- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 18, 2019

The guys who run the Baltimore Orioles will tell you they can live with the losses.

For now.

After posting the worst record in franchise history — 47-115 — last year, the 29-66 Orioles are on pace for another 100-loss season.

The losing, the trades, the roster churn, the empty seats — all of it can be painful for fans. But Orioles general manager Mike Elias, 36, and his right-hand man Sig Mejdal, 53, contend the process is necessary if the franchise is going to compete again for a World Series title.

“It’s tough to see because this team has such a glorious past and a tremendous fan base and they don’t necessarily deserve to go through some lean years,” Elias told The Washington Times this week. “But we really don’t have any choice other than to take this path. There’s no other viable way for this franchise to get back to where it needs to go.”

In a sports universe where small-market teams struggle to compete financially with big spenders like the New York Yankees, the Los Angeles Lakers or the Boston Red Sox, Elias is one of a new breed of front-office gurus — analytics-savvy, budget-conscious — who have embraced a philosophy of breaking teams down completely in order to rebuild from the ground up.

The emphasis on finding and developing young talent to replace higher-paid veterans has paid off for franchises like the Philadelphia 76ers, the Chicago Cubs and the Houston Astros, where Elias and Mejdal helped oversee the overhaul that brought the long-suffering city an MLB title in 2017.

Advocates of the tear-down-and-rebuild school of sports management call it realism.

Fans call it tanking.

But Houston is the template for the process that Elias and Mejdal put in motion in Baltimore when they were hired after the disastrous 2018 season. The Astros went through three straight years of triple-digit losses — 2011, 2012 and 2013 — before breaking through with a playoff year in 2015 and following up two years later with a championship.

A similar end result is the goal in Baltimore, Elias told The Washington Times.

“We’re trying to accumulate as much young talent as we can,” Elias said. “That’s gonna be our first and foremost goal. So it might take away from our win-loss record this year.”

Eventually, both executives said, investing in the future and making the right choices will pay off.

“All we can control is making the better decisions and we’re bringing in the processes and we’re doing that immediately,” Mejdal said.

As for the pain and heartbreak along the way, Elias said he wants the organization to be as “transparent and communicative as possible.

“So far the reception has been that people are happy that there’s a very clear direction being taken,” Elias said. “Then we have a track record going about that direction.”

Pitching the idea that losing is necessary may be a tougher sell in Baltimore than it was in success-starved Houston: Orioles fans, after all, can look back at teams loaded with Hall of Famers that won championships in 1966, 1970 and 1983.

But since the turn of the century, Baltimore has been to the playoffs only three times — making the storied franchise a prime candidate for the Elias-Mejdal makeover.

In the meantime, crowd sizes at Camden Yards continue to shrink. The Orioles rank 28th in attendance this season — drawing 17,390 per game so far, down from 20,053 by the end of last year and 25,042 in 2017.

That will improve, Elias and Mejdal both say, when the rebuild takes root. The Orioles’ connection with fans runs deep.

“They love their football here,” Mejdal said, but “baseball doesn’t take a backseat to it and you can see it in the fans.”

“You see Orioles gear and bumper stickers everywhere you go and this is at a time when the team is not very good,” Elias said. “And I know what it’s like here when the team is very good. That’s a big motivator for us and it’s going to be a big advantage for us when we start to turn the corner.”

Current Orioles players might not be a part of that turnaround, but even they see the logic behind their young general manager’s version of what author Ben Reiter, who wrote about the transformational years in Houston, calls “Astroball.”

The Orioles’ Trey Mancini, 27, one of the few stars on an MLB-worst squad, understands that the rebuild in Baltimore could mean he’s an expendable asset.

“I know it’s a business,” he said. “I want to stay here. I think that there’s a good chance that that’s gonna happen. So, hopefully, it does, but if not, they’ve got to do what’s best for the organization. It’s nothing that you can really concern yourself with cause it’s totally out of my control.”

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