So why did it always feel like they were teetering on the edge of disaster? Maybe because there was a decent amount of luck involved; the Orioles have regularly beaten their projected record based on runs scored and allowed (even this year, which has been rather miserable thus far, they’re running five games ahead). Maybe it’s how they’ve pretty routinely outplayed even the best projection systems.
You’d think after years of stuff like that, their position would feel a little more stable, but it doesn’t. The closest comparison I can think of is to a few years ago, when Dave Duncan was the Cardinals’ pitching coach and they would regularly enter the season with a patchwork rotation: you’d know things would look bad on paper, but there would be faith that things would turn out okay. The only issue is, it’s a lot harder to feel like things are under control when that’s the approach for the entire roster instead of the 3 through 5 slots in the rotation.
And of course, on top of that, it's always hard to separate out how much of that overperformance is the result of Duquette's moves and how much is from other factors, like Buck Showalter's in-game management skills. It's worth separating out how much Duquette himself is responsible for in evaluating his performance, at least to the extent that it's possible to do so.
And looking back at his tenure, it is easy to forget, given how bad the Orioles’ 2017 has gone so far, just how many good moves Duquette has made in his time in Baltimore. Part of that is the large quantity of moves he makes overall, and a lot of those don’t technically work out, but they’re so low in risk that it’s not a great loss when small moves like Dontrelle Willis or Johan Santana not succeeding on minor league deals or a late trade for an aging Jim Thome fail to work out.
But for every few moves involving veterans who can’t fulfill that promise, there are several who succeed and surprise everyone. Nate McLouth bounced back from mediocrity. The Orioles got useful seasons or stretches out of guys like AAlejandro De Aza , Delmon Young, Jimmy Paredes, Michael Bourn, Pedro Alvarez, and Danny Valencia, all of whom seemed like they were has-beens or never-weres when they were signed. And sometimes, you’d even have someone like Miguel Gonzalez or Steve Pearce, who managed to transcend “small stretch of usefulness” into “regular starter for multiple seasons”. Stuff like that may seem minor, but it’s very important. And all of this isn’t even counting signings that weren’t minor league deals, like bringing in Wellington Castillo this season, or picking up Nelson Cruz on a bounce-back contract that turned into an All-Star campaign.
And his search for low-risk talent doesn’t just extend to veterans; the Orioles in recent years have found cheap, unconventional talent in plenty of foreign leagues as well. I remember when Baltimore signed Wei-Yin Chen out of Taiwan, several scouts and writers remained skeptical of his ability to carry his success there over to the Major Leagues. Four years of above-average play at below-market price and he priced himself out of Baltimore’s range on the free agent market. On top of that, former Korean star Hyun Soo Kim has seemed decent so far when he’s given a chance to play regularly.
It’s not just the signings though; Duquette also has a number of trades where he’s managed to snag good players for next to nothing. He sold high on Valencia and Jeremy Guthrie and turned them into decent stints from David Lough and Jason Hammel. Joe Saunders was a surprisingly helpful acquisition back in 2012. Last year, he turned Steve Clevinger into a Mark Trumbo trip to the All-Star Game, and he followed it up this year by turning the smoldering remains of Yovani Gallardo into Seth Smith.
So, with all of that out of the way, it seems fair to wonder why any Orioles fans could take issue with Duquette’s tenure. It’s just that, while all of these small moves have been great, he seems to struggle with the bigger things. Just look at his big free agent signings. His biggest deal so far has been Chris Davis, who hasn’t been awful yet, but he also still has five years and $115 million left after 2017. When you remember the contract will end when Davis is already 31 and the team was basically bidding against itself for him, it looks a lot worse. But then to compound the issue, the team resigned Mark Trumbo this offseason, which has forced the team to play their best 1B/DH-type player this season (rookie Trey Mancini) in the outfield instead.
Or there are the pitching free agents. You may have heard about Baltimore’s recent pitching troubles, with the team recently tying the record for most consecutive games allowing five or more runs at twenty. Duquette’s wheeling and dealing hasn’t really done wonders on that front. So far, the two big, marquee starters Duquette has brought in have been Ubaldo Jimenez and Yovani Gallardo. In four seasons in the Charm City, Jimenez has posted a 5.01 ERA (83 ERA+) and 4.58 FIP while allowing nearly a runner and a half per inning. Gallardo’s single season with the O’s was somehow even worse than that, with a 5.44 ERA (76 ERA) in just 142.1 innings. It’s a minor miracle they got anything in return for giving him up.
Of course, bad free agent signings aren’t the only way you get a historically-bad rotation; you also need to fail in many other ways. Unfortunately, the Duquette-led Orioles have been pretty meticulous in checking all of those off. They’ve drafted pretty badly, which has taken a toll on the farm system, regularly ranked among the worst in the league. They could make up for this with strong international signings…except the Orioles love to trade away international signing money for fringe minor leaguers. They’ve even made two such trades just in the past week. Sure, prospects in general are hit-or-miss, but that’s no reason to handicap yourself more than is necessary by giving away all your signing money. I wish the front office had more of a “take many shots and some will hit” approach, like they do on minor league deals. And while we’re talking about failures of the Orioles’ farm system, we may as well mention the Orioles bizarre “no cutters” strategy to pitching development, something that seems to have backfired so horribly that they may have walked it back some.
Adding on top of all of that, Duquette’s trades aren’t all great. Much like his free agents deals, his small trades work out at a decent rate, but his bigger deals tend to flop much more frequently. As a rule of thumb, if a move was made at the deadline or involved the Orioles giving up a top prospect, things went horribly wrong. Just look at some of these:
Scott Feldman for Jake Arrieta and Pedro Strop: Feldman gave Baltimore a decent half season, but Arrieta (who refined his cutter in Chicago) and Strop have been far better than just “decent” since leaving.
Bud Norris for Josh Hader and the second Competitive Balance Round A pick: After being sent away, Hader would go on to become one of the better pitching prospects in the game. He’s had a great first few innings in the bigs. Also, the Competitive Balance picks are the only draft slots that can be traded like international signing money, and the Orioles are certainly open to trading those as well. This pick, 37th overall, was used on Derek Fisher, another top prospect with a hot first few games. All of that for not-even-300 innings of Bud Norris mediocrity.
Andrew Miller for Eduardo Rodriguez: Miller was actually good for a change! The only problem was that he was a rental, and left the O’s immediately after the season. For those two months, they gave up a great prospect in Rodriguez, who is one of the more exciting young pitchers in the game right now.
Gerardo Parra for Zach Davies: Not the worst trade here, but maybe the most inexplicable. Parra was a rental clearly in the midst of a career year, and an obvious “buy high” player. The Orioles needed another outfielder in 2015, but were also just a single game over .500 at the time, and traded away a decent prospect (not top 100 overall maybe, but high in the Orioles’ farm system at least). Why they decided this needed a "brand name" player instead of the normal scrap yard pickup is beyond me. Parra promptly cratered in orange, while Davies almost immediately stepped in to provide league-average innings. Maybe not the biggest loss, but the Orioles could sure as hell have used league average innings the last three years.
Wade Miley for Ariel Miranda: A lot like the last deal, in that it’s more low-key awful than blatantly obvious. Since the trade, Miley has thrown fewer innings with a higher ERA and WHIP than Miranda, all while being paid more money and being two years older. Why not just try Miranda in the rotation to start with?
And all of this isn’t even counting not-quite trades, like letting go of Miguel Gonzalez to make room for Gallardo and Vance Worley (who only made it two starts before being demoted to the bullpen). Duquette has some good ideas, but he also has some very clear blind spots. I admire his ability to work on a tight budget, but I’d like it even more if he had a strong scouting director who also slapped his hand from the phone any time he tried to trade away a pitching prospect. He has some pretty glaring holes in his GM game, and if he can’t learn and improve or bring in people to help, it may be time for him and the Orioles to part ways.