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November 7, 2011

Transaction Analysis

Dan Duquette Lands in Baltimore

by R.J. Anderson

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BALTIMORE ORIOLES
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Signed Dan Duquette to a three-year deal as general manager. [11/6]

When evaluating a position’s attractiveness, the market for the job tends to paint an accurate picture. In practice, this means that the real news is never when a candidate accepts a team’s offer to become its general manager, but rather when he (or, theoretically at least, she) declines one. A one-time occurrence could mean nothing is wrong with the job itself; however, when multiple people are turning a team down, then it does not take much deduction to conclude that something is rotten in Denmark—or Baltimore, as it turns out.

Over the last few weeks, Baltimore has tried giving away a job that ranks amongst the 30 most prestigious in the industry to no avail. They wanted to hire Tony LaCava from the Blue Jays and would have, until owner Peter Angelos’s refusal to let LaCava clean house blew that possibility to smithereens. Interview requests were sent to an impressive cabal, littered with names like the Rays’ Andrew Friedman, the White Sox’ Rick Hahn, the Twins’ Mike Radcliff, and the Red Sox’ Allan Baird, only to receive rejection notices. There were others involved, too. De Jon Watson of the Dodgers never seemed to be a serious candidate, while Baltimore passed over Damon Oppenheimer (Yankees), Scott Proefock (Phillies), and John Stockstill (Orioles) in favor of a candidate who last worked in a front office back in early 2002.

Duquette’s name resurfaced when he interviewed for the Angels’ vacancy earlier in the offseason. Even then, the hoi polloi viewed Duquette as a filler candidate who was too far removed from the game to be a realistic option. A long time has passed since Duquette last held the reins, but few candidates have his background, which could be a good or bad thing, depending on one’s perspective.

Although Duquette began his career with the Brewers in the early 1980s (even becoming the club’s scouting director years later), he is best remembered for his time with the Expos. Like plenty of other top executives in the game, Duquette spent his years in Montreal sharpening his teeth and receiving a crash course in how to succeed as a general manager. He spent four seasons with Montreal working under the titles of director of player development and assistant general manager before replacing the departed Dave Dombrowski as general manager in September 1991—thus becoming the youngest general manager in the league at age 34.

Duquette wasted no time in shaking the Expos’ roster up. Before calendars flipped to 1992, Duquette had traded Andres Galarraga for Ken Hill, Barry Jones for Darrin Fletcher, and Willie Greene, Dave Martinez, and Scott Ruskin for John Wetteland and Bill Risley. The trades would keep coming, with Duquette acquiring Gil Heredia, Jeff Shaw, Sean Berry, Tim Scott, Butch Henry, and Pedro Martinez. Add in the players the Expos drafted and developed during Duquette’s tenure—Marquis Grissom, Charles Johnson, Rondell White, Cliff Floyd, and Kirk Rueter among the notables—and all the while he was helping to lay the foundation for the 1994 Expos.

Of course, Duquette did not preside over the ’94 ’Spos—a team that, by some measures, had the most efficient payroll of the 1990s. By then, Duquette had become general manager of his hometown Red Sox, the team he grew up idolizing. On his way out of Montreal, Duquette took statistical analyst Mike Gimbel with him—an ill-fated decision, in retrospect, as sports columnists in Boston were none too pleased when they unearthed Gimbel’s role within the organization.

As he was with the Expos, Duquette was quick on the draw in Boston. By 1998, Duquette had acquired Jose Canseco, Rick Aguilera, Jason Varitek, Derek Lowe, and Pedro Martinez through trades. He also had plucked Troy O’Leary off waivers (from the Brewers) while signing Brian Daubach (as a 26-year-old free agent with 10 major-league games under his belt), Rich Garces (a journeyman reliever without much major-league success), Tim Wakefield (when Wakefield had 37 appearances and a walk for every strikeout), Reggie Jefferson, and Erik Hanson. Because Duquette no longer had to operate within the constraints of an airtight budget, he made splashes on the free agent market, too. He signed Bret Saberhagen in 1996, Jose Offerman in 1998, Manny Ramirez in 2000, and Johnny Damon in 2001.  Duquette could also afford to acquire the mercurial Carl Everett via trade. 

The Red Sox and Duquette would part ways in early 2002, and the Red Sox would win the World Series in 2004. In the afterglow of Boston’s first championship since 1918, Baseball Prospectus produced Mind Game, a book that looked at how Boston broke its streak of ineptitude. Within Mind Game, Duquette’s style is described as being “predicated on buttressing his core talent with low-cost acquisitions, whether through trades, waiver claims, or inventive signings," a line that could be attached to numerous general managers toward whom the baseball community blows kisses.

Duquette is not without his flaws. His impatience shined through in Boston, and he became known as a general manager who treated his roster like a fantasy owner treats his lineup—adding, removing, and trading players on a whim. Further damaging Duquette’s Q rating were multiple instances of poor or failed communication. His comments about Roger Clemens are now infamous, and his handling of Mo Vaughn and a Jimy Williams-Everett battle were regrettable.

The Baltimore situation is unlike anything Duquette has encountered before. This is not Duquette in Montreal raging against America’s sweethearts—the Braves—and their gaudy television contract with a bunch of smart and up-and-coming executives on a strapped budget. This is not Duquette in Boston raging against America’s team—the Yankees—and their grandiose payroll with a large checkbook of his own, either. Instead, Baltimore is a hybrid with traces of crazy. The Orioles can spend money, albeit not at New York or Boston’s level, but they are stuck in a division with both of them, a sleeping financial giant (the Jays), and a team that very much resembles Duquette’s Expos in brainpower, success, and a shortage of capital (the Rays).

That aforementioned crazy comes from the top. How much involvement Angelos has and will continue to have is not known to outsiders, but his presence undoubtedly served in repelling interested parties. Duquette is the Orioles’ fifth different general manager since their last playoff berth and winning season in 1996 under Pat Gillick. Losing cheaply is one thing, but the Orioles’ payrolls have topped $50 million in every season since 2000, entering the 2011 season just shy of $87 million. Yet, the O’s have finished in last place in four straight seasons and have finished above fourth place just once over that stretch.

Angelos’s rumored denial of LaCava’s intent to dismiss longtime members of the organization is eye-opening. Besides Matt Wieters, the last first-round pick by Baltimore to make an All-Star game is Brian Roberts, whom the club drafted in 1999. That means that Baltimore has selected one All-Star in the last 13 first rounds, even with 23 total picks and nine coming within the top 10.  At some point, questions need to be asked whether the Baltimore drafting and developmental staffs are doing their jobs well.

If the general manager is not given the authority to ask those questions and act upon the answers, then how can the organization expect to improve in an important aspect of team-building? That alone suggests that Angelos wanted a candidate who would not demand autonomy. Winning takes more than a good general manager, and limiting his input on staff is a bad beginning. Not only does Baltimore have folks secure in key front office roles, but they have a field manager in place, too. Buck Showalter has enough pull within the organization that reports suggested he was dictating the LaCava interest. One has to wonder if Duquette has the authority to fire Showalter if he sees fit.

With the headaches above the field, the mess on the field looks minute in comparison. Baltimore’s pipeline has some help on the way in Manny Machado and Dylan Bundy, but the imminent arrivals are limited in scope. The short-term help will have to come from external means. Duquette is no stranger to fossicking through the waiver wire and may have to with more than $40 million in payroll tied up in five players—Roberts, Nick Markakis, J.J. Hardy, Mark Reynolds, and Kevin Gregg, a quintet that produced 7.2 Wins Above Replacement Player in 2011.

Duquette will also have to work some magic via trades despite limited assets. The easiest upgrades could come on a pitching staff that finished last in earned run average and Fair Run Average. At the same time, the most intriguing options relative to cost are already in-house. Baltimore ended the season with Brian Matusz, Zach Britton, Alfredo Simon, and Tommy Hunter in the rotation, and it could make sense to have them start 2012 there, too. Jeremy Guthrie, meanwhile, may be trade bait. Duquette will have to pay attention to the lineup as well. The offense finished in the middle of the pack, and the defense in the bottom third. The Orioles could use a new first baseman or third baseman (depending on their plans for Reynolds), outfielder, and designated hitter.

History tells us that Duquette can succeed as a general manager but that he might not with the Orioles. Expect the relationship to end poorly if this is no more than a marriage between an employer looking for a leverage-free employee and an employee without leverage looking for a reentry position. If Baltimore is willing to make changes and trust in Duquette, though, then maybe the O’s can progress toward respectability.

In Liar’s Poker, Michael Lewis quotes Warren Buffett as saying something to the effect of: any player unaware of the fool in the market probably is the fool in the market. Duquette seems bright and has done well in the past, but there are reasons why others ventured away from Baltimore.


R.J. Anderson is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see R.J.'s other articles. You can contact R.J. by clicking here

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