The Orioles/Elias and Astros/Luhnow Rebuilds
Trying to compare and contrast the state of MLB rebuilds
Fairly recently, on Twitter, I drew some parallels between the job that Mike Elias is doing with the Orioles and the rebuild that Ed Wade/Jeff Luhnow did with the Astros. I’ll copy and paste each of my tweets, that way it’s just not a huge wall of text here:
Now, this drew some (relatively well deserved) harsh criticism from a few folks that thought this painted too rosy of a picture for Mike Elias, and too critical of a lens for Ed Wade/Jeff Luhnow. After all, Luhnow took over at the end of 2011, so *his team* really only “tanked” for 2 years before investing (moderately) in the club in 2014 - a year in which they won 70 games and their star acquisition was Scott Feldman. (Yes, that Scott Feldman, the one that Dan Duquette traded Jake Arrieta and Pedro Strop for in 2013. Woops.)
*I would argue that the Astros tanked for *3* years, as the 2011 club traded 2 of their best players.
But, hear me out for a second.
The 2011 Astros
The 2011 Astros still lost 106 games with a decently talented club and a $70m payroll. That club had a number of very solid players on it at the start of the season:
Hunter Pence (age 28, 3.5 WAR before being traded)
Michael Bourn (age 28, 2.2 WAR before being traded)
Clint Barmes (age 32, 3.4 WAR)
Carlos Lee (age 35, 3.9 WAR)
Brett Myers (age 30, 0.4 WAR but 4.9 WAR the year prior)
Wandy Rodriguez (age 32, 2.6 WAR)
Bud Norris (age 26, 0.9 WAR)
Mark Melancon (age 26, 0.9 WAR)
Not to mention rookies JD Martinez and Jose Altuve.
They also weren’t hooked to any heinous, medium or long-term contracts.
The Astros also were fairly mediocre prior to 2011, not having a winning season since 2008 (86-75). It took the Astros 6 years of bouncing between mediocre to awful before turning the ship around. And this was a club that had a much better starting point than Elias when it came to analytics and personnel, international presence and spending, and other things.
Jeff Luhnow had a decent head start when he took the reins from Ed Wade in 2011.
But was Mike Elias gifted with a similar start?
I think not.
The Duquette Fire-sale Failure
Mike Elias took over in late 2018. Well after Dan Duquette traded Manny Machado, Jonathan Schoop, Kevin Gausman, Zack Britton, and Darren O’Day at the 2018 trade deadline for, well, see for yourselves:
Manny Machado trade
Yusniel Diaz, Dean Kremer, Rylan Bannon, Breyvic Valera, Zach Pop
Jonathan Villar, Luis Ortiz, Jean Carmona
Kevin Gausman and Darren O’Day
Jean Carlos Encarnacion, Brett Cumberland, Evan Phillips, Bruce Zimmermann
Dillon Tate, Josh Rogers, Cody Carroll
15 players were acquired at the 2018 trade deadline from those 5 players. Here’s the status of all of them relative to the Orioles:
Yusniel Diaz - mostly injured, age 25, hasn’t been called to the majors, has largely underperformed in the minors
Dean Kremer - currently on the Orioles roster, has accrued -0.3 WAR and a 6.84 ERA over 17 games
Rylan Bannon - about to turn 26, still in the minors, had an incredibly poor 2021 putting up a .649 OPS and a .168 BA
Breyvic Valera - never saw a day with the O’s, now playing in the Japanese leagues
Zach Pop - now in the Marlins organization
Jonathan Villar - did very well with the Orioles, amassing 5.9 WAR in 1.5 years before being traded
Luis Ortiz - no longer in the Orioles organization, still in the minors, pitched very poorly
Jean Carmona - still in the minors, not in the O’s top 30 prospects list, light hitting, highly unlikely to make the club
Jean Carlos Encarnacion - no longer in the Orioles organization, did very poorly
Brett Cumberland - still with the O’s (but in the minors), potential for a backup C role in the majors
Evan Phillips - no longer in the Orioles organization
Bruce Zimmermann - currently in the O’s rotation, as a middle of the rotation arm, injured a bit
Dillon Tate - currently in the O’s bullpen, has been a decent arm
Josh Rogers - no longer in the Orioles organization, pitched very poorly
Cody Carroll - no longer in the Orioles organization, pitched very poorly
Of those players, the only huge return in terms of output so far has been Jonathan Villar. Bruce Zimmermann could turn into a solid middle/back of the rotation arm, and Dillon Tate has accrued about 1.2 WAR. If Yusniel Diaz doesn’t turn it around this year, then the return from the 2018 trade deadline could be looked at as setting the team back at least a year.
People need to remember, when Dan Duquette made those trades, one foot was already out the door. He had to know he wasn’t going to have his contract extended. I don’t pretend to know how much that played in the negotiations, but I do wonder how much pavement and time Duquette was willing to spend knowing that he (most likely) wouldn’t be back for 2019 and beyond.
The Mike Elias Unheritance (sic)
Either way, the team and minor league system that Mike Elias inherited was an absolute mess. Think about it for a second:
He was straddled with a poorly performing, overpaid Chris Davis
The 2018 payroll was nearly $150m, and prior to the Duquette fire-sale, the club was 32-75 on July 31st. A 29.9% WP. They finished 47-115, a 29% WP. The worst winning percentage of any Baltimore Orioles club in history.
Of the top 10 highest accrued WAR players in 2018, only 7 remained at the end of the season, and of those 7, the average WAR for them was only 1.4 (total 9.8).
The team routinely spent or traded their international bonus pool money
The analytics team was incredibly small and not well integrated
The farm system was ranked 22 (and was ranked 23 prior to the Duquette fire-sale trades).
That is, well, an incredibly poor starting position. And while the 2011 Astros also had a poor farm system, they didn’t have many other problems to start with.
One other factor that I think people are really underplaying is the 2020 season. This was a season in which the COVID-19 pandemic hit both the country and MLB hard. It fundamentally changed the MLB draft that year. There were only 5 rounds instead of 40. And on top of that, there was no minor league baseball in 2020. There was severe financial uncertainty for most ballclubs, and there wasn’t even a guarantee that there’d be an MLB season at all.
Personally, I’d consider 2020 a lost year. Which had to absolutely suck for Mike Elias and the O’s, as it would have only been his second full year at the helm. And this could have set back prospects at least a year, as they missed a full season and would have to build back up innings, plate appearances, any type of mechanics that they had, etc. Oh, and they’d be a year older, too.
Summing It All Up
What it all comes down to me is this: there is not an incentive for MLB owners to spend on their teams when they’re in the middle of a rebuild aside from trying to keep butts in seats. We’ve seen that mismanaged teams (see: 2018) that spend a ton of money ($150m) still don’t guarantee wins. So without a salary floor, owners will pocket the money because the incentives of higher draft picks in multiple years in a row is worth more to them than signing a few random players in the middle of a rebuild. Ticket sales be damned.
Is it right? No. I truly believe that MLB and the MLBPA should have instituted a salary floor. Teams can easily afford $90m and up.
But the point is that Mike Elias started well behind that of Jeff Luhnow. And while Luhnow turned around the club quicker than Mike Elias did, he inherited a better roster, a better analytics department and international spending/presence, and didn’t have his team gutted with 4 terrible trades (with very little benefit to the farm system). And, perhaps one of the biggest things: he didn’t have to deal with a pandemic barely 1 year into his tenure that caused both the draft and the development of his already existing minor league prospects to suffer.
I can agree that it’s high time for the Orioles to start spending on the team. A payroll between $30-$45m (not included Chris Davis) is laughable and pathetic. But I still remain very bullish on the future of the O’s with Mike Elias at the helm. The rebuild seems well on track even with the hands he’s been dealt over his tenure.