On Mike Elias' challenge to the Orioles' tweener pitchers, the last source of hope that aren't solely on his account
It's true that the Orioles' rookie crop of pitchers not bedding in has made things harder on them. Once their fates are settled, everything else that happens is on the new regime.
Mike Elias certainly piqued some attention Tuesday when, in explaining the general state of the Orioles’ roster after a telling trade of two of their top relievers, he laid down an ultimatum of sorts for the group of pitchers trying to solidify themselves in the major league rotation.
He said, via Nathan Ruiz of The Baltimore Sun:
“We’re still really counting on this group, [Bruce] Zimmermann, [Zac] Lowther, [Dean] Kremer, [Mike] Baumann, the guys that are on the 40-man — Keegan Akin — that we’ve been pitching the last couple of years, some of those guys need to step up,” Elias said. “That’s why we’re struggling right now, because we haven’t gotten a real cemented breakout from one of those guys. We still have high hopes for them and want some of those guys to click this year because it’s gonna be tough if they don’t, and we’re going to have to move on to other people.”
There’s plenty to unpack there, and we’ll get to that. But within that comment, there was a sense of consequence and a general raising of the stakes that’s quite simply been lacking when it comes to this rebuild.
Many individual players will counter that there have been plenty of consequences. Some will do so from Japan or Korea, where they’re playing baseball this year. Others haven’t been so lucky and are either living transient Triple-A lives or otherwise no longer in the game.
Perhaps aside from former top prospect Chance Sisco, though, there wasn’t much hype for the future around any of those who have been moved on. To create such stakes for a group that three short years ago served as an exemplar for the Orioles’ revamped pitching program when they collectively dominated at Double-A Bowie means something – a lot of things, actually.
For the pitchers themselves, it’s a clear marker of what they need to do: stick, or else. Their trajectories have been largely the same. They were part of the last front office’s emphasis on rebuilding pitching depth through the drafts and trades, but were all enhanced when Elias brought Chris Holt in as minor league pitching coordinator in 2019 to recreate the pitching program of the Houston Astros as quickly as possible. Their pitch mixes and results improved almost across the board, and they’re still working on them, as detailed here early in this platform’s life.
The pandemic-hit 2020 season took away a Triple-A finishing year for all of them except Akin, who was there the previous year. It’s been catch-up time for the entire group, though, and the last two years of up-and-down roster assignments and performance to match brought things to this point: a 2022 season where they each will at some point get an opportunity to pitch and pitch well in the big leagues, circumstances be damned.
One way or another, it marks the transition of one phase of the Orioles’ rebuild to another, same as so many other moves before it did. Almost the entire major league coaching staff has been turned over outside manager Brandon Hyde and his right-hand man Tim Cossins, with qualified but ultimately placeholder pitching and hitting coaches in Doug Brocail and Don Long being replaced by those whose installation creates total alignment through every level of the Orioles’ organization. It wasn’t necessarily wrong before, but simply couldn’t be right until it was exactly how it was supposed to be.
There has been less turnover in the last few years in the player development and scouting ranks, but there’s no doubting there’s nothing except maybe budget that’s keeping those growing departments from being the absolute ideal for the Orioles’ decision-makers.
Which brings us to the field. Top to bottom, the infield depth was a mess back in 2019 and has been a revolving door since. There are always interesting options, but the real solutions will arrive when Elias’ own draft picks and trade acquisitions get to the majors. Any of Gunnar Henderson, Jordan Westburg, Terrin Vavra, Joey Ortiz, or Coby Mayo will do.
Similar to the pitchers who were in the high minors when the regime-change occurred, there was a group of major league outfielders and prospects about to arrive there who represented the Orioles’ top prospects. It took three years and plenty of stops and starts to get there, but they essentially represent the majority of the big league lineup now. The Orioles’ everyday outfield will feature Cedric Mullins, Anthony Santander, and Austin Hays. Trey Mancini was already good, and Ryan Mountcastle has certainly come good.
No such ultimatum was required for that group, but their fate is the same as the pitchers, ultimately. Those who make the grade will be more than welcome to stay. But the bar is going to rise, and if the players Elias has drafted and developed are better, the spots will be theirs.
The difference with the pitchers put on notice is they’re really the last area in which the Orioles have any hopes pinned on players Elias didn’t pick himself. (Grayson Rodriguez and DL Hall were Dan Duquette draft picks, but are such different pitchers now than at draft time that they’re just as much the product of his front office as any other).
That’s different from actual performance – basically all of the Orioles’ actual major league performers predate this front office, but everything impressive any of them have done in their careers haven’t been enough to make the team good.
By building as methodically as he has, Elias is basically saying that only players he is responsible for being here can turn this around. It will make things easier for players like Adley Rutschman and Kyle Stowers if there’s one or two of those pitchers is solidified in the rotation when they arrive.
Soon enough, though, it will be how those Elias-era acquisitions perform in a system fully coached and run by Elias-era hires that will be the reason why the team struggles or doesn’t. They’ll be able to reasonably say they did the best they could with these pitchers, who maybe were always meant to be AAAA types. But this is the last area where the blame can be shifted anywhere but what’s happened since 2019. They might even want it to be that way, because they’ll get all the accolades if it works. Same goes for the downside.
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