Elias with Q&A on player development and the farm

If he wants to develop that “elite talent pipeline” to build the Orioles from a 115-loss club into one that can one day win a championship, player development and the minor leagues will be critical for Orioles executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias.

Elias provided this quote on that topic during the Winter Meetings: “This is an area, scouting and player development, where I have been my whole career. Where Sig (Mejdal) has spent most of his career. And we’ve had a lot of success in that area across two organizations. And really, the reason we were brought here was first and foremost these areas. It’s going to be a major focus of this organization for the next few years and beyond.”

In an interview yesterday, Elias took time to answer several questions about the farm and player development for the Orioles. He said, “It’s the most important work that we are doing right now.” So, yeah, no soft-selling this or avoiding the challenge he faces. It’s vital to future success.

So today and carrying into tomorrow, I’ll provide a Q&A with Elias talking about the Orioles farm, the minors and player development. He was part of two success stories in producing young talent in St. Louis and Houston, and now he’s running the show and trying to replicate that in Baltimore.

A very broad question, but what is your approach to strong player development? What are some things important that you will look to do with the Orioles?

Elias-Talking-Presser-Sidebar.jpgElias: “There is a lot that goes into an excellent player development pipeline, and that’s exactly what we are going to be building here. I like to think of it in terms of, this is professional baseball and players sign a pro contract with the end goal of making the majors. It’s our job to help them get there.

“In the same sense that, if a young man was going out to become a doctor or lawyer, he might want to go to the best medical school or best law school, we want that to be the case in the culture of our player development system. So, we’re dealing with the best possible curriculum. The best possible information, the best facilities, the best technology and most importantly, the best teachers, the best coaches. So, we want to have top-notch people, top-notch equipment at our disposal. And we also want to have alignment, up and down the levels.

“So, what that means, a player development system is vast. Starts with the Dominican Republic and there are seven stops on the way up to the majors. There are people coming and going and players shuttling up and down between levels. So it’s very important to have the lines of communication and the curriculum extending very smoothly up the pipeline. We want to do all that. I think we have a lot of good things in place and we just want to keep improving and building. It will take some time to get it exactly how we want it, but our sights are set on that.”

With the success you have been involved with in St. Louis and Houston, is it a matter of bringing that to Baltimore or do you have to tweak it for what works specifically for this situation?

Elias: “We’re going to bring a lot of ideas, approaches and philosophies that we know worked there. The challenge is, we’re not the only team trying to do these things. And there is a lot of innovation around the league. This is a big transitional time for the sport of baseball, just because of the advent of all these technologies, both on the hitting and pitching side. It is really changing what it means to be involved in player development.

“Then there’s really a competitive race going around the league to get smarter, to get more efficient in this space. To hire the best coaches. So, just merely reaching into the past and thinking about things that worked before, it will be helpful, but it’s not everything. And we’ll have to look for ways to move forward.”

I don’t know if you have visited the affiliate ballparks yet, but how are the Orioles there in terms of infrastructure and any technology you may want to put in place?

Elias: “I haven’t visited them as a general manager, as an Oriole. But my scouting background in the mid-Atlantic when I was with the Cardinals, I was very often at an Orioles affiliate doing pro coverage in the summer.

“Been to Delmarva, been to Bowie, been to Frederick. So I’m excited about the location of our affiliates and the relationships that we have with the affiliates. We think it’s perfect, so we don’t want to see anything change there. The facilities are really good. We will probably be looking to add in terms of camera and video storage. But those aren’t major changes to the layout of the parks or anything like that. Just adding some video capabilities.

“We’ll take a look at things like weight rooms and exercise rooms as we go. That is just something that every team has to constantly keep up with and refurbish. But we’re really excited about the layout of our affiliates, the affiliates themselves, the ballparks. I think it’s one of the big advantages that the Orioles franchise has, is the minor league affiliates.”

If you can remember the early days of the Houston rebuild with the major league team losing 100 games, how does their farm system then compare to the Orioles farm right now?

Elias: “It’s an interesting question. If you look at the public rankings and some of the top 100 rankings, I think the Orioles in 2018-2019 have better rankings and better ranked prospects in our system than did the Astros in the 2011-2012 winter.

“That said, you look back at some of the players in that farm system, even though they were not ranked high - Jose Altuve was there, Dallas Keuchel, George Springer. So, there was a lot of great talent in the Astros system that maybe was yet to fully reveal itself.

“I’m very hopeful and from everything I’ve heard about a lot of these players, I think there are some long-term cornerstone pieces within our system. And also on the major league roster right now. But we’re just going to have to see who they end up being.”

The Astros in recent years used a tandem starting pitching system at some affiliates. Will some of that be coming to the Orioles? (Note: a tandem system is when one pitcher may throw the first four or five innings, for instance, and then another goes the next four. It produces fewer innings for an individual over the season, but exposes more pitchers to quality work while getting stretched out.)

Elias: “I don’t know the answer to that right now. We’ll certainly be open to it. One of the reasons we did that in Houston is we had compiled so many interesting arms that we wanted to provide innings and opportunity beyond the normal five-man rotation. We wanted to explore almost eight players per team as starting pitchers, as long-term pitching options.

“Things have changed a little bit since then, in terms of our efficiency in evaluating pitchers and developing pitchers. I’m not 100 percent certain that need will arise here. If it does, we’re not going to hesitate to implement some kind of tandem or modified piggy-back system. It might be that it makes sense for one roster one year and not for another roster another year. That is the type of thing that we’ll take on a case-by-case basis. I’ll rely a lot on people like Kent (Qualls) and Chris Holt, our pitching coordinator, to make those decisions.”

So, in Houston, it wasn’t so much about using tandem starters at certain levels - like low-A or high-A, Double-A - as it was about roster makeup and the number of guys you wanted to get innings?

Elias: “Well, yeah. In the levels and the years when we had the piggyback, there were a number of pitchers, more than five, that we wanted to explore and develop as starters. We felt the best way to do that on a scheduled basis was to implement a tandem system. Now as they got further up the chain and you got closer to the major leagues, it becomes more important to stretch guys out deeper into games, so they start accruing experience pitching in the sixth, seventh, eighth inning.

“So, at the Triple-A level, we would do it in the early part of the season and phase it out as the season went on. Again, this is all dictated by the personnel on hand. So, it’s not something we will force, just to say we have a tandem system. We’ll see how things develop in terms of how many starting pitching prospects we have at each level.”

Coming tomorrow: More with Elias, with his quotes on the potential hire of a director of player development, plus more pitching talk. He provides his take on the great strikeout rates Houston had on the farm in 2018, and the importance of that for the Orioles.

Will the O’s pursue Yolbert Sanchez?: Shortstop Yolbert Sanchez, who turns 22 in March, has left Cuba and was cleared this week by Major League Baseball to sign with a team. He can be signed as of Feb. 5. Sanchez is subject to the international amateur signing rules, and the Orioles remain the team with the most remaining bonus pool allotment. A FanGraphs.com report projected Sanchez could sign for $2-4 million.

Sanchez is known for elite defense and a line drive bat. He was the shortstop on Cuba’s national team before he defected last summer. He will hold a showcase in the Dominican in the next few weeks.

At the end of our interview yesterday, I asked Elias if the Orioles will pursue Sanchez?

“We’re keeping an eye on everything that develops internationally,” he said. “I’m not going to comment on specific players. But certainly we are aware of any new entrants to the market. We have a significant amount of unspent bonus pool cap space, but that doesn’t mean we are going to use it. Because we want to spend these dollars responsibly, because these are dollars we can invest in other aspects in our department.

“But we’re keeping an eye on everything that happens, and I feel really good about our ability to monitor the international market now that we have Koby Perez (hired Jan. 2 as senior director, international scouting) here. We certainly have our eye on everything. We’ll be in attendance and have been at every major international event and workout. Certainly any high-profile players that enter the international market, we have been in attendance (at workouts).”

Finally, a mention of top 100s: Two organizations put out top 100 prospects lists on Wednesday. For the second year in a row, the Orioles had three players ranked by Baseball America. Yusniel Díaz was No. 37, DL Hall No. 54 and Ryan Mountcastle No. 90. The Orioles tied for 11th with three ranked players. But that was well behind San Diego and Tampa Bay, which tied a record by getting nine players each on the Baseball America top 100. The Baseball Prospectus top 101 was also released, and Díaz is No. 44 on its list, Mountcastle No. 51 and Hall No. 92.

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