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After Mike Elias took the reins as the Orioles’ executive vice president and general manager November 16, a common refrain was that he wouldn’t have much time to put his stamp on the 2019 roster. He had an abbreviated offseason in which much of his attention was focused on rebuilding the club’s infrastructure rather than making major player personnel moves. The club signed only one major league free agent, Nate Karns, during the offseason.
Still, Elias has found his opportunities to tweak the roster during his six months in charge. So far, 11 players he acquired have appeared in an Orioles uniform this year. They’ve ranged from major contributors to short-term roster fillers. Let’s take a look at each.
The short-timers: Drew Jackson, Josh Lucas, Shawn Armstrong
Jackson holds the dubious distinction of being the first Elias acquisition to be jettisoned from the organization since the season started. Jackson, a Rule 5 pick acquired from the Philadelphia Phillies, lasted just three regular-season games before the club designated him for assignment. The Orioles returned him to his original organization, the Los Angeles Dodgers, on April 10.
Jackson’s exit was curiously quick. The 25-year-old, who batted .316 in spring training, was expected to serve as a jack-of-all-trades off the bench with the potential to earn more playing time. The Orioles ultimately decided they needed roster flexibility to add an extra pitcher, and the fact that Jackson couldn’t be optioned worked against him. He’s now with Triple-A Oklahoma City, where he’s batting .229 with a home run and five RBIs in 13 games.
Lucas, who was drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals in 2010 when Elias was their manager of amateur scouting, signed a minor league deal with the Orioles on November 29, two weeks after Elias joined the Orioles. The 28-year-old right-hander, who had 13 games of big league experience, had three appearances with Baltimore in April. He gave up three runs (two earned) in 4 1/3 innings. Lucas has since been outrighted back to Triple-A Norfolk.
The most recent Elias acquisition is Armstrong, a 28-year-old right-hander who pitched for Cleveland and Seattle. Coincidentally, it was the Mariners’ addition of ex-Oriole Mike Wright — Armstrong’s close friend and former college teammate — that pushed Armstrong off the Seattle roster. He’s made two appearances for the Orioles since they grabbed him on waivers April 28, throwing two scoreless innings.
The strong-armed catchers: Pedro Severino, Jesus Sucre
Elias caught many onlookers by surprise when he claimed Severino, a former Washington Nationals prospect, just five days before Opening Day. The out-of-options Severino, 25, took the roster spot that was expected to go to young catcher Chance Sisco, who was assigned to Norfolk. It has proved to be a canny decision. Severino has erupted with the bat, bashing four home runs and posting a .521 slugging percentage, second among active Orioles behind Trey Mancini’s .574. He’s also flashed his strong arm behind the plate, throwing out six of eight attempted base stealers.
Sucre, a six-year veteran signed to a minor league deal February 5, began the season as the Orioles’ regular catcher, despite getting a late start in spring training because of visa issues in his native Venezuela. He impressed the Orioles with his leadership abilities and his presence behind the plate. Sucre started 13 of the Orioles’ first 19 games, including their second of the season March 30, in which he went 3-for-4 with three RBIs in a win at Yankee Stadium.
After that standout performance, though, Sucre batted just .185 with a .458 OPS and no RBIs in 18 games. Defensively, he was charged with three passed balls and couldn’t work much magic with the Orioles’ struggling pitching staff (except when Sucre himself pitched, tossing a perfect inning April 22). The club designated him for assignment April 28 and he accepted an assignment to Norfolk two days later, on his 31st birthday. Sucre played one game for the Tides, going 0-for-5, and then went on the inactive list.
The untested infielders: Hanser Alberto, Richie Martin, Rio Ruiz
Nowhere was Elias more active this past offseason than in the infield, where he added not only four major league infielders (including the departed Jackson), but also Jack Reinheimer and Zach Vincej, currently playing for Norfolk.
Among the big leaguers, Ruiz has carved out the most regular role, serving as the Orioles’ starting third baseman in 25 of their 34 games. The Orioles claimed him on waivers from Atlanta in December, reuniting him with Elias, who selected Ruiz in the fourth round of the 2012 draft with Houston. Renato Nunez’s spring injuries and defensive struggles opened a spot at the hot corner for Ruiz, who has been steady if unspectacular. The 24-year-old is batting .233 with a .637 OPS, two homers and 10 RBIs.
Much attention has been paid to Martin, the former Oakland Athletics’ first-rounder plucked by the Orioles with the first pick of the Rule 5 draft. Martin, 24, had a solid defensive reputation in the minors but faced questions offensively, and so far, he hasn’t answered them. He’s batting just .183 with a .533 OPS, numbers that he’ll need to greatly improve if he hopes to establish an everyday role in the big leagues. With the leather, Martin has generally passed the eye test — making most of the routine plays and some spectacular ones, too — but advanced defensive metrics have been less kind. FanGraphs rates him at -4 Defensive Runs Saved, albeit in a small sample.
Perhaps the best — and certainly most versatile — of the bunch is Alberto, a player the Orioles coveted so much they acquired him twice. The club originally claimed him off waivers from the New York Yankees on Jan. 11, only to lose him on the waiver wire to San Francisco on Feb. 22. But a week later, when the Giants attempted to remove him from their 40-man roster, the Orioles swooped back in with another waiver claim on the 26-year-old. Alberto has played all around the diamond — with 10 or more appearances apiece at second base and third base, as well as two games in the outfield — and batted .305. He’s a valuable bench player for a club that has lacked depth.
The veteran hurlers: Nate Karns, Dan Straily
The Karns signing, from the start, was no guarantee to pan out. And so far, it hasn’t. When the Orioles inked the 31-year-old right-hander to a one-year, $800,000 deal in February, he hadn’t thrown a major league pitch since May 19, 2017. He underwent surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome later that year that cost him the entire 2018 season. Injuries waylaid Karns again this spring, scuttling the Orioles’ plans of using him as a starter, and he managed just four regular season appearances before a right forearm strain landed him on the IL.
Karns reported some soreness that led the Orioles to shut down his recent rehab assignment, and he plans to receive a second opinion today. It’s looking like a long shot that he’ll be back anytime soon. If the Orioles can eventually get a healthy, effective Karns back on the roster, he’ll be a welcome addition. But they can’t count on it.
With Karns unable to give the Orioles innings, the club signed another journeyman righty, Straily, on April 5. The Orioles became his sixth major league organization after his previous one, the Miami Marlins, released him at the end of spring training. Straily, so far, hasn’t worked deep into games, failing to get past five innings in any appearance. The 30-year-old is 1-2 with a 7.43 ERA.
The unexpected star: Dwight Smith Jr.
One Elias acquisition stands out among all others, and it’s Smith, who has morphed from roster-bubble fodder to top-of-the-lineup mainstay in Baltimore. Acquired from Toronto for international bonus slot money March 8, Smith was initially pegged as possible outfield depth for Norfolk. But after arriving in Orioles camp in Sarasota, all he did was hit — batting .429 with a team-leading five homers in Grapefruit League play — and he hasn’t stopped since.
Smith has a .298 average, .861 OPS, six homers and a team-leading 22 RBIs. Per Baseball Reference, he’s second on the team in Wins Above Replacement (0.8), behind only Mancini (0.9). It’s surprising that the rebuilding Blue Jays, who drafted Smith in the first round in 2011, couldn’t find room on their roster to give the 26-year-old a more extended look.
For what it’s worth, his father, Dwight Smith, also hit well for the Orioles, batting .311 with an .849 OPS in 1994. He spent only 28 games with the club, though. His son is shaping up to be more of a long-term fixture in the Baltimore lineup.
All told, Elias’ acquisitions have been an overall positive for the Orioles, accumulating a combined 1.2 WAR according to Baseball Reference. Elias struck gold with Smith and Severino, and has gotten solid contributions from the likes of Alberto and Ruiz. None of his new players has been a total disaster, though Martin (-0.6 WAR) has struggled the most.
Elias has said his primary goal as GM is to improve the talent level in the Orioles’ organization, bit by bit. Considering the performance of the players he’s added so far, it seems he’s already headed in the right direction.
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