Connolly: Air is out of Orioles liftoff if Mike Elias can’t — or won’t — spend much


SAN DIEGO — What we learned this week at baseball’s Winter Meetings is that the Orioles organization is not embarking on a financial liftoff.

There is no launching pad here. This Orioles’ offseason is more like an AmeriGlide mobile stair lift.

The direction is still upward, but it’s gonna be slowly sliding along the American League East wall, step-by-step, not up, up and away.

“We’re still on a very hopeful part of what I think’s gonna be an upward curve for the organization,” Elias told reporters Wednesday. “Feel great about where we’re at and we want to be really careful and strategic about building on this group that we have.”

It’s arguably a prudent plan. And it’s not exactly a surprising one; this measured, incremental block-building has been Elias’ style since he arrived in Baltimore from Houston in 2018.

For the most part, it has worked. Give credit where it’s due.

But the problem here is the Orioles improved by 31 wins in 2022, announcing themselves as an improbable participant in the AL wild-card race until the final weekend of last season.

Throughout his brief tenure, Elias has reiterated that once the Orioles were competitive, he believed ownership would spend for necessary player improvements. That’s what the Angelos boys told Elias when they hired him. That’s what the Angelos boys told everyone during the overstuffed-chair extravaganza that was Elias’ introductory news conference four years ago.

Then, last August, after hurrying to Texas to explain to a disgruntled clubhouse why he traded away Trey Mancini and Jorge López during a playoff push, Elias uttered his enduring and bordering-on-infamous quote to the media that it’s “liftoff from here.”

To be fair, he was specifically referring to the next stage of the organization’s ascent to relevancy. That the infrastructure was built. And consistent, positive results on the field were on the horizon.

But given the club’s surprising record, the initial promise of dollars from ownership, the “liftoff” quote and Elias’ subsequent statement that payroll would see a “significant increase” in 2023, the stage was set for the Orioles to land a moderately big fish this winter from the free-agent pool.

Now that it’s clear that won’t happen, well, a “significant increase” in fan vitriol has soared. Part of it is a misunderstanding; the rest is pure, unadulterated frustration from a fan base that hasn’t attended a World Series game in the entire history of Camden Yards.

There was no expectation that the Orioles were gonna try to pry Aaron Judge away from the New York Yankees this month and there shouldn’t have been any hope that the Orioles would be targeting Jacob deGrom or Carlos Correa or Trea Turner.

But a lesser tier?

Carlos Rodón, Chris Bassitt, Josh Bell, Taijuan Walker, Jameson Taillon?

Sure. Why not?

Bell, Walker, Taillon are now off the board, and Rodón and Bassitt will be getting multiple-year deals worth a boatload of cash. And the Orioles aren’t going there.

They may try to land a free-agent pitcher on a two-year deal, but likely would be more comfortable with another one-year contract, which is what veteran Kyle Gibson agreed to ($10 million) with the Orioles this week.

“There’s a lot of guys out there still that we’re still engaged with, even in some cases, on multi-year contacts with free-agent starters. But we’ve seen the market out here,” Elias said Wednesday. “It’s been very fast, very competitive. A lot of people are looking for pitching. It’s something that all 29 other teams are out there looking for. And it’s made for some really robust deals so far for these guys. But there are still some other people out there that we are targeting and that’s not speaking of any trade possibilities.”

Reading between the lines, it’s easy to speculate that Elias simply doesn’t have the money in his budget to pay for the high-end starter the Orioles desperately need.

That’s not surprising. For the last 20-plus years, the Orioles haven’t been an organization willing to engage in a bidding war. Legal wars, though? The Orioles have their share.

Not only are they still entangled in a legal dispute with the Washington Nationals over MASN TV rights money, but Louis Angelos, the youngest son of incapacitated patriarch Peter Angelos, is suing his brother, John, and mother, Georgia, claiming they illegally squeezed him out of team ownership.

Ultimately, the money should be there for Elias to use to better this team, but this doesn’t seem like a good time to pass the hat.

Asked Wednesday about whether he felt as confident as he did four years ago that sufficient free-agent money is available, Elias did a verbal tap routine that should be aired on “Dancing With the GMs.”

“I think we’re gonna get to a mode where we find a very solid water level for what the Orioles payroll is going to be. It’s going to be best done in combinate with the revenues and the attendance going up, which is going to happen as the team gets more competitive,” Elias said. “This isn’t something that we’re going to flip a light switch and get to our max capacity again. I think there were years here recently where the team was over its means. And when I came in we were still feeling that from years prior. But that’s in the past now and we’re in a very good spot, a much better spot, and I’m extremely confident that we’re going to take the plan to its logical end course, which involves continually increasing payroll. And it’s gonna start this year.”

He’s right. The payroll will go up. Gibson’s salary is higher than what the Orioles paid any player on their roster in 2022.

Also, the Orioles tendered contracts to six arbitration-eligible players last month, meaning there will be an organic increase in salary just by keeping key contributors such as Anthony Santander and Cedric Mullins.

Additionally, Elias isn’t done supplementing this roster. He will bring in free agents or players via trade which will bump the payroll some.

But this is not what anyone — likely including Elias — envisioned when the dreams of a competitive Orioles club danced in their minds.

Elias stressed Wednesday this is still a transition period from the darkness of 2018 when the organization was nearly void of an international presence, an analytics program and a quality farm system. All of that has been achieved, and so has the shedding of some untenable contracts. And Elias doesn’t want to go back to a time when bloated contracts are placed around his neck.

“It was a very big and very unique project for this entire group of people, including the partnership group, the transition to John (Angelos as the club’s “control person”). Just a lot going on at the franchise level and we had to reset things, reboot things, rejuvenate things at every corner of the organization. We’re still doing that,” Elias said. “We’re still building the (Dominican Republic) international academy. We’re still building our infrastructure. We’ve had a tremendous amount of effort and investment directed towards that.

“And I know that we have a plan to keep the underpinnings of the organization healthy going forward, which is something the Orioles haven’t done historically, while also funding a competitive team in the American League East. And it’s not something that we’re just going to force and do all at once and have it encumber our roster because we went out and made some deals that don’t make sense for the next window.”

What Elias is saying is that he’s not trying to just be a playoff team in 2023. He wants the success to keep building for 10, 15 years.

What he’s missing, though, is that the Orioles hadn’t had a winning team in six years and the fans want to know that 2022 isn’t a blip, an outlier. That this is, indeed, the start of something. Not just a pleasant distraction with some good young players. The best way to do that is to invest in at least one quality free agent of note now.

Otherwise, the reality that this team will not improve significantly from the outside in 2023 is deflating.

That takes some of the air out of any potential liftoff.

(File photo of Brandon Hyde and Mike Elias in 2019: Mark Goldman / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)


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