WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- When new Baltimore general manager Mike Elias walked into the Coral room at the West Palm Beach Hilton, directly ahead was a placard with his name. The sign to the right read, “Jeff Luhnow”, identifying a home for Elias’ former boss in Houston. Elias being stationed next to Luhnow for the duration of Grapefruit League Media Day delivered a predictable outcome. The duo felt somewhat awkward while consistently being interviewed about, and within earshot of, the other.
“Answering questions about you again,” Luhnow said with a smile and pivot late in his session.
Elias smiled back, glanced down at the reporter’s credential -- always a tell from someone who is interested in details -- then resumed the chat at his podium.
Early last November, Elias was still an assistant general manager with the Houston Astros, working under Luhnow after a career ascension from on-the-ground scout to front office influencer. In February, he stood next to Luhnow as the man charged with resuscitating one of the league’s legacy franchises. Baltimore is a wreck. It lost 115 games last season. This season will bring another pummeling by AL East heavies Boston and New York. The Onion even decided the Orioles’ doldrums made an easy mark in early March: “Orioles creeped out by fan who followed them to spring training” a tweet read.
The widespread presence of necessary fixes in Baltimore presents Elias with opportunity for expansive and lasting decisions. He needs to clean up the minor-league system. The analytics department is under-developed. The Orioles’ international presence needs to be re-established. They also have to eventually win major-league games. Elias is trying to mastermind an organizational rise in all facets. Such a to-do list presents a key question: How does he make decisions?
“I would say pragmatic,” Luhnow told NBC Sports Washington. “He has an ability to see through a lot of detail and get to the bottom line pretty quickly and that’s key in this job.”
Ask Elias the same, broad question -- how do you make decisions? -- and he’ll inhale and think. Such an open-ended query receives an equivalently broad response. The answer is representative of how much is to be done.
“Boy, that’s a sensitive question,” Elias told NBC Sports Washington. “I think it depends on the nature of the problem. If it’s something I have developed a great deal of expertise on the subject matter, I will bring that expertise to my approach to solving the problem. But very often, especially in a position as big as this, you run into areas where you are tasked with making decisions and really don’t have much substantive experience on the ground-floor level and substantive matter of the subject.
“And I have a lot of respect for the feel you develop when you are on the factory floor, so to speak. So, very much want to consult with people and defer to people who have that experience and sometimes that entails just going out and hiring somebody to oversee an area that maybe needs oversight, but don’t want to rush into those types of commitments before studying the problem.”
He also entertains another facet of the process: His approach may contain a flaw. Such reasonable thinking became part of the attraction as Elias moved up first in St. Louis, then in Houston.
“We were collaborating a lot and he was always very succinct and clear in his point of view and also where he might be wrong,” Luhnow said. “We all understand that maybe we like our decision but there’s still some risk to it and he was able to articulate that almost every time in a way very few people can. His ability to make decisions is probably one of the things that most attracted -- I would imagine -- John Angelos to him.”
Elias grew up using the thinking part of the game as a left-handed pitcher. His arm and brain brought him to Yale in 2002 after he graduated from Alexandria’s Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology. He pitched for four years, then promptly became a scout for the St. Louis Cardinals. Luhnow was St. Louis’ vice president of scouting and player development at the time. When the Astros made Luhnow general manager in December of 2011 following a 106-loss season, he brought Elias to Texas with him.
Elias is aware of the situational parallels between Houston and Baltimore: Team in distress moves to overhaul mode with No. 1 overall pick and years of reconstruction looming. When so much needs to be done, just finding a starting point can be a challenge.
“It’s a ground-up focus in terms of we’re looking at talent overall rather than talent for a specific role that may need to be filled,” Elias said. “We just want to bring in the best young talent we can and as much of it as possible, and we will continue to do that until we get this organization where we feel it needs to be.”
That was the process in Houston. It selected Carlos Correa No. 1 overall in 2012. The Astros made Mark Appel the top pick a year later. Brady Aiken followed in the same spot in 2014. Alex Bregman was snagged at No. 2 overall in 2015. Kyle Tucker, just sent down from spring training, was the No. 5 overall pick that year. A dramatic rise followed as the picks that hit melded with already existing big-league talent. Appel was a bust, Aiken never signed. But Correa and Bregman became All-Stars. Players from deeper rounds made it to the majors. Houston zipped to 70 wins, then 86, 84 and 101, winning the World Series in 2017.
The Orioles have the 2019 No. 1 pick. It’s Elias’ first opportunity to grab a pillar and set a path.
“I have an uncommon level of high draft pick experience from my time in Houston,” Elias said. “It didn’t go perfectly, but it went extremely well. We have two MVP-caliber players from those picks. We have another young rookie who’s going to be an MVP-caliber player and then another pick that didn’t go so great. The good news for me and for the Orioles is the Orioles will be the beneficiary of all that experience, good and bad, so I know exactly what to do this spring and we’re going to do really well with the pick and the choices made.”
Elias is also grappling with fan psyche. Camden Yards’ panache has evaporated. Baltimore was 27th in total attendance last season and 28th in percentage of seats filled. This is a franchise surrounded by brick structures yet sitting on an unstable foundation despite being in the ALCS five years ago and back in the playoffs as a wild-card team in 2016.
Which led Elias to Reddit, of all places. He conducted an “Ask Me Anything” session last November. Atop the thread is a photo of Elias in front of a laptop, orange tie straight and true, a well-stocked accessory hoarded from his Astros days. His uncluttered desk gleams.
The top participant post says, “Welcome to the family!”
He’s asked about pitching, pies and analytics. He avoids mentioning his contract length. One poster pops five questions in a shot, which earns him a good-natured zing from Elias. That spawns a silent clap in the chat via a reader response: “This guy has a little Duquette sass. I like it.” A variety of questions center on the same general premise: How will this be fixed? Many commend him for simply being present in such a forum.
“I’m wanting to and looking forward to interacting with fans as much as possible,” Elias said. “We are nothing without our fans and interest from our fans and it’s a very genuine desire on my part to communicate with them and hear from them.
“There’s a lot of limitations in terms of time when you’re in the general manager’s position. You find out very quickly the demands on your time are so extreme that you’re not able to do anywhere near what you’d like to in any area, so you have to make very strict decisions about how to spend your time. But it’s important to me they understand the moves we’re making, why we’re making them and that I’m able to hear directly from them to get a sense of what’s on their mind. It’s very touching to me how much our best fans care about the franchise and what it means to them. So to hear from them is great.”
It’s all small steps. The AMA, holding a domestic scouting meeting before flying to the Dominican Republic in January to catch up with Koby Perez, the team’s new director of international scouting. Growing the PR department’s digital team, turning loose Sig Mejdal and Di Zou to lift the analytics arm. Cautiously letting the free agent market pass while gathering information on the prospective top pick. The winter was an initial wade into patience.
“Patience to me means not departing from rational decision-making because you’re responding to either your emotions or pressure from outside that is not channeled toward the best interest of what the decisions that will improve the status of the Orioles organization would be,” Elias said. “So, if we lose sight of what is the right thing to do, or if I lose sight of what is the right thing to do, and I’m making a decision that is not directed toward that and what is the right thing to do for the organization in terms of furthering our long-term strategy, then I’m not going about this process the right away.”
That journey will be filled with epic and behind-the-scenes choices. Not every decision will resound like the selection of a No. 1 overall pick. A breakthrough among analytics algorithms won’t merit a press release. Improved international contacts won’t be noticed during a 90-loss season. But each step is just that for an organization with miles to run. And it’s up to Elias to pick the direction.
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