Mike Elias and Brandon Hyde stood upright, individually fielding questions while pinned into the corner of a room in the B&O Warehouse. Birdland Caravan signage was the only thing keeping them off the brick wall. Microphones inched closer with each flying query, reporters and fans eager to hear how the Orioles would wade into new waters.
While the past two seasons shouldered no shortage of bulletin board material, the 2024 Orioles, reigning American League East champions coming off a historic 101-win season, are experiencing something new in the accompanying pressure.
Even when Baltimore emerged from a grueling, yearslong rebuild to win 83 games in 2022, external predictors still predicted the team was destined for regression. That’s because All-Star catcher Adley Rutschman hadn’t played a full major league season, AL Rookie of the Year Gunnar Henderson had a mere 34 games of big league experience and rising star Grayson Rodriguez hadn’t thrown a pitch for the Orioles.
In last year’s regular-season leap forward, each of the three played leading roles as the Orioles scaled MLB’s most fearsome division. “We all scare one another,” Elias, the executive vice president and general manager, said of discourse with division rivals. “It is just a dogfight.”
Two years ago, that line would have been a drastic self-promotion. This year, with the Orioles slated as the fourth-best club in MLB.com’s preseason power rankings, it’s the new norm.
Hyde sheltered the specificity of his new approach headed into spring training. But much of it leans on last season’s bitter end: swept in three games (a first all year) by the eventual World Series champion Texas Rangers in the AL Division Series.
“This is a totally new season,” said Hyde, entering his sixth season as Orioles manager. “We’re putting it behind us. You want to feel good about what happened last year in a lot of ways. The growth that we made in so many different ways, getting a taste of the postseason for the first time for all of our young players, it’s going to be valuable experience. But last year was last year, and we’re moving on to this year.”
Rodriguez is already itching to kickstart spring training. His bags are packed three weeks in advance. Similarly, first baseman Ryan Mountcastle knows fans are expecting even more this summer and more specifically this fall, “which we like.”
Added Elias: “I feel a lot of pressure all the time. Not just this winter, but during the season, throughout the season and in everything that we do. It’s a good thing. It keeps us going. … If you make bad moves, you end up in a bad spot pretty quickly in this business. So we’re trying to make good ones.”
One of those decisions will be their aggressiveness in seeking a front-of-rotation starting pitcher.
Elias was firm at the winter meetings that hanging dormant all winter would “not be ideal.” Baltimore then signed nine-time All-Star closer Craig Kimbrel in December to a one-year, $12 million deal with a 2025 club option. With the preface that this offseason market has crawled at a turtle’s pace, Elias qualified that any additional move would have to be “the right deal, the right fit, the right trade, the right signing, the right investment.”
There have only been two major trades for starting pitchers to this point: Tyler Glasnow and Chris Sale, both leaving AL East teams. “The Rays and the Red Sox are not gonna pick us to trade with if they have other options,” Elias said.
As for the free agent market, Elias noted by this time last year, nearly every coveted player had already been signed. There are still plenty left on the market, keeping Elias on the phone daily. But he noted many of those who have already been scooped up landed in major market cities.
Take Shohei Ohtani and Yoshinobu Yamamoto to the Dodgers, Aaron Nola re-signing in Philadelphia, Sonny Gray to St. Louis or Josh Hader to Houston as examples. Not to mention each of those deals are for about $20 million or more per year.
The Orioles, according to Elias, still check in with coveted free agents. But they’re better equipped to chase a starting pitcher via trade, considering their treasure trove of high-upside young prospects such as Coby Mayo, Joey Ortiz, Samuel Basallo and Colton Cowser.
“We’ve been exploring that pretty heavily,” Elias said. “We have an advantage with the trade firepower we have but there just haven’t been trades. Hopefully that changes. We’ll see. Still some time left and we’re still working on it.”
Sorting out the starting pitching rotation is where the Orioles’ decision-makers face the most pressure. Kyle Bradish, Rodriguez, John Means and Dean Kremer are four of the expected five, barring any injury-related pivots.
DL Hall ended last year on a high note while pitching out of the bullpen. Elias said, depending on spring training, Hall might be stretched out –– either slowly over the next year or right away –– to work back to a starting role. Tyler Wells or Cole Irvin could also fill the fifth spot in the rotation if the Orioles remain dormant.
“We’re aggressive,” Elias said. “We’re in a win mode. We want to make the team better. We’re looking for these things. But it would be very irresponsible for me to not measure the cost of everything we’re doing. … We’re probably being as aggressive as any team out there, but there just haven’t been a lot of sell trades on the pitching side of things.”
Pressure falls on Elias to sort out any potential rotation addition. The pressure to evaluate a logjam of prospects and young players vying for playing time is on Hyde. For the players, they’re no longer thought of as the team that wins games they have no business winning. They return as one of baseball’s best, with pressure to roll that success into October.
“The experience that these guys had last season,” Orioles bench coach Fredi González said. “You can build on that. I’m looking forward to whatever Brandon says to them the first meeting he has with the entire club at spring training. We’ll see what the message is.”