Jim Duquette, like the rest of the Baltimore Orioles organization, is working to stem the flow of losing seasons. Duquette, starting his second year with the organization, and Jim Flanagan, Executive Vice President, are coming off the ninth consecutive losing season in Baltimore, and the pressure from fans to right the ship is increasing.
There are signs that the Orioles may be on track to improving the team. The question is, will that improvement be enough when compared with the moves that the rest of the AL East has made? While the Orioles were in the mix for a number of key free agents this off-season, they abandoned their approach of going hard after those free agents when the market set higher than in the recent past. When the off-season started, Duquette said the Orioles “went down two different, but parallel paths” in which they planned on trying to acquire key free agents, but had a backup plan in case the market saw elevated free spending. At that point, addressing the bullpen became a key focus, along with acquiring a solid middle-of-the-lineup bat.
Duquette, the cousin of former Red Sox GM Dan Duquette, started his MLB career as the Assistant Director, Minor League Operations for the Mets in 1995, and was promoted to Assistant Director, Minor Leagues and Scouting in 1996. He left in ’97 to work with the Astros as Director, Player Development, but was back in ’98 with the Mets. By 1999 he was the Assistant GM and, until 2003, held that position, along with a variety of other sub-titles (Minor Leagues and Scouting, Director of Player Development, Player Personnel). In 2004 he was made Senior Vice President, General Manager, and in ’05 held the title of Senior Vice President, Baseball Operations.
In October of last year, he left the Mets to join the Orioles, where he now holds the title of Vice President of Baseball Operations. Duquette assists Executive Vice President of Baseball Operations Mike Flanagan in the day-to-day handling of the department. Those key aspects include contract negotiations, as well as assisting in salary arbitration and player personnel decisions at the major league level.
The following Q&A covers a variety of topics, including the recent trade of Rodrigo Lopez to the Colorado Rockies in exchange for Jim Miller and Jason Burch, as well as how the free spending this off-season has impacted how the Orioles have gone after key player pieces they feel the need to add. Additional topics include how Baltimore is addressing the left field position and the bullpen, the possible Opening Day lineup, how you balance competing for key free agents against overspending for overvalued talent, where Jay Payton and Aubrey Huff will fit in the equation, and much more.
Baseball Prospectus: Let’s start with the activity on Friday. The Orioles traded RHP Rodrigo Lopez to the Colorado Rockies in exchange for RHP Jim Miller and RHP Jason Burch. On top of that, you signed RHP Todd Williams to a one-year contract. Along with the other additions this off-season, what do these moves do for the club coming into 2007?
Jim Duquette: Well, I think the main thing for us is that we felt we had depth in the starting rotation. We didn’t think that Rodrigo would really accept a roll in the bullpen, and so I think the main thing is it gives us some payroll flexibility and it also allows Rodrigo a fresh start somewhere else. So, I think the two combined were what we were looking to do.
In conjunction with Todd Williams, he’s a guy that came off a little bit of a rough year; a down year, last year, but two years ago he was our best reliever pitching in the 8th inning. He’s a motivated kid right now after being non-tendered and wants to come back and prove that last year was an aberration, so we’re hopeful that he’ll have a year like he had a couple of years ago. And, we felt that risk wasn’t all that high, either.
BP: What’s your take on how this off-season has been in terms of some of the salaries being offered in comparison to some in the recent past? Do you see the contract offers as a market correction, or as overvaluations in many cases?
Duquette: I think it’s an overvaluation. Hopefully, it’s a blip. I’m hopeful that we get back to more reasonable levels next year. I think, historically speaking, you tend to see a rise in the free agent market in the years that the collective bargaining agreement has been signed or renewed.
I also think there’s been-over the past few years-I don’t know if it’s a collective effort, but more of a conscious effort to monitor payroll. I think you’re given the opportunity to sign a veteran player who’s making $2 or $3 million, or you have the opportunity to bring up a young player from your system, I think more teams are allowing the younger player the opportunity to play. So, I think teams in general have managed their payroll, in comparison to revenues, much better in the past few years, so you already have money around to spend. And then, the increased revenue sharing in the new collective bargaining agreement was a recipe for this type of market. I don’t think we could have predicted this type of market, but certainly I think everyone in baseball was predicting a spike.
BP: This off-season sees the Orioles with the 6th highest level of off-season spending, three spots higher than the Yankees (at publication, the Orioles had spent $76,400,000, compared to $61,250,000 for the Yankees, and $170,850,000 for the Red Sox, who are at the 3rd highest off-season spending behind the Giants and Cubs). At the same time you were unable to land any of the key free agents, such as Alfonso Soriano, or Carlos Lee, who it was reported the Orioles were interested in. How do you compete for key players in an inflated market where you have to say, “The going price is now overvaluing the player”? How do you balance that?
Duquette: That’s a difficult balance, there’s no doubt about it. Our main desire was, if we could, to get a top-of-the-rotation starter and the middle-of-the-lineup bat. We knew we couldn’t afford both, so we were going to try and get one. And, we also needed to improve our bullpen. So, it really came down to making choices for us. Were we going to put all of our eggs in one basket of one or two players, and then try and fill other needs with crapshoots? We decided to quickly change course during the middle of the off-season and go down the road of spreading out the money and try and fill a number of needs. We obviously revamped our bullpen and felt the acquisitions of Payton and Huff, while they weren’t the impact type bats, they gave us quality and versatility in the lineup both in the field with Payton, and Huff with what he’s capable of doing. Seeing where the market was going, we started down one path, and quickly changed plans. We went down two different, but parallel paths, as we had looked at this contingency in August or September.
BP: Left field was obviously a serious concern going into the off-season. The Orioles have brought in Huff, Payton, and Jon Knott, all of which could be used as options at the position. As it stands now, how do the Orioles plan to use these players, and will they all be used in left field at some point?
Duquette: I think you’re going to see that [they will be slotted] in leftfield, and even at first base as we sort through some of these guys. Last year those were our least productive positions defensively. We feel like while we have some candidates there, there is some question about their defensive abilities, as well. That’s why a guy like Payton was so important for us, because even when he’s not playing, he’s a defensive player that can go out and play all three outfield position if we need to have a late inning outfield replacement. So, I don’t know how it’s all going to sort out. We’re going to give opportunities to guys like Knott, or even [Jason] Dubois, we’ll take a look at him. A guy like J.R. House who can catch and play first base. We have some other interesting guys to throw in the mix-Terry Tiffee is an interesting guy. I think all of these types of guys will be in competition for various different spots, but most likely they’ll be bench roles. I think that in Spring Training we’ll have to see how left field and first base sort out.
BP: With Payton now in the fold, are there plans to use him in center along with Corey Patterson when you are facing lefthanded starters?
Duquette: Yeah, I think we have to look at that, just because Corey struggled against lefties, [although he] hopefully will be better against them this year. I think he hit .207 against lefthanders, and that’s where Payton hit .296 against lefties, and he was pretty consistent against both lefties and righties. So, I think that one of the areas, other than the bullpen, that we were terrible in [was hitting lefties]-I believe we were 16-36 or 33 versus lefthanded pitching. [Ed. note: The Orioles were 16-33 against lefthanded pitching in 2006.] So, our feeling was that even though Huff didn’t hit well against lefties last season, he’s done so in the past and could help us, and Payton was obviously a guy that could help us. So, that’s our hope-that we’ll get a little better balance in our lineup this year.
BP: The bullpen was another weak spot last season for the Orioles. Last year, the bullpen was 19-25 with a 5.25 ERA and 35 saves in 56 opportunities. To address that situation, you’ve picked up four relievers this off-season in Danys Baez, Chad Bradford, Jamie Walker, and Scott Williamson, with Baez setting up for Chris Ray. Walk us through the strategy with the new bullpen, and what are you looking for from them in relationship to the starting rotation?
Duquette: Well, there’s two or three different thought processes when it came to bolstering the bullpen.
First off, I think, as an organization, we had a little bit of a credibility issue, coming off a ninth straight losing season. I think that there was a little bit of skepticism out there that there was a willingness by the organization to spend money. So, our feeling was, well, if we aren’t going to be able to afford these position players, let’s go out and try and get the best relievers on the market, even though we know as a group they’re generally inconsistent from year to year, we tried to select the top of the class-both from the left side and the right side. And, both statistically or evaluation wise, or a combination of both, we had our eyes set on Justin Speier, Baez, Bradford, Roberto Hernandez, and the other guy was [Joe] Borowski. We felt comfortable if we could get two of those guys that would really help us. And then from the left side, we really thought that Walker and [Scott] Schoeneweis were the two kind of elite guys, even though Schoeneweis didn’t do all that well in Toronto this year, but he pitched well in Cincinnati. So, those were the targets from the left side, and we felt if we could get one of those guys we’d be satisfied. That’s the way we decided to go to bolster the bullpen. We lost 18 games after being tied or leading after six innings last year. We’re not expecting to win all of those games, but it’s not unrealistic to think that we could have won at least half of those games with a decent bullpen last year.
BP: The Orioles currently have three players on the arbitration-eligible list: Erik Bedard, lhp; Patterson, of; and Brian Roberts, 2b. There was talk of trading Roberts in the off-season to Atlanta, but the deal did not occur. Why did the Orioles decide not to trade Roberts and what is the status of a contract extension for him?
Duquette: In the situation we’re in you have to be open to improving a club any way you can. So, when we were throwing out a proposal to Brian Roberts, we at least had to think about [trading him] and give it some serious consideration. In the end we decided not to do it for a number of reasons. Primarily, he is one of the guys that we rely on as the face of the organization-he and [Miguel] Tejada, in particular, are very popular players-they’re quality players at their position. I believe Roberts is one of the top leadoff guys in the game.
So, from our standpoint, we had started multi-year contract negotiations at the end of the year. So, the discussions are on-going, but we’d rather not get into the details of how those negotiations are going, or anything of that nature. But he’s clearly a guy that we would like to keep, even if it was only to buy one free-agent year, we’d like to try and keep him and eliminate the arbitration process year after year.
BP: The way that the market has been inflated this year, and with arbitration in the mix, do you feel that more clubs are going to try and wrap up those arbitration-eligible players outside of the free agency process?
Duquette: Yeah, I do. I think that one of the main reasons that you see less and less quality in the free-agent market is clubs trying to tie up some of these arbitration-eligible players by offering them extensions that leave them some level of security that first multi-year contract that these young guys sign. So therefore, the free agent market is the one that suffers the most. I think you’re going to continue to see teams do that. Although, having said that, the timing, right now, after this year’s market, isn’t real good to find some value. I think you’re still going to see teams sign their young players to multi-year extensions like the Mets did this year with [Jose] Reyes and [David] Wright.
BP: How close is the following lineup to what we might see on Opening Day, with Payton in the mix depending on left-handed starters?:
Duquette: Yeah, that’s a fair one there. I think that line up is one that you’ll see a fair amount of this year. I like the way, with Huff in there, how the line up spreads out one to nine. You have Jay Gibbons batting 7th in that particular lineup; if he’s swinging the bat the way he’s capable of swinging it, and with Ramon coming off the year he had last year, I really like that lineup. Pitchers are going to have a hard time getting through that lineup; there’s not many outs in that lineup.
BP: With the changes the Orioles have made in the off-season, the question becomes whether those moves will lead to enough improvement from last season when taking into account the moves that your AL East counterparts have made. What’s your assessment of what the Red Sox, Yankees and Devil Rays have done this off-season?
Duquette: Well, I think each team, it seems like everyone has improved. Everyone has gone out and spent money that they think makes them better. While we keep an eye on that, we can’t get caught up in it that much. We have to be more concerned about ourselves. Once we start winning ballgames, then we can worry about who we’re chasing, and everything else. Our goal was to not necessarily try to keep up with the Red Sox or keep up with the Yankees-we’re never going to have a payroll close to theirs, but from our standpoint let’s improve what we have. Let’s improve our bullpen. Get ourselves better defensively. Find ourselves a credible bat in the lineup. And then, let’s see how it all plays out on the field. We’re really looking forward to Spring Training to see how this all shakes out.
BP: Lastly, the Orioles have had nine consecutive losing seasons. I’m sure that you are working to keep from having it be a “decade of losing seasons.” I’m sure that there is the desire to win every season, but is there any sense of urgency in fielding a winning team this year more than in years prior?
Duquette: I don’t get caught up in that-maybe that’s because I’m only in my second year here, and I haven’t been here for that entire period of time. I do think that there is some level of, obviously, frustration with the fan base. I think they’ve shown that until we start winning, they’re not going to show up to ballgames. Every year there’s a pressure that you put on yourself to win and get better, so I don’t particularly think that this year there’s more pressure, or less pressure. I think that there is a pressure that you put on yourself when you’re running a ballclub. Some of the players that we acquired, we didn’t bring them over here, and they didn’t come here to lose. I think there was kind of a losing-type atmosphere here for a period of time. I believe since I came on board there have been 16 new players, counting guys that have come up through the system, but 16 new faces projected to be on the 25 man roster. That’s a lot of change, and a lot of turnover, and obviously, we think that it’s for the better.