September 10, 2013
Painting the Black
Flipping the Birds
Over the past two years, I've been wrong about the Orioles no fewer than three times.
My faulty assessments began when Dan Duquette was hired as general manager, in November 2011. Though I praised Duquette—calling him bright, among other adjectives—I expressed doubt about the job's prospects. For good reason, too; other executives turned away Baltimore's advances, likely due to their perceptions about manager Buck Showalter's power and owner Peter Angelos' vision. Despite drafting and developing poorly for years, Angelos (reportedly) rejected one candidate's plan to clear house, further obscuring how much authority the new GM would wield.
Beyond the noise, other factors were working against the Orioles. Fourteen seasons had passed since Baltimore's last winning season, and no resolution appeared near. The short-term outlook was bleak due to the talent and resource differentials between the O's and the division's behemoths. To succeed, the Orioles GM needed patience, resolve, creativity, and a waterproof five-year plan—perfect to sob over when Angelos inevitably grew disillusioned following two poor seasons. Duquette had those things, including the waterproof plan—though its integrity was challenged by champagne, not tears.
The second time I misjudged the Orioles was last spring. I picked them to finish last, which they did not do. I did the same this spring and, barring a collapse, that too will prove incorrect. Erring three times on one team over a short period of time is cause for reflection: What is it about the Orioles that I missed, or otherwise undervalued? Andy MacPhail, for one.
Duquette's tinkerer reputation belies a fundamental truth about the O's: their core predates his time in Baltimore. On most nights, the Orioles start seven players who were with the team under MacPhail. (The exceptions being Nate McLouth and the team's DH.) This includes arguably the team's most important players. Under MacPhail, the Orioles traded for Adam Jones, J.J. Hardy, and Chris Davis, deals that in retrospect are some of the most lopsided swaps in recent memory. Those three players rank first, third, and sixth this season among Baltimore's position players in WARP.
As well as those trades have worked out, MacPhail did stumble in other areas where Duquette has made the difference. The draft is one good example, as somehow the Orioles went through a lengthy down period and exited with precious few impact talents and worthwhile prospects, even with all those top picks. The O's popped Brian Matusz, Manny Machado, and Dylan Bundy in the first round under MacPhail's watch. They also selected Matt Hobgood ahead of Zack Wheeler during an otherwise fruitless 2009 draft. Comparatively, Duquette's first-round picks include Kevin Gausman and Hunter Harvey, two potential front-of-the-rotation arms. (Granted, both could bust for all we know.)
MacPhail's biggest failure had to be an inability to assemble a decent pitching staff. Baltimore's rotation ranked last in the majors in ERA and FIP over his four full seasons, and its bullpen ranked second-to-last in ERA and last in FIP. Those staffs set the bar impossibly low, leaving Duquette's rotation (23rd in ERA, 27th in FIP) and bullpen (eighth in ERA, 18th in FIP) ahead by default.
These Birds, though not fierce enough for Hitchcock's liking, are better than yesteryear's versions in part because of Duquette's savvy. His waiver-wire and trade-deadline deals have proved the value of going from bad to decent; it might not be as sexy as going from decent to good or good to great, but it costs less since there are more opportunities. Duquette did most of his retooling this deadline in his rotation, as he netted Scott Feldman and Bud Norris for spare parts. Although he hasn't had a deep farm system to work with, he's coaxed other teams into making swaps, like Kenny Williams used to do.
A common theme among these bad-to-good team stories is finding cheap talent. Duquette has done it through various avenues. Take his first offseason, when he got Jason Hammel (trade), Wei-Yin Chen (international free agent), and Miguel Gonzalez (minor league free agent) en route to reinforcing the young pitching that had failed MacPhail multiple times. None of those were huge moves, yet they paid off.
On the position player side, Duquette gave Nate McLouth another chance after it looked like he was finished. McLouth has since given the Orioles nearly 800 plate appearances of all-around above-average play. Danny Valencia, who couldn't find his stroke with Minnesota or Boston in recent years, has quietly homered seven times this season in 107 plate appearances. Steve Pearce hasn't played tremendously, yet he came cheap and when healthy gives Showalter another option against left-handed pitchers.
Another positive is Duquette's ability to eat sunk costs. This is, admittedly, easier to do when the GM has no skin on the line. Duquette could shift Matusz to the bullpen, trade Jake Arrieta, and demote Chris Tillman and Zach Britton without indicting himself. Duquette's turnaround has involved a fair bit of luck, too: nobody expected Davis and Machado to play this well over the past year, among other seemingly fortuitous outcomes.
Looking back, Duquette was a good match for the O's; an executive skilled at turning over the roster at low costs paired with a team desperate for that approach. Combining Duquette's ability to find useful, if flawed, talent with Showalter's stubbornness to use those players correctly, and it's a match that's worked out better than anticipated. Whatever concerns existed about internal power struggles were seemingly overblown, or have since been calmed by the team's good results.
So how was I wrong about the Orioles that often? I underrated MacPhail's foundation, built through a series of big-win trades, and Duquette's talent-finding craftiness. When twinned, those attributes transformed the Orioles from a perennial doormat to a formidable foe in a tough division. When those of us who've underestimated this team the past few years—myself included—tip our hats toward Duquette and Showalter, we should include MacPhail as well. He didn't finish the job, but he contributed.