Facetiously asked whether the Orioles’ front office packed a launch pad for their trip to the winter meetings, executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias motioned to the hotel room and executives around him.
“You’re looking at it,” Elias said with a chuckle.
The idea of a launch has been in the thoughts of Orioles’ fans for four months, Elias having put it there by declaring “it’s liftoff from here” in the aftermath of a fifth straight trade deadline that saw Baltimore be a seller. Responsible for four of those, Elias has preached patience and hope for the future throughout his tenure, which, before an unexpectedly successful 2022, featured three consecutive seasons in which the Orioles had one of the majors’ five worst records.
With the promise of “liftoff,” the bright future that offered the only solace amid a cadre of losses finally seemed to have arrived. But that word, which Elias said Monday came to him “very organically” in the moment, has faced the reality of much else in the organization’s rebuild: tempered expectations.
“Liftoff,” said in tandem with a declaration of effort toward significant additions this offseason, wasn’t about the Orioles reaching the moon tomorrow. It was just about them getting there at some point, climbing with no plans to return to the surface.
“[It was] not a specific proclamation for we’re going to do it all at once at the 2023 winter meetings, but that the next several years of baseball in Baltimore is going to be excellent,” Elias said. “I think that the team is going to continually improve, and we’re going to build the business of Baltimore baseball back up over the next several years. We’re on the upswing, that’s what I mean when I say that. It’s a very exciting time for us. It’s been a long time coming and a lot of work getting to this point, but to be on the upward arc of where we’re at regardless of what we do or don’t do this winter, I think is very encouraging for all of us in this organization and for the fans and for the players.”
After months of building excitement toward the potential of the Orioles making the biggest splash of the winter meetings — something Elias directly promised would not happen last year — a continued outlook toward the horizon rather than the present stings. Elias is right to be hopeful about the future. An inexperienced squad expected to be the sport’s worst was the best American League team not to make the postseason. Another wave of young talent is en route via a farm system generally regarded as one of the deepest in the majors. The lack of investment into the major league roster has Baltimore with no money committed beyond 2023, providing Elias with, as he put it, “a roster and a payroll that we can custom build over the next few years.”
But when he declared it was time for “liftoff” after several years where even “prepare for launch” was premature, it seemed to signal a change, and that’s not to say it still won’t. It’s early December, and the Orioles have signed free agent right-hander Kyle Gibson for $10 million, the largest contract Elias has given out as Baltimore’s general manager. That can’t still be true in four months if he’s serious about improving this team enough to make it a legitimate contender in the daunting AL East.
In fairness, “liftoff” was never about the Orioles’ payroll, which even with Gibson in the mix projects to be one of the league’s lowest. Days after trading away Trey Mancini and Jorge López, Elias said it in the middle of a broad answer about the state of the organization and his belief that all of the moves made to that point to tear away from the major league roster were beginning to prove worthwhile.
“We’re just going to keep adding from this point forward,” Elias said then.
He made no promises of what those additions would be or how they would impact the team’s payroll and has largely remained hush in that regard since. Monday showed the cost of top talent in the sport, with right-hander Justin Verlander receiving at least $86 million over two years from the New York Mets and shortstop Trea Turner agreeing to an $11-year, $300 million deal with the Philadelphia Phillies.
That evening, Elias’ suggested that, given the Orioles’ collection of hitting prospects in the upper minors and majors, any position players Baltimore adds this winter will “build around and supplement that group in the short term, not block” them. That would seemingly take them out of the market for any of the remaining top shortstops in Carlos Correa, Xander Bogaerts and Dansby Swanson.
The Orioles figure to be more aggressive in the pitching market, and the level of aggression could prove liftoff was apt all along. But until then, a hotel room is the perfect place for the Orioles’ launch pad. After all, it has a ceiling.