Dan Duquette - A Victim of his own Success?

When Dan Duquette was introduced to Baltimore last November as the Orioles new Executive Vice President of Baseball Operations, he laid out what was essentially a two-pronged plan of attack. One part of the organizational plan was a renewed focus on scouting and player development that will eventually provide the Major League team with a consistent flow of new, young talent.  The organization’s other goal was to win more games than they lost during the 2012 season.  The declaration that the organization would focus on scouting, drafting, and player development was a welcomed – if not excepted – direction to take.  All good teams – particularly those with limited budgets – need that influx of talent from their developmental system in order to be successful.  It was no surprise – especially given his prior track record in Montreal and Boston – that Duquette would pinpoint that element as the key to Baltimore’s long term success.

The second statement – which came a little later – was met with a tad more surprise and skepticism.  The Orioles had won a mere 69 games the season before and had done so largely on the strength of a strong September run.  It seemed unlikely – particularly after the team failed to land any significant player upgrades during the offseason – that they could add the 13 wins necessary to climb over the allusive .500 mark.  One could not be blamed if they saw the stated goal of reaching .500 the next season as a pipe dream at best or pandering at the worst.  It also appeared to be at odds with Duquette’s stated goal of focusing on player development.  One of the easier ways to restock a farm system is to trade away valuable players for prospects.  If Duquette’s goal was to finish the 2012 season with a winning record, he certainly was not going to trade the few proven players the organization had.  When the 2012 season began, Duquette had done little to inspire confidence that he would be able to reach either of his stated goals.

Of course, we all know what happened next.  The Baltimore Orioles shocked the baseball world by winning 93 games, defeating Texas in the American League Wild Card game, and coming one game away from moving onto the American League Championship Series.  The organization did not just achieve Duquette’s stated goal of winning more games than they lost – they pretty much destroyed it.  Of course, the 2012 Orioles were inundated with questions about their luck and overachievement but the fact remained that the team went from cellar dweller to contender seemingly overnight and Duquette’s many under the radar moves played a big role in that success.  While before the 2012 season the goal of reaching .500 seemed borderline laughable, the goal of winning a championship in the next few years all of a sudden felt within reach.  Most fans would have been content with a .500 or near .500 2012 season as long as the Orioles were also moving in the correct direction long-term.  With the surprising success of 2012, all of that changed.  Just like that, expectations were flipped on their head.

Suddenly, the Orioles were contenders and onlookers both locally and nationally expected them to act as such.  How do contending teams act exactly?  They constantly seek upgrades, spend money in free agency, and never rest on their laurels (not all of that is entirely true – there are always exceptions – but that is at least the general perception of how winning ball clubs should operate).  How did Dan Duquette and the Orioles react to their newfound contender status?  By not changing a single thing, of course.

For Duquette, the path to ultimate success – that is, building a team that is annually in the playoff hunt – is still paved through scouting and player development.  Unlike the goal of becoming a winning team in 2012, the goal of building a strong scouting and player development infrastructure is very much a long-term one.  The Orioles have seen some positive signs in that arena.  Fred Ferreira – hired by Duquette as Executive Director of International Recruiting – recommended Miguel Gonzalez to the team and was instrumental in signing Henry Urritia out of Cuba.  The Birds drafted Kevin Gausman in the first round of the 2012 Amateur player draft and the former LSU Tiger looks to be on the fast track to the Majors.  Gausman was just one of a dozen or so 2012 amateur signees for Baltimore that made impressive professional debuts last summer.  Highly touted prospects Manny Machado and Dylan Bundy made their Major League debuts during the 2012 season, while other players took significant steps forward in the system.  Under Duquette, the Orioles’ farm system has also seen significant turnover.  Many long-term Orioles farmhands have been let go in exchange for minor league free agents and no less than a dozen signings from the independent leagues.

Despite those positive steps, the Orioles farm system is still thin – especially after the top three or four players – and the organization is realistically still a few years away from having the sort of player pipeline needed to become perennial contenders.  The sort of patience needed by the fans in order to allow this plan the necessary time to come to fruition might have been easier to come by had the Orioles been a 75 or even 80-win team in 2012.  After 93 wins and a playoff berth, that patience went away.  The expectations are that the Orioles should – make that “need” – to do what it takes to win now.

It is clear that Duquette is not about to abandon his long-term plan built around scouting and player development.  The only thing that changed between last offseason and this offseason was that the Orioles won a few more games in 2012 than anyone – Duquette likely included – expected.  The goal is still to build from within.  It is a goal that Duquette definitively restated in an article published by the Baltimore Sun just yesterday.

"I understand that argument," Duquette said, referring to the argument that the Orioles are sending their fans the wrong message by doing very little to improve the Major League club this offseason. "But I'll tell you right now, our best players are going to come up through the farm system."

In other words – a 93-win season or not, the long-term goal has not changed.

What others might – and many have – argued is that the goal of building through scouting and player development while improving the team for the short-term are not necessarily mutually exclusive.  There is certainly a fair amount of validity to that argument.  The Orioles could have made moves this winter that improved the team in the short-term while minimizing  any long-term negative impacts those moves might create.  That they haven’t – at least not to the satisfaction of most – is most certainly the cause for much of the discontent around Baltimore.  There are moves that Duquette likely could have made even within the confines of a strict budget that would have – at least marginally – improved the team for 2013.  In failing to make those moves, the conclusion both locally and nationally is that Duquette has punted the offseason and essentially conceded that the Orioles will not contend in 2013.

Is that really a fair assessment?  Is it possible that there is more in play than initially meets the eye?

For starters, Duquette has stated that the Orioles have a strong core at the Major League level.  In fact, this was a statement that he made last winter as well.  It was a statement that was met with a fair amount of skepticism back then, even though it largely turned out to be true.  Offensively, it is hard to argue against the notion that Baltimore has a strong core of young players.  Matt Wieters, JJ Hardy, and Adam Jones form a solid nucleus up the middle that were good for nearly a combined 10 rWAR last season.  Chris Davis, Manny Machado, and Nick Markakis are also solid players who either haven’t entered their prime yet or are currently in the middle of their peak performance years.  With the possible exceptions of Brian Roberts and Nate McLouth – whose roles on the 2013 team are not yet decided – every player in the Orioles’ projected starting lineup is younger than 30.

The bullpen  is solid at the core as well – if not solid all the way around.  The rotation is more of a question mark, which is partially why Duquette has chosen not to trade away any pitchers for offensive help this offseason unless he can bring back significant value in return.

I have run some projections – which I’ll hopefully dig into on the blog prior to the start of the season – and I do believe that Duquette is justified in his view that the O’s as currently constructed could contend.  The numbers reflect that the Orioles are likely a fringe contender (mid-80’s win team) on paper.  Unless one projects significant regression from the majority of the team’s players while simultaneously projecting little to no growth from any individual player, it is impossible justify the stance that this is a low 70’s-win team (although that hasn’t stopped some from trying).  The truth is that the Orioles do have many players with upside and many players who we would not expect significant regression from in 2013 because they are in or entering their prime years.  Again, I will discuss this in more detail when I roll out my projections but even conservative player projections yield a result where the Orioles are likely an 85 or 86 win team on paper.

Given that, the notion that Duquette has punted the offseason is probably a bit hyperbolic.  It is likely he views the current team as a possible contending team already.  Some progression from key players and perhaps some good fortune (ie. a healthy season from Nolan Reimold chief among them) and the Orioles are likely true contenders without making any significant additions.  It is clear to me that Dan Duquette is not one to make moves for the sake of making moves.  If he believes that that the Orioles will get reliable production out of Nolan Reimold, Nate McLouth, or both in leftfield, he is not likely to sign Nick Swisher or trade for Justin Upton just to receive a player that is more of a sure thing (or in Upton’s case, a likely significant upgrade).  It is clear by his actions that Duquette favors flexibility – both in the short and long term.  Signing a player making $10 million or more per season or trading young players for Major League talent might not exactly cripple the franchise, but it would limit his  flexibility in the case additional moves are needed.

Take the rotation for example.  While I share Duquette’s confidence that the starting rotation will be significantly better over the entire 2013 season than it was over the entirety of the 2012 season, there are a lot of question marks.  Gonzalez, Chris Tillman, and Wei-Yin Chen lack significant track records.  Jason Hammel had the best season of his career in 2012 and while it looks sustainable, all of us would love to see a larger sample size before making that declaration.  Duquette is hesitant to trade some of the “surplus” of pitching because the Orioles themselves might very well need to dip into it if the projected starters do regress from their 2013 performances.  Furthermore, if there is regression from the starters the Orioles may go into next winter needing to add a couple of starting pitchers which would be difficult to do if the they spend significant resources (in both players and dollars) this offseason.  Duquette likely believes that the four scheduled starters will perform well in 2013 but in case they don’t, he wants to have the resources to address it.  His reluctance to make significant moves might be more of an acknowledgement that the Orioles have several major question marks heading into 2013 that need to be answered first, rather than any desire to simply stand pat.

In many ways, Dan Duquette is a victim of his own success.  93-wins in 2012 changed the perception of the Orioles organization and with that perception change came altered expectations.  To his credit, Duquette is largely sticking to his plan.  One of the more difficult aspects of any executive’s job is to avoid being easily swayed by unexpected results – both positive and negative.  If one is confident in the overall strategy and his organization’s ability to carry out the strategy – as Duquette seemingly is – one year of results should not dramatically alter the overall plan.  Buck Showalter is fond of pointing out that in baseball, things are never as good as they seem nor are they ever as bad as they seem.  Duquette’s actions this offseason reflect that sort of even-keeled attitude shared by his manager.

It is an attitude that Baltimore baseball fans would be well served to take to heart, as well.