Playoff talk cranked loudest among Orioles

Mike Elias’ choice of word in August, within the infamous “liftoff” quote, caused some confusion regarding payroll flexibility, but it was the first true indicator that he was moving past the rebuild stage and eyeing a much grander one.

Elias told the assembled media at the warehouse Friday morning that the rebuild was over, that it was “behind us.”

That’s liftoff. Different phrasing but the same positive message.  

The Orioles weren’t using up most of their energy on addressing the farm system and creating the talent pipeline that would make them annual contenders. Wins would begin to matter again. The standings would begin to matter again beyond how it influences draft status.

The club is talking about the playoffs, and to anyone who will listen. These aren’t just internal conversations.

Done managing the pain of a rebuild, Elias is asked about managing expectations from a fan base that’s energized and eager to support a winner. An attitude that’s evident at every stop of the Birdland Caravan.

“Part of that is based on stuff I’ve been saying because I’m excited about the future of the team, and the fact that I believe that our rebuild is behind us and we’ve got an incredible chance now to be a very, very competitive team for years. I think we’re all excited about that,” Elias said.

“The front office and the manager, when we talk to media, we feed those expectations, but we also live in the reality of our business. We approach things very carefully. We have a lot of really smart and experienced people in our front office working on our plan, and that includes growing the team over the next few years, managing our payroll, trying to get into contracts that make sense for the long haul. So, we’ve got to navigate all those factors, too, and it’s something that I think a team like the Orioles in particular has to be careful about. There’s a lot that goes into it.

“The bottom line is we want to do the best we can in our situation and we want to win, and so, everything we’ve done since going back to 2018 has been about getting us to that point. We’re going to continue applying our know-how to take the next step.”

Manager Brandon Hyde can find comfort in his more solid footing rather than the fine line he’s walked between totally buying into the rebuild, which strips the major league team of its chances to compete, and convincing players that wins still count and to block out the noise.

“Really for the first time since we’ve been here, we want to build off last year from an expectation standpoint, and excited about that, honestly,” Hyde said on Friday. “Feel like we have a competitive club. This is the first time we’ve gone in with true non-rebuild mode of going out to win games and from the standpoint of like, we feel like we can compete. We showed it last year and we’re really excited about our club.”

Hyde welcomes the challenges of setting his 26-man roster for opening day. Finally, it isn’t about a lack of talent and choices.

“I think the harder it is, it means the better your club is. Sending guys down or whatever, guys that you don’t want to, but you don’t have room. So, I’m hoping that we have a ton of tough decisions at the end of camp,” Hyde said.

“We have a lot of depth now, which is so nice. And guys coming who haven’t even gotten there, guys who are going to experience their first major league camps that we have high hopes for. So, just the talent level alone. I hope we have a lot of tough decisions.”

Perhaps none more taxing than the rotation and selecting eight relievers to support it. The pitching side is the biggest puzzle.

“Super encouraging what we did on the mound last year, and we want to build on what we did on the mound last year,” Hyde said. “We were able to stay in games, we were able to finish games, and that’s not easy to do in the big leagues in our division. We got over the hump last year, pitching-wise, and I just want to see it continue.”

Hyde knows that the Orioles are back on baseball’s radar. They can’t tip-toe into a ballpark and ambush teams. That opportunity died over the summer with their insistence on staying in the wild card chase. Stubborn to the end.

They were supposed to fade weeks before their actual elimination. They had sufficient wind.

“I think everybody’s very aware of what we did last year, the league, also,” Hyde said. “Our record from June on was really competitive, and we’re not sneaking up on anybody anymore. People understand how talented we are. People know what our bullpen was last year, etc.

“Expectations will be raised internally, too. I think guys are going to want to really compete and build off last year.”

“We’ve seen it, the fans have seen it,” outfielder Ryan McKenna said Friday afternoon during the caravan stop in Salisbury. “We’ve had the No. 1 minor league system for years now, and a lot of the talent coming up and the success we had last year, we’re only going to build on it. We’re confident what we’re bringing, and the fans have been awesome, supportive now and going to the future on.”  

The roster is upgraded without any top-tier free agents or a blockbuster trade. Too soon to know whether that’s enough to prevent the club from backsliding, but Hyde celebrates the group of returnees and the arrivals of starting pitchers Kyle Gibson and Cole Irvin, second baseman Adam Frazier, reliever Mychal Givens and backup catcher James McCann.

Not necessarily a fearsome fivesome, but potentially impactful.

“Another year of experience, another year for the first time, really, of playing competitive games in September,” Hyde said. “That’s different. Playing in games that matter in September is a lot different. I thought our guys really embraced that well last year and played good all the way to the end of the year.

“A lot of those guys are getting into their prime years, and they’re excited about the veteran guys that we added. Bringing Mike back, Kyle’s obviously got World Series experience last year, been a really good starter in this league for a while. Saw Adam a ton in Pittsburgh when I was in Chicago. He’s a really good player, scrappy, great makeup. McCann, excited about him and what he can bring from behind the plate, a former All-Star. And Irvin carved us up a couple years ago. To be able to add a left-handed starter we felt like was important.

“I like the makeup of the group, the guys that Mike and the front office brought in, also. It’s going to be a nice blend with our other guys.”

The pressure on Hyde might be intensifying now that The Sporting News chose him as its American League Manager of the Year and playoff odds are rising. His players will feel it. No one in the organization is shying away from the expectations.

Quite the contrary. They’re going full speed ahead, arms spread wide and “embracing it,” Hyde said.

“I think we’re ready for it. It was a tough few years, and not just from my seat, but fans, also, and everybody around that follows the team. It was hard. To have expectations, I think, we have confidence in our guys and our players have a ton of confidence, and I just want them to take it head on, honestly.

“It’s good to have people think you’re good and you want to embrace that we’ve got a talented group. So, I’m not worried about that, honestly. I like the makeup of our team and I think they’re going to go out and play their butts off.”

Will it be enough to make the playoffs for the first time since 2016’s wild card loss in Toronto?

The Orioles have six fewer games against each team in the American League East, but the road is fraught with danger.  

Asked if the division has improved over the winter, Hyde drew laughter with his well-timed pause and deadpan response.

“I think our division is pretty good,” he said. “What are you asking me? It’s good. It’s going to be good next year, too.”

The master prognosticator.

“Listen, we play in a tough division,” he continued. “Those teams aren’t going anywhere. It was nice that we took big steps last year, big strides, and to be able to compete with them the way that we did. But like I said, we’re not sneaking up on them this year. They know that we’re a talented group and we’re looking forward to the challenge of being in a really, really tough division.”

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