Assessing 2023 MLB front offices: Mike Elias and the Baltimore Orioles rose to the top

Mike Elis built the Baltimore Orioles to championship status internally. It's a cost-efficient method, but risky because talent judgments must be perfect. His often were.
Baltimore Orioles general manager Mike Elias.
Baltimore Orioles general manager Mike Elias. / Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Mike Elias front office WAA impact for Baltimore Orioles: +8.2 games. Rank in MLB: 2. Rank in division: 1.

Since taking over direction of the foundering Orioles prior to the season of 2019, vice president and general manager Mike Elias has pursued a singular and extremely internal course.

That internal focus paid off in 2023 when the Orioles rolled to 101 victories. It was an extraordinary accomplishment for a team that barely won half that many games (52) just two seasons ago, and the franchise’s highest win total in more than four decades.

The Elias formula was a simple one: Draft and grow young, very affordable and very productive talent. The trick, of course, doesn’t lay in identifying the formula, but rather in identifying the talent.

Elias has become a master at that. The core of the Orioles 2023 success (Adley Rutschman, Gunnar Henderson, Kyle Bradish, Austin Hays, Ryan Mountcastle, John Means, Felix Bautista) is without a single exception home-grown.

In 2023, the short-term impact of Elias’ system products (players introduced to the majors since the conclusion of the 2022 postseason) amounted to +3.1 games as measured by Wins Above Average. Only Minnesota’s rookie class was more productive.

But it wasn’t just the 2023 rookies. The impact of system products brought up prior to 2023 but since Elias became GM added +8.0 WAA to the picture. That was the largest long-term value produced by any front office exec’s system products in 2023.

In concert, those two numbers explain Baltimore’s rise to division championship status.

For the record, WAA is used in this series of front office evaluations because it is a zero-based version of WAR, therefore enabling valid approximations of impact against wins and losses.

Henderson, a Rookie of the Year front-runner, generated an .814 OPS with 28 home runs and 82 RBI while displaying defensive versatility. He started 84 games at third base and 83 at shortstop with plus defensive numbers at both. It all worked out to +4.3 WAA.

Bradish, 12-7 with a 2.83 ERA in 30 starts, led the rookie Alumni Association with a +3.3 WAA. Rutschman, an All-Star catcher had a 20-homer, 80-RBI season worth another +2.2 WAA to Elias’ long-term credit.

Before succumbing to an injury, Bautista added an 8-2 record, 1.48 ERA and 33 saves in 56 games, good for another +1.7 long-term WAA.

Here’s the full short-term and long-term statistical profile on the 2023 performance of the Elias front office. Again, all figures reflect group Wins Above Average.

Acquired by trade, waiver claim or purchase:

  • Since October 2022, 10 players, -1.4 net impact
  • Prior to October 2022, 7 players, +0.6 net impact

Signed as a free agent or extended for multiple seasons:

  • Since October 2022, 8 players, -1.7 net impact
  • Prior to October 2022, 0 players, 0.0 net impact

System products:

  • Since October 2022, 9 players, +3.1 net impact
  • Prior to October 2022, 14 players, +8.0 net impact

Traded away, waived, sold, released or lost to free agency

  • Since October 2022, 8 players, +4.8 net impact
  • Prior to October 2022, 13 players, -0.7 net impact

As the numbers above indicate, there was nothing extraordinary about the way Elias built the 2023 Orioles. He only made 35 personnel moves involving major league talent, and only 13 of those worked out to Baltimore’s benefit. Eighteen produced negative value, and four were neutral.

Elias dabbled in the trade market, but he had less success in head-to-head deals with other GMs. Ten players came to Baltimore in swaps with other teams in 2023, but only two (relievers Danny Coulombe and Jacob Webb) generated positive value.

The net short-term impact of his trades amounted to -1.4 WAA.

He also made only occasional dabbles at available free agents. Aaron Hicks, jettisoned by the Yankees, signed and was a modestly positive (+0.2) force, but the total impact of Elias’ signings worked out to -1.7 WAA.

The extremely internal nature of the Elias approach is illustrated by the fact that nearly half of the 50 players who saw time in an Orioles uniform this past season were products of the Elias system. Only eight were free agent signings.

When a team is as internally committed as Elias’ Orioles were in 2023, the looming challenge involves how to retain those valued assets. Elias has a few years to figure out a plan for that. Rutschman and Bautista don’t hit free agency until 2028, Bradish and Henderson in 2029, Hays in 2026.

But Elias will get a taste of what he’s in for down the road this winter when Kyle Gibson becomes a free agent. A 2023 free agent pickup, Gibson was the team leader in wins (15) and workload (192 innings) in 33 starts.

The Orioles operated on just a $60 million payroll in 2023, baseball’s second-smallest. To Elias’ credit, those 101 victories came at a super-efficient cost of just $600,000 per win, less than one-third the MLB average of $1.996 million.

But it’s hard to see how Elias can maintain that winning profile if the payroll doesn’t increase. Internal talent, too, gets expensive over time.