Members of the Orioles organization who have been fired or won’t have their contracts renewed beyond Oct. 31 bring the highly publicized total to 25 in fewer than three weeks. However, it’s important to give a nod to Len Johnston, who’s retiring after 43 years with the club.
His departure at age 90 shouldn’t go ignored.
Johnston served as administrator of Sarasota operations, making the move from Fort Lauderdale. He’s been sort of a behind-the-scenes guy unless you hang around the spring training complex, with many fans knowing little or nothing about him. But he should be celebrated for his contributions and his longevity.
Forty-three years with one team is unusual, to say the least.
Johnston, who was inducted into the Orioles Hall of Fame in 2010, has been a minor league manager, a scout and a regional scouting supervisor. Many hats have fit on his head. Many friends have been made over the years.
I’ve heard from people close to Johnston that he’s in poor health. He certainly has earned a rest. And a comfortable retirement.
I also reported yesterday that Milt May and Dan Radison are retiring. Two more subtractions as the Orioles trudge through the final month of the season.
May, 69, served as hitting coach with the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League Orioles for the past 10 seasons. He spent 10 seasons in the same role with the Pirates and two with the Marlins. He’s also been a scout and minor league hitting coordinator.
I’m old enough to remember him as a Pirates catcher on the 1971 World Series team that beat the Orioles in seven games.
The Orioles convinced Radison this spring to replace Single-A Delmarva hitting coach Matt Trate, who accepted the job over the winter and changed his mind. Tom Eller handled the duties before moving down to short-season Single-A Aberdeen, with the 69-year-old Radison joining the Shorebirds in June.
He’s slipping back into retirement mode. One and done with the Orioles.
I wrote that former Orioles director of baseball operations Tripp Norton and scout Dean Albany have been contacted by multiple teams after the Orioles let them go, according to sources. I also should include veteran scout Jim Howard, who’s had a few teams reach out to him, according to a scout from outside the organization.
Executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias was asked whether the removal of 25 employees, on top of previous changes in player development and scouting, is a reaction to the successes of such teams as the Astros and Dodgers.
“It’s not something that I think we’re taking likely, but the reality is there has been a significant amount of new info and new technology that has exploded across baseball in the last five or six years,” Elias said.
“There are books being written about it right now and we’re all doing our best to react to it, to position ourselves to it. This is something that happens more frequently in other industries and in business in general. Baseball has been kind of insulated from changes in this degree for a while. This is a period where there are just a lot of changes going on and a lot of different areas of investment for teams than there were five or 10 years ago.
“When we were in Houston, we were among the teams probably out ahead of the curve in terms of recognizing the trends and positioning ourselves for them. Los Angeles, who’s here tonight, probably right up there in that regard and sure, they’re two of the best organizations in baseball right now. Everyone’s looking to them as model franchises and trying to follow suit. It’s just the way the business works.
“You read up on the history of the sport. This has happened before in different ways. Branch Rickey and the Cardinals, the Orioles in the ’70s and ’60s. And this is where we’re at right now.”
Elias didn’t put an exact figure on the number of changes he’d make in personnel after the Orioles hired him in November, but he knew they could be substantial.
A light touch wasn’t going to be applied to a team that lost 115 games in 2018 and revamped its front office.
“You certainly come in and to whatever degree that is reasonable, that is practicable, you try to observe and evaluate with as much care as you can,” Elias said.
“I knew the amount of change that the industry was going through, I knew the amount of change that we had just gone through in Houston. I knew what the shape and structure of the Orioles looked like. I knew the fact that the Orioles were coming off a really bad record and at the time were perceived to have a middling farm system, and yeah, this is not something coming out of left field for me.
“But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t good people are, really good people. It doesn’t mean that the people that we’ve just recently parted ways with are not good baseball people that will find good homes. But it does mean that change was something that was coming and is the right thing for this franchise right now and specific to our situation, change is for the better.”
The implementation of new methods and data for pitchers began to take hold back in spring training. And after the club hired Chris Holt as minor league pitching coordinator.
Elias keeps pointing out how the cupboard wasn’t bare when he arrived.
“I do think there are good players and prospects in the system and these were good draft picks that were made, especially recently,” he said. “They were high picks and the scouts did a great job of choosing these players. But I think that very quickly in improving some of our developmental techniques, especially on the pitching side, we’ve been able to unlock a little bit of that potential, so that has helped. But I feel great about the level of talent that we have right now.
“I think if you look at third-party rankings, which aren’t everything, and if you look at some more objective measures, this is a consensus above-average farm system right now and I feel even better about where we’re going to be taking it beyond it. So absolutely, I think that the farm system, its progress, has been a big success for us this year. Our work is far from done, but it’s one of the very positive developments that has occurred in 2019.”