The Orioles decorated Eutaw Street this morning to create a holiday theme at Camden Yards. A winter wonderland with temperatures above freezing.
The rain that fell varied from drizzle to downpour, with umbrellas opening and closing over a three-hour period at the first Winter Warm-Up.
A live band sang and performed carols on the flag court in right field before the covered stage was cleared for a question-and-answer session with Orioles executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias, assistant Sig Mejdal and manager Brandon Hyde.
Fans gained access to them for about 45 minutes, the tone never turning combative. Venting about the rebuild and the trading of popular players must be reserved for social media.
Topics included favorite Christmas movies, the use of analytics, prepping for the First-Year Player Draft, the proposal to eliminate 42 minor league affiliates, the possibility of a new position for Ryan Mountcastle, moving back the fences to help the pitchers (“I don’t know if our hitters would like that too much,” Elias said), the likelihood of a reunion with catcher Caleb Joseph and multiple references to the Ravens and quarterback Lamar Jackson.
A young boy who could barely hold the microphone asked about the new three-batter minimum rule for relievers. An impressive showing by the lad.
“I’m not a big fan of it right now and the way it’s written, but we’re going to kind of wait and see,” Hyde said, adding that he’s a little fuzzy on the particulars.
“It’s definitely going to change the game and how bullpens are being used. And it’s going to change the quality of your bullpen being able to get left-handed and right-handed hitters out. So it’s going to be different.”
Getting the most important subject out of the way, Hyde chose “Christmas Vacation” and “A Christmas Story” as his favorites. Elias countered with “Home Alone” and Mejdal earned crowd approval with “Die Hard.”
(Does “Die Hard” quality as a Christmas movie? Discuss.)
The trio thanked fans for showing up on a rainy day. Speaking of diehards.
“You guys are our core group of fans,” Elias said. “We build off your support and to come out here and brave this weather says so much to us. We know you guys understand what we’re doing right now as an organization and where we’re headed and we really appreciate you coming out.”
Elias, Mejdal and Hyde returned this week from the Winter Meetings in San Diego, where the Orioles claimed pitcher Marcos Diplán off waivers and selected pitchers Brandon Bailey and Michael Rucker in the major league phase of the Rule 5 draft.
“Meanwhile, the rest of our baseball operations staff and a lot of the new hires we brought in over the last year, they were running around the hotel interviewing job candidates, doing all kinds of good stuff for the organization,” Elias said.
“Even though we didn’t make any moves other than the Rule 5 draft, we got a lot done and it was very productive trip. And it was fun having our whole new front office and coaching staff together under one roof for the first time.”
The first fan question pertained to the idea of moving Mountcastle to second base, which would be his fifth position. And sixth if the Orioles take a look at him in right field, which Elias suggested could happen.
“He’s a big guy and that necessitated moving to the corners of the diamond,” Elias said today. “He can play different spots. We’re trying to figure out what’s going to be the best one for him. But the important thing is we still want him to be able to move around.
“Actually, second base is something that we’ve talked about. I don’t think any of us have had a personal look at it, but it’s something that we might try to mix in here and there. I don’t think any of us project him as an everyday second baseman defensively, but it might be something that he’s capable of doing.”
Elias also talked about the free agent market, the search for some veterans to plug holes and the need to avoid blocking spots where younger players could get an opportunity. He singled out left-hander John Means and outfielder Anthony Santander as examples of players who flourished in auditions.
“They get this wonderful opportunity to play for a full year, but still have some stability on the club with some veteran guys,” Elias said. “As we get better I think we’ll layer in more and more veterans, once we have a clearer idea of what our core team looks like.”
The Orioles are trying to sign a fourth catcher to a minor league contract and Elias confirmed interest in Joseph, who was non-tendered by the Diamondbacks.
“He’s on the radar screen for us,” Elias said. “We’re looking at some catching depth options and we’ll see where it lands. But we’d love to have him back, for sure. He was great throughout his time here and a very welcomed member of the organization.”
A fan described the Nationals winning the World Series as a “slap in the face” and wondered how the Orioles can keep people from heading down to D.C. rather than sticking through the rebuild in Baltimore. What’s the message to them?
“I’m from this region and I have a lot of feel for the Baltimore-D.C. area and I know that fans from both sides of the market will be supportive of the Orioles when we turn back to where we were a few years ago - a playoff, exciting caliber team,” Elias said.
“I think the fact that the Nationals won the World Series, it’s good for baseball in the region and more specifically, I look at it from the perspective of, I remember where they were and they built that organization the way we’re building the Orioles right now. Scouting, very strong international focus, they were patient, they did a good job with some high draft picks, which we’re in the midst of right now. And it shows that that exact model can lead to where the Nats are.
“We look forward to getting back on equal footing with them one day. Right now we’re not there quite yet, but I know we will. And I think the success that the Ravens are having right now shows that we can draw support from that side of the market, too. So I’m looking forward to it. We’re working on it and it’s going to be a lot of fun when we get back there.”
Said Hyde: “We fully get it that it’s hard to watch at times, it’s frustrating. It’s frustrating in the chairs we’re sitting in right now, also. But we understand the process it’s going to take, how long it’s going to take and we just want everyone to buy into what’s going on. I think there’s a lot of positive things going forward with the high draft picks. Some of the guys we showcased late in the year, they’re going to be fun to watch this next year, so we hope everyone wraps their arms around them and continues to follow us going forward.”
The front office already is evaluating talent in the June draft. The Orioles hold the second overall pick.
“We start our very focused process for the draft as soon as the last draft ends,” Elias said.
“Right now it looks to us like a very college-heavy group. There are a couple college pitchers and then three or four college position players that we have our eye on right now. We’ll monitor the high school class if somebody makes a jump, but it’s looking like a college-heavy group at the top of the draft.”
The interest in analytics kept leading fans back to Mejdal, who earlier in the day stressed that the Orioles are reliant on their scouts as well as the people in his department. He tried to erase the image of teams relying either on “grizzled” scouts or “nerds” in the corner of the room.
“The analytics get a lot of attention and that’s undoubtedly a change that’s taking place in baseball,” he said. “But what also has happened recently is the skills in the coaches and that’s perhaps a little less sexy. That doesn’t get much attention. But the coaches we have are ready to take advantage of whatever analytics, whatever technology, whatever best practices from other fields they can borrow and develop our players at hopefully a better rate than anybody in our division.”
It took about 32 minutes for someone to reference first baseman Chris Davis. I took the under.
“His situation and his decline the last couple of years has been a source of frustration for everybody,” Elias said. “It’s tough. It’s tough for all of us. It’s tough for the coaching staff, it’s really tough on Chris.
“He’s a terrific member of the community, a big part of the history of the team. He’s one of the better players that the Orioles have ever had. But we’re in a situation where he’s under contract for a while and I look at that. I don’t take it lightly. We’re working with him to make adjustments and fix it, but it’s not easy.”
Will the Orioles do anything next season to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the 1970 championship? As Elias was beginning to speculate, he glanced to his left, where a group of team employees had gathered, and said, “I see heads nodding in the back, so there’s something planned.”
“We’re going to get a good look at them,” he said. “They’re coming, but they still need to spend more time in Triple-A and keep developing. So for that reason we’re probably going to focus on some external options in terms of middle infield.”
The Orioles announced attendance for the Winter Warm-Up at approximately 1,000. They’re in the process of developing other ideas to connect fans to the team after choosing to no longer hold the annual FanFest event at the Baltimore Convention Center.
“In terms of the rebuild,” Elias said, “a huge part of our success is going to be you guys hanging in there, understanding the process and helping us spread this message around the city, as well.”