The virtual Winter Meetings are making Orioles executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias yearn for the standard setup, which couldn’t exist in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Elias couldn’t meet with beat writers in his hotel suite this afternoon, instead dispersing the usual nuggets of information via a Zoom conference call.
“It’s not the same,” Elias said. “I think all of us take the Winter Meetings for granted and we groan about some of the repetition of it, but I think this is making me appreciate the event even more. This is always a fun week, wrapping up the year and leading into the holidays and we’re not getting to enjoy that and getting to have face-to-face time with other executives and agents like we normally do. I think we all miss that and I hope this is the last time that this is the case.
“We’ve tried to simulate a little bit of the meetings as a department, but certainly that hasn’t been the same. I do think the level of activity and discussions seems to be picking up this week, whether that’s because this is the traditional Winter Meetings week or whether it’s just because we’re at the point in the offseason where the tender deadline has passed and people are ready to make their moves. I don’t know. But I do sense a little greater level of conversation from the team-to-team front in the past two days.”
Elias is seeking a replacement for shortstop José Iglesias and wants to toss more competition into the rotation.
“Our priority remains building a great organization for the future and bringing in as much talent as possible, improving the baseball operations department, laying a foundation for a self-sustaining competitive franchise in the American League East,” Elias said.
“While doing that, we’re obviously looking to add talent smartly at the major league level while not compromising our broad strategic goal, and so we are going to be on the lookout. ... We’ve got a hole to fill after the Iglesias trade. We have internal competition for that, but I do think we’re going to need some external entrants to that competition at a minimum. And I think any season, any team, top to bottom, would be looking for starting pitching depth. Whether that’s on a major or minor league deal, we’ll see, but we’re certainly in the market for that. Even though I feel that we have a pretty strong group entering the year in terms of rotation.
“You’ve got (Alex) Cobb and (John) Means as very established major league starters. We had two very successful debuts from the minor leagues in (Keegan) Akin and (Dean) Kremer. And we have a few more guys who were just added to the 40-man roster who could also compete, as with Bruce Zimmermann and others. But we’ll be adding from the outside to that group.
“I think we have opportunities to sell in that ours can be a relatively easy team to crack, so we’ll see. But that’s definitely on the agenda in terms of additions to the big league mix.”
Cobb is down to the final year of his contract, is owed $15 million and can veto trades to 10 teams. Elias expects to find interest in the veteran right-hander, but indicated that he’s more likely to wait until the summer and check the market.
“First of all, he’s serving a very important role on our team stabilizing our rotation with the young guys, mentoring the young guys, and we’re planning on keeping him all year and would be thrilled if he contributed and is healthy again like he was last year and stabilized the entire rotation that way,” Elias said.
“He is coming up on his last year of his deal with the Orioles. He’s a big-time, known name across the league. Teams are going to be interested in him. I think that we’ve been encouraged by some of the signings that have happened the last couple of days and weeks. It’s good to see. I think people hear the vaccine news and are making optimistic expectations about the fact that we’re going to get out of this situation at some point. I have no doubt if he pitches like Alex Cobb, he’s going to draw interest and we’re going to ultimately see where we’re at and see what the situation is.
“But I think anytime you’ve got a veteran pitcher pitching well, healthy and is essentially on a one-year deal, that’s going to attract a lot of interest. ... I think it would be beneficial for us to go into the season with Alex if that’s the way that it shakes out and having that frontend spot in the rotation fortified with his ability and veteran presence. I can see a lot of positives there.”
As far as the free agent market is concerned, the Orioles are unlikely to extend offers beyond one guaranteed year while attempting to plug a few more holes. Iglesias received a one-year deal last winter that included a team option. Pitcher Kohl Stewart was given a split contract in 2020.
To deviate this winter and next spring would have to make sense for both parties.
“I don’t have any reason to expect a multi-year contract this year,” Elias said. “I wouldn’t rule it out. We’ll see where we get. Especially last year, we’re still kind of in talent-gathering mode, a talent-collection mode. It’s really hard to script out your major league roster and plan it, but with the type of precision that you want with a multi-year contract. So as we get closer to that level of crafting the major league roster, I think we’ll see more of that.
“I wouldn’t rule it out. It was advantageous for us last year to sign Iglesias on that type of contract, and if it means getting the guy that we want or the salary level that we want, it’s something that we’ll definitely look at.”
Elias doesn’t have one specific type of player in mind when sifting through his shortstop options.
“I think that we’re looking at a broad spectrum of guys on the shortstop market,” he said. “There are names of many major league veterans who have been starting shortstops that probably fit the characteristic of someone that you anoint prior to camp. There are other young players either on the trade market or on the free agent market that have not established themselves yet, but would be very interesting entrants to our infield mix and would probably be the odds-on favorite to start the season at shortstop if they were to join our team.
“This is part of why we did the trade. Above all, we’re looking to raise the level of talent in the organization. Iggy is and was great, but that opportunity came along and we’re in a middle of the offseason in the winter when you can sign players and you can trade for players. It’s not like an in-season trade. So we’re going to be looking to backfill there, to stabilize our team, to give us another opportunity to hopefully make a savvy addition that will ultimately net us some long-term benefit. And in the meantime the young shortstops that we have climbing through the minor leagues will get another year closer, if not here. So that’s the way we’re going to approach things until otherwise.”
The replacement for Iglesias won’t necessarily be a pure shortstop. Elias could bring in an infielder capable of handling multiple positions.
“There are definitely a few players on the list that are known more for their versatility than for having been primary shortstops,” Elias said. “We’ve got guys on our team like that right now. I think that Yolmer Sánchez is going to be really interesting to see when he’s over at shortstop in spring training. I’m not saying we’re counting on that or penciling it in, but there are a lot of players nowadays that have that type of versatility, move around the diamond, have that type of agility, arm strength, but they’ve been better at second base or had more experience at second base or at third.
“So until we ultimately make the acquisition, we’ll be looking at a lot of different types of guys.”
The odds of the Orioles consummating another trade appear to be fairly low at this juncture, with an upswing never to be discounted.
“We’re still entertaining trades off the major league roster. Doesn’t mean anything is going to happen. In fact, I wouldn’t say that anything is particularly likely at this point but we’re certainly open to it and looking at it,” Elias said.
“I think everyone who follows baseball understands that when someone is approaching the end of their contract, like Iggy, one year left, for a rebuilding club that’s much different calculus than when we have young players that are two years into their career, three years into their career and have the opportunity to be here when we turn the corner and make it back to the playoffs. We’re going to take that with a lot of caution and it’s really going to be a high bar for us to clear if we were to entertain trading somebody like that.”
Elias confirmed that the Orioles will make a selection in Thursday morning’s Rule 5 draft - they hold the fifth pick - but he didn’t commit to the second round, saying it’s “less likely.”
“We’re rebuilding and I do believe it’s easier for a team in a rebuilding cycle to take a chance with the Rule 5 draft, and also we’ve got the fifth overall pick. Usually means there’s a better player on the board than if you’re picking in the 20s,” he said.
“We haven’t had our big official Rule 5 meeting yet. We tend to do that the night before the draft. Kind of a tradition, and usually it’s in a hotel room and we have a lot of fun, but we’re just going to have to do it over Zoom this year. But we like to get a lot of people involved. Our pro scouting department, our analysts are working on that right now. We’ll have a formal meeting tomorrow.
“If there are only four players that we feel are worth taking and they all go one, two, three, four, then we won’t take anyone, but that seems really, really unlikely to me. I imagine our list is going to be longer than that. The Rule 5 draft never goes like that.”
The virtual version of these meetings will extend beyond the usual four days, with manager availability coming next week. And the Orioles have other business beyond conversations with agents and rival executives.
Work that just can’t be done face to face. Work that isn’t as publicized as changes to the active and 40-man rosters.
“Beneath the surface, there’s a lot of value to the meetings with our guys, whether it’s Sig Mejdal’s team and him talking to analytics vendors, technology vendors, video vendors,” Elias said. “But even more importantly, we find a lot of young job seekers that are trying to get into baseball. We knock out a lot of interviews during the Winter Meetings. So just the networking aspect of it is missed and is lost.
“This is a slow year for hiring just because of the uncertainty right now and so that’s going to cast a damper over that, even on a virtual level, is my guess across the industry, but we all miss that. There’s just an energy to having the entire professional industry under one roof and all that comes with that that we’re going to miss this year.”
Other notes today include:
* Elias said the Orioles could “soon” announce a new third base coach to replace José Flores. He still prefers to make an outside hire or promote someone from the minors, as I reported earlier, rather than move a coach who’s on the current staff.
* The Orioles are expected to field two teams in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League to go along with the four full-season affiliates. One affiliate is going to be dropped, with its identity expected to be known as early as Wednesday.
* Beyond their draft picks already established for 2021, the Orioles currently hold the 66th selection based on their placement in Competitive Balance Round B. The order can change based on trades and future free agent signings.
* While discussing the growing number of outfielders on the roster, Elias noted how Yusniel Diaz also can play center rather than just be assigned to a corner spot. The group largely consists of players making the minimum salary who are optionable to the minors.
“I really feel that we’re going to be able to kind of accommodate this entire group if we roll into spring training next year with this whole group,” he said. “We’re going to be able to give them a look. Those guys who don’t make the team are going to get real playing time in Triple-A. And there are injuries, there are up and down performances, and we’ll be shuffling through this group until we get a mix that clicks. And I think this is ideal.
“We’ve got three guys who can play a really legit, above-average center field with (Austin) Hays, Cedric Mullins and Ryan McKenna, who you all didn’t get a chance to see last year, but looked great at the alternate site and has had a really good minor league career. He’s super young. I think he could make his big league debut this year.
“It’s a really talented and interesting group. A lot of former first round picks in the organization. So there’s a lot to compete there and ultimately for the organization to sift through over the next couple years and it might lead to some tough decisions for us.”