presence in Houston? If he did, that will likely put the O’s back a few years. Of course this statement is contingent on the prospects (at least some of them) panning out.

    • Paul Folkemer

      November 27, 2018 at 9:08 pm

      Elias absolutely has an international presence. He was a director of scouting for both the Cardinals and the Astros, and he mentioned in his press conference that he has built a lot of relationships with international players and agents.

      • BirdsCaps

        November 27, 2018 at 9:53 pm

        Thanks for informing me of Elias’s international presence. Since Elias and the astros had a strong presence in the international market, the lack of an international infrastructure in Baltimore will make life harder for Elias and company, despite his experience in that segment of the market. Unfortunately, this might significantly delay the rebuild.

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