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John Angelos Is Not On Your Timetable

Baltimore Orioles CEO John Angelos chuckling at a 2018 team event.
Rob Carr/Getty Images

It was easy to miss amid the frenzy surrounding his team's blockbuster acquisition of Oakland starter Cole Irvin, but Baltimore Orioles CEO and aspiring owner John Angelos blew a self-imposed deadline last week. His promise, during a five-minute harangue of The Athletic reporter Dan Connolly, was to invite local media "next week" to "show you the financials of the Orioles. I’ll show you the governance of the Orioles. I’ll show you everything you want to know, and I’ll [answer] all your questions." The harangue-ier part of the exchange was due to Angelos's offense that Connolly would ask him questions about the baseball team he runs and never talks about in public on Martin Luther King Day. The offer was always obviously bullshit, or at least as meaningless as it is every time an irresponsible rich person says that they're going to do something in a week or two, but that doesn't make it insignificant. As I am not ethically in any position to say anything further about people not respecting deadlines, I will simply move us along to the next paragraph at this point.

To be fair, it was certainly a coincidence that the biggest trade of the Orioles offseason happened around the time that Angelos opted not to do any of the stuff he said he was going to do. This is not about Angelos being image-conscious or cowardly so much as it is about him not really caring. About the nicest thing that can be said about Angelos as a baseball executive or de facto owner is that he has let GM Mike Elias do whatever he feels is best during his multi-year organizational teardown and rebuild. A more representative thing that could also be said about Angelos is that his acquiescence has owed much to the fact that Elias's splash moves have generally not even to risen to the tragicomic "plop" that accompanied the Orioles acquiring the strikeout-averse ace-by-default of the 102-loss 2022 Athletics in exchange for their 25th-ranked prospect. Another thing that could be said in the same vein is that Angelos, who took over the team when his father Peter's declining health left him incapable of running it, hired Elias to do what he has done, which is to make the team cheaper and worse, so that it could then get better at some later time TBD.

This has pretty much worked. Since taking over in November 2018, Elias has overseen an overhaul of the organization's player development program, which is now absolutely state of the art and has already produced what looks like a very promising core. When catcher Adley Rutschman, the consensus top prospect in the sport, graduated to the big league roster last year, another Oriole farmhand, Gunnar Henderson, took over that spot. Two other Orioles minor leaguers, ace-in-waiting Grayson Rodriguez and shortstop Jackson Holliday, the first player picked in the 2022 MLB Draft, fall within the top 10 in Baseball Prospectus's preseason Top 101, and five more Orioles prospects made the list. (That the big league team did indeed get much worse and much cheaper during this period of time can be considered another mark of the plan's success.) Elias, a former Astros executive, has overseen an unusually egregious and undeniably effective tanking campaign, but there is nothing really new about it.

This twilight state of plodding through some kind of three- or five- or umpteen-year plan is, instead, something like the normal state of being for a third of big-league teams. What makes the Orioles different is that their success at the active acquisition and development aspects of it has created an uncomfortable disjunction re: how passive they have remained about improving the big-league roster.

In 2022, as the prospects arrived and thrived and some of the inexpensive free agents the team plucked off the curb performed beyond expectations, the team stuck around the Wild Card race until the very end of the season. They did this despite Elias trading away any contributor he could for any assets they could return during what stubbornly persisted in being a stretch run. Several of Baltimore's best prospects still haven't reached the big leagues.

They might well be in something like the same position next year, despite the fact that the team has done nothing much this offseason. Elias still has not given a multi-year deal to a free agent since being hired in 2018, and this winter's $10 million, one-year commitment to innings-eater Kyle Gibson was the club's biggest free-agent outlay, outpacing the $8 million and $5 million they'll pay to Adam Frazier and Mychal Givens, respectively, next year; Irvin is, somehow, their most momentous trade acquisition. Baltimore's projected payroll of $65 million would be both the second-lowest in the sport and a notable upgrade upon their 2022 figure, which was something like a quarter of Baltimore's $164 million payroll in 2017. That team won 75 games, while the 2022 O's won a retrospectively astonishing 83.

The CEO and de facto owner of a team that was doing all this might expect to face some hard questions, but might also feel empowered to give some moderately spicy answers in response. Few tank jobs in recent memory have been more shameless or fulsome, but Baltimore's has seemed to work almost too well, in the sense that their ahead-of-schedule success has somewhat inconveniently called ownership's bluff. The part of the plan in which ownership commits to trying to win big league games was always going to be the more challenging one.

It is widely believed that the family will either move or sell the team when the elder Angelos, who is currently 93 and suffering from dementia, passes. In that grim interim, the family seems most concerned with the lawsuits that currently seem to be holding it together; last week, as part of his suit against his mother and brother for pushing him out of the family's baseball business, John's brother Louis said the two "plundered" $65 million from a bank account set up by his father and secretly increased their ownership stake in the team. John Angelos was eager to talk about the Orioles when the Angelos Law Firm, which he and his mother had accused Louis of stealing, went into a conservatorship, but was hilariously, prissily incensed when Connolly asked him a question about that team.

Angelos, who currently appears to live in Nashville and also used $1.7 of those $65 million to buy a home in Saratoga Springs, asked Connolly, who has covered the team for years, if he is from Baltimore as part of his tirade. (He is.) This is the sort of unforced error that someone who believed he might ever be held accountable for such a blooper would easily avoid, just as the pledge to give the public a look at the team's books is the sort of promise that someone might make if they knew they'd never have to follow through on it. The team declined to comment when Connolly asked them about it last Friday.

Rich people are like this, but during his time in charge John Angelos has proven to be especially like this. His offer to open his team's books to local media "next week" was a departure from the norm primarily because it was something Angelos actually said out loud to local media. But that unwillingness or inability to follow through, as Connolly noted, was very much in keeping with the whimsical and neglectful way in which Angelos has run the organization.

There is a great deal in those books that Orioles fans do not know. This is not just the usual stuff—with the exception of the publicly held Blue Jays and Braves, no one really knows how profitable MLB teams are, and owners have no interest in telling—but some very basic things about how the team operates. The demands of the organization's heated two-front legal conflict, both the nasty intra-family lawsuit and the long-running dispute over TV rights fees with the Washington Nationals, militate towards secrecy while guaranteeing a reliable drip of embarrassing news. But fans do not know, say, what kind of salary Angelos is paying himself. (In his lawsuit, Louis alleges that his brother has given himself multiple large raises on the combined $400,000 in compensation he claimed from the team and its cable company, MASN, back in 2015.) They don't know what the team's budget is or if such a figure exists, or how long Elias is under contract; "the sense is his original contract already has been extended," Connolly writes, "but that hasn’t been confirmed." Nothing much has.

Every big league team operates in a space of more and less plausible deniability, but teams that take on an open-ended teardown on the scale of Baltimore's under Elias demand more faith because of the absence of anything more concrete. In the absence of meaningful baseball, for years at a time, there is only the sweet by and by of whatever is becoming in and coming up through the farm system, or might happen in some future draft. A fan can find a way to care about this, up to or even beyond the point at which taking variously cynical boss types at their word starts to become challenging to their self-respect. This is a personal matter, finally.

But it all slides insistently towards the insulting if the boss types do not hold up their end of the deal. This deal, it bears repeating, is already an exceptionally favorable one for them. The Orioles, like every MLB team, received $60 million in national television revenue alone in 2022; their big-league payroll was $44 million. Big league teams spend money on things other than big league players, of course, but that is also just one of several publicly known revenue streams that flow into the Orioles organization regardless of how or whether the team spends them. There is, as always, a great deal that fans simply can't know about, by design.

But the big stuff is easy enough to guess. Even in the absence of the open-books walkthrough that Angelos promised and then forgot about, there is still the man himself and how he acts, and some inferences that can be drawn from that. There's the team's shabby and unloved regional sports network and the various janky dramas surrounding it; there is that relentlessly petty family dispute, unfolding endlessly; there is the team, which might be ready to compete but which ownership does not yet seem ready to commit to. There's the plan, or the shape of it, and then there is the manifest unseriousness of the person in charge of it. Angelos will tell you, with the impatience that only a rich man's son can muster, to take him at his word, and then he'll just go back to showing you why you shouldn't.

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