LAS VEGAS — When agent Scott Boras walks into the suite of one of baseball’s 30 teams at the annual winter meetings, it is typically a license to think big. Boras’s roster of clients includes many of the biggest names in the game — including one of this year’s prized free agents, 26-year-old outfielder Bryce Harper. Big stars. Big money. Big deals. Big dreams.
But when Boras visited with the Baltimore Orioles and their new general manager, Mike Elias, Tuesday evening at the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino, Boras kept his binders full of data-rich sales pitches in his leather briefcase. Nobody was mistaking this for a sales call. Nobody was thinking big. When it comes to the matter of Chris Davis, the Orioles’ first baseman and a Boras client, even thinking small could be considered a stretch. Anything on the positive side of zero would be progress.
Few things, not even the franchise-worst 115 losses the Orioles absorbed in 2018 — which cost manager Buck Showalter and general manager Dan Duquette their jobs — illustrate the enormity of Elias’s challenge in rebuilding the organization as keenly as the case of Davis.
He is a microcosm of the disaster the franchise became in 2018 — a 32-year-old veteran now three years into a seven-year, $161 million contract whose 2018 season, by any measure, ranked as the one of the worst in the history of Major League Baseball. The numbers still border on surreal: a .168 batting average (the lowest of any full-time player in over a century), a .539 OPS, 16 homers, 192 strikeouts. The $21 million he will make next season is more than 40 percent of the $51 million the Orioles, as currently constituted, have on the books for 2019.
Getting Davis turned around is not a luxury for the Orioles. It is the only way for them to find a way forward in the next four years. Boras didn’t visit the Orioles’ suite to talk big-name free agents. He came to talk desperate measures for Davis.
“We know he can do it,” Boras said Wednesday of Davis’s quest for radical improvement. “He’s done it many years, many times, and obviously we’re making great efforts to get him back to being normal.”
Elias, a 35-year-old Alexandria, Va., native who spent the previous seven seasons with the Houston Astros, acknowledged the obvious: The Orioles are stuck with Davis and thus have little option but to find a way to get him fixed.
“I just want to see his production get better,” Elias said. “He’s a big part of this roster. He’s a big part of this lineup. This team is much worse when he’s not a dangerous force in the middle of the lineup … I know he was personally just extremely frustrated with the year he had. And it wore on him. Turning the page to 2019 — a new front office, new manager, probably some new coaches — will be good for him.”
The Orioles will leave Las Vegas believing they made progress, even if it isn’t of the sort any other team in the majors was seeking here. They were widely expected to make one if not two picks in Thursday’s Rule 5 Draft — a bargain-bin bazaar in which teams can pluck players not deemed good enough by other teams to protect on their 40-man rosters.
And after one of the longest managerial searches in recent MLB memory, they settled upon Chicago Cubs bench coach Brandon Hyde as their skipper — although their failures to immediately inform the winning and losing candidates led to an awkward scene whereby Elias was forced to deny to reporters that the decision had been made, even as a television directly in front of him was tuned to MLB Network’s breaking news report of the hiring.
The Orioles aren’t likely to make any significant roster acquisitions until deeper into the offseason, when bargains emerge. (“I hate to use the word ‘opportunistic,’ ” Elias said. “But that’s what we’ll be.”) For now, Elias is still focused on making hires. The front office and Hyde will soon collaborate on assembling a coaching staff, and Elias — a product of the Astros’ aggressively data-driven front office — is also building an analytics department more or less from the ground up, because the Orioles had only the barest semblance of one in the past.
In that effort, he is being aided by new assistant GM Sig Mejdal, a former NASA engineer who rose to prominence as the brains behind the Astros’ analytics department and came over to the Orioles with Elias in November.
“The most difficult part is that this is an area of high demand, not just in baseball, but in every business across the United States,” Elias said. “So it’s competitive going for these skill sets right now. That’s why I was so aggressive about getting Sig here, because he’s so experienced in this area … [In Houston], we made some mistakes along the way in building out our analytics infrastructure and our tools, and [in Baltimore] we’re able to draw on that experience and shortcut past some of the dead ends we experienced. So I think we’ll be able to achieve a competitive state much quicker because of that experience.”
In Houston, the analytics-based approach to pitching the Astros used throughout their farm system led to a remarkable convergence, in which all five of their top minor-league affiliates led their respective leagues in strikeouts. It is an approach Elias vows to attempt to replicate in Baltimore.
“We’re very much hoping to replicate even a semblance of that success here,” he said. “There is a little bit of a secret sauce behind that, and I’m not going to fully explain it here. But we had a great program there. We took a lot of time developing it, and we really want to get that in place here.”
Elias believes that once the Orioles get an analytics infrastructure in place — including the high-speed cameras and radar tracking equipment many teams use to hone in on individual players’ movements — the data it produces can even be used to make improvements to Davis’s swing and approach.
“How you analyze that information is proprietary, and then how you get that information to your players and package it in such a way that your players use it is proprietary,” Elias said. “There’s a lot of competition going on amongst teams of who can do a better job. So certainly, if we can do a better job with that, I think it can be of help. I think it’ll take a little out to get those capabilities fully up to the level that we need them to be. But I’m hopeful that that will be helpful to [Davis] … But I don’t think that’s going to be 100 percent of the equation for him.”
The Orioles aren’t expecting Elias to take them from 115 losses in 2018 to the playoffs in 2019, and they aren’t expecting Davis to go from hitting .168 to winning an MVP. But for an organization that seemed to have been standing still in recent years even as the rest of the industry took a giant leap — as well as for a once-great player stuck firmly in reverse — even a couple of small steps would be welcomed.