Mike Elias, who’s in his first spring training as Orioles executive vice president and general manager, is seemingly everywhere — watching games from the stands, talking to manager Brandon Hyde, coaches and players on the field, observing his pitchers and generally getting a handle on his new team. Orioles beat writer Rich Dubroff spoke with the 36-year-old on Wednesday in Fort Myers, Fla., about spring training, his relationship with Hyde and the players, what fans can expect from the team and his unusual background.
Question: How is spring training going?
Answer: ”You can tell me, but I think we’re off to a really nice start here. I love the way that the coaching staff organized the camp. I like the attitude that we’re getting from the players here. Everybody seems energized, embracing the opportunity and the change, and I think we’re playing pretty well four games in.”
Q: I’ve noticed how involved you are in every aspect. You’re watching batting practice at the cage, talking to Brandon, talking to the coaches. Early in spring training, you were in bullpen sessions, behind the pitchers. Is that the scout in you?
A: “Very much so. I’m new here. I’m not very familiar with some of these players. I want to see them, but also we’re rolling out the use of technology, including the cameras that you saw behind the bullpens and some other things, and certainly I wanted to see how that’s going up close, but, yeah, I like watching the players play. Our camp is over 60 right now, and eventually that’s going to get to 25. We’ve got to make decisions, all of us, the coaches, front office, we’ve got to evaluate these guys.”
Q: You’re only 2 ½ weeks in. Are you satisfied that you’re getting up to speed to where you should be?
A: “Very much so. I have a really good sense of these players. Brandon and I met with all of them individually, so we know who they are, where they live, their family situations, how the season went for them last year, where they feel they’re at. We’ve kind of downloaded all that, and we’re just now starting to get to the point where I’ve seen these guys play enough, offensively and defensively, where I have a feel for their tools and their capabilities.”
Q: At a recent team event, you had long talks with some of the players. For example, you talked at length with Richard Bleier and Mychal Givens. How important is this kind of interaction between the general manager and the players?
A: “I think it’s great. The way the game is today, we collaborate so much on their development that it’s just good to have a personal relationship with them. We’ve got a really great group of guys—everybody here. They’re just nice guys. They’re smart. I think we’re going to work very well together. All that said, I tell the players this: In the position that I’m in, it’s incumbent upon me to make baseball decisions and make business decisions on behalf of the club as a whole, but that doesn’t prevent me from having a good personal relationship with these guys that I’m working with and being honest with them and developing affection for them and rooting for them. That’s the way we want it to be. I want them to feel comfortable talking to us and raising questions to us going forward.”
Q: Because of the hiring cycle, the press didn’t get to know Brandon until spring training. His personality seems to be a lot different from yours. How important is a manager’s personality? When you were interviewing him, how did that come out to you?
A: “I think his personality is great for the managerial role. It’s great for what we’re embarking on here with the Orioles. I felt a ton of connection with him in terms of being able to communicate with him very easily and openly and the fact that we share some career background in terms of player development and going through a rebuilding process with the Cubs and the Astros. So, we’re really on the same page in a lot of ways, and I find him extremely easy to communicate with, and he views the game the same way that I do.”
Q: When Andy MacPhail was in your job, he used to talk about choosing a manager that fit the market. He chose Tom Kelly in Minnesota and Buck Showalter here. Was that part of your thinking in bringing Brandon here?
A: “I’d say it’s a small part of my thinking. I don’t think it’s a major consideration, but I think this town is going to love him. He’s kind of a blue-collar guy. He’s paid his dues as a coach and a minor league guy. He’s a straight shooter, and I think that fits well in a town like Baltimore.”
Q: Many fans that I hear from read the book, “Astroball,” and they’ve come to the conclusion that this is going to be a carbon copy of what was accomplished in Houston? Is that your thinking?
A: “Look, that was seven years ago now. A lot has changed around the game. This is a different division. We have different assets in terms of players in the organization than the Astros did, so, obviously, a carbon copy, it’s not possible. But, that said, in terms of what we need to do to get back to the playoffs, I don’t see a lot of options. We need to get more talent in this organization. This organization needs to be more talented. That includes the major league level, but also all the way through the minor league chain. As I said, there’s a lot that is going to go into that. It’s going to be a lot of additions via the draft and the international market. Trades are probably going to occur, and we’re going to do our best to improve through coaching the players that we have in our system and on our major league team. We want to have a pipeline of talent that is going to sustain a window of competitiveness in the American League East that’s going to last more than one year. We want to give ourselves multiple shots at making the playoffs in a tough division, and this is the only way to go about doing it. There’s no other choice.”
Q: When you got here, one of the things you said was that you thought you had enough talent to work with. Is there more or less talent here than you originally thought?
A: “I stand by my assessment that we’re off to a good start in terms of the talent base in the organization. Some of the guys that were brought in by the trade deadline look awesome so far in camp. I know on the minor league side, we’ve got some stud pitchers in the minor league organization via first-round picks. We’re going to bring those guys along, and I think we’ve got some good pieces to work with, and there are things to be excited about, individual players to be excited about. But, that said, depth and the overall numbers, it’s something that can stand to improve and will improve over the work that we’re going to do here in the next few years. I am very accustomed to having a top 10, top 5 farm system, and we want to be that.”
Q: One of the things I read recently in The New York Times intimated that the St. Louis Cardinals, a team that’s been consistently good, where you worked before Houston, is your ideal for the Orioles. The Cardinals have never had the number one pick in the draft. Is that what you’re trying to build here?
A: “We’re in a position where we’re picking high in the draft this year. We’re gong to take advantage of that, but ultimately the position is to get out of the position of picking high in the draft and once that happens, we don’t want to go back to that place. St. Louis is an organization that has managed to stay in a sort of competitive state permanently, and they have done that by making smart decisions, being reasonable with the amount of money their market can provide, operating the team and the business side of the team in a responsible way, relative to the market, and I do see a lot of similarities between the character of the two teams, the two cities, the size of the two cities. You could pick a lot worse organizations to emulate than theirs.”
Q: So, there are not going to be any 10-year, $300-million contracts here?
A: (Laughs) “Well, you never know how the game’s going, and we’ll see, but I look forward to having the problem of deciding whether to extend one of our players to that degree. But I look forward to getting more talent in here and once we get ourselves to the point where we’re competitive, we want to stay that way.”
Q: As a general manager, you have to sell tickets. This is going to be a hard sell this year. Fans jump to conclusions, and some say the Astros tanked, and the Orioles are going to tank. That’s not a word that you like to hear. What can you say to reassure fans that you’ll put a watchable product on the field this year?
A: “This team finished last last year with a bad record. I want to get out of that phase as quickly as possible and so every decision that we’re going to make is going to be towards accelerating our advancement to be a playoff-caliber team again. I see no reason to stretch that out, drag it out beyond what we have to, so within the boundaries of the opportunities available to us, we’re going to do this as quickly as we can, and get the team to a playoff-caliber state as quick as possible. But there are realities to the economic system in baseball, there are realities to the talent base that we have in the organization right now and there’s only so much we can do on that front, but we’re going to do it as quickly as we can.”
Q: What made you decide in college that you wanted to do this? As far as I know, Yale doesn’t have a sports management major. How did you decide this was what you were going to do?
A: “I loved baseball. I loved playing baseball. I always felt like I had a good eye for it watching it, and when you’re a starting pitcher, you get to watch from the side, four out of five games or whatever, so I always enjoyed that part of it. I wasn’t drawn to coaching. I was fascinated by the draft, and I wanted to be involved in that, and this was right around the time when the book, “Moneyball,” came out in 2003, so it kind of inspired me to the realization that it might be possible to work in this industry. But I didn’t want to go sit in a cubicle and do spreadsheets, I wanted to get out there in the field and watch games. I was fortunate that it was a time when the scouting business was starting to change and hire younger scouts with less experience and, also, the Cardinals were hiring, too.”
Q: How did you come to the attention of the Cardinals?
A: “They had some jobs posted, but my college coach, John Stuper, who used to play for the Cardinals, had some connections there and helped me out.”
Q: What was your major?
A: “I was a history major.”
Q: Does it help?
A: (Laughs) “I can’t say it applies directly to what I’m doing, but you can study almost anything in a school of that caliber, and it’s going to make you smarter, and it’s going to help [you] go places in life.”
Q: When you told your parents they’d spent thousands of dollars on a Yale education for you, and this was your career choice, how did they react?
A: “They were very supportive. My dad worked for the Secret Service for over 30 years. He was a Secret Service agent, so he worked in the government. We never had an attitude that money was the most important thing, so they thought it was a cool line of work and a cool opportunity. I think they were confident that I would be good at it, and it would lead places.”