BY L.E. MILLER, @LEMillerBMore
As 2017 concludes the Orioles seem likely to find themselves back under .500 for the first time since 2011. Three seasons removed from the ALCS, it is really time for the franchise to take stock and think about what the future holds.
It isn't just that they are three seasons from really competing for the pennant, but it has been three years in which the team has not been terribly competitive in general. Going into Tuesday's game, the Orioles are just 243-232 since 2014.
It is time to move on from General Manager / Vice President of Baseball Operations Dan Duquette. We are all thankful for 2012 and all that, but it is the nature of the beast. Management turns over when things are not working. For the last three years, things have not really been working.
Certainly, Duquette had his moments. 2012 and 2014 were good teams, but those years were punctuated by dysfunctional and disappointing 2013 and 2015 seasons. During those years, the Birds entered the off season with 90+ win teams that seemed on the cusp of greatness, only to have the front office do absolutely nothing to get the team over the hump. Each time, the Orioles waited until the trade deadline to make improvements that were obviously needed entering those seasons. Everth Cabrera? Travis Snider? Hardly pieces to get a team over the hump.
Yes, there have been bad trades of all stripes, that has become very obvious. Two months of Gerardo Parra for a still entirely-under-team-control Zach Davies might be the worst trade in franchise history after the Glenn Davis deal. But what made those trades worse was that they were necessitated by the front office's own inaction.
Even the decent trades were necessitated by inaction. Bud Norris was a big piece of the 2014 team, but the team knew they needed pitching entering 2013. At that point, it was available for cash. Instead, the O's gave up Josh Hader and a draft pick that the Astros turned into Derek Fisher, baseball's No. 50th-best ranked prospect, per MLBPipeline.com.
The 2015 Orioles let both their corner outfielders walk after 2014 and then suddenly at the trade deadline decided that, oh yeah, they probably needed at least one full-time corner outfielder.
Then there's the free-agent signings. The Chris Davis contract is shaping up to be nearly as bad as the Ryan Howard deal. At least the Phillies have the excuse that Howard got hurt (though he was over-payed regardless). Chris Davis's current struggles were something he showed before in Texas and right here in Baltimore. At least Davis can field and run a little bit (pluses over Howard) but even then you are basically paying for a utility man this year.
Here is the thing: if they had paid for Nelson Cruz after 2014 that would have meant that the Orioles had another season of Davis-Cruz anchoring the middle of the lineup. The 2015 team would have been much better, and the Orioles probably would have kept Zach Davies.
The team was apparently not convinced Cruz or even Nick Markakis could contribute long term. That is fair. Specifically with Cruz they were worried about his age and injury record, but he only got a four-year deal for a fairly reasonable price. So even if Cruz did get hurt a couple times, it would not sink the team long term. Markakis probably got overpaid, but the Cruz deal was fair money.
But then they threw those concerns out the window apparently, because the next year the Orioles turned around and gave a significantly bigger contract to Chris Davis, whose track record of disappearing for entire seasons is much worse than someone missing a couple dozen games due to injury once a year. At least when you are hurt, you are on the disabled list. Davis is out there striking out on the daily. And Davis is signed to roughly the age that Cruz will be when his contract ends.
Did they ever mean that or was it just a negotiating piece? Because out of all the big free-agents on that 2014 team, the one the Orioles chose to pay for was an injury-plagued J.J. Hardy. Extended before the playoffs ended, Hardy had been hurt by injury in 2014 and saw his power evaporate. So which is it? Rather than test the market on an oft-injured, over 30, middle infielder coming off a down year, they handed out a three-year deal with a fourth year vesting option. Indeed Hardy has spent almost the entire contract not-quite-right, and totaled not even 2.0 bWAR over the life of the deal.
Basically what the Orioles did was punt on the 2014 team that reached the ALCS, but then turn around and double-down on the exactly .500 2015 squad – absolutely baffling. Only two more seasons left on that $31 million dollars they gave a 32-year-old right handed set-up man.
Can I work in a word right now about the whole Rule 5 pick fascination? Here it is: "Ugh." While Ryan Flaherty has managed to be a valuable utility fielder and somewhat of a fan favorite, generally speaking all the rest of them have done is waste roster spots. They are still out there giving Joey Rickard at-bats even though his OPS this year is lower than Flaherty's career average, and he is not even bound by Rule 5 rules anymore. Where are McFarland and the others?
Granted, the 2017 team could have been a much better team than it ended up being, even if the biggest move in the off-season was the pointless signing of Mark Trumbo. They probably would have competed for a WC slot if all went right. Yes, the 2017 team has been battered by injuries and players not performing up to expectations. Perhaps it wasn't a surprise that Trumbo and Davis were bad, but one would have expected that perhaps one of them would be good. Machado just couldn't get on base for half the season. Gausman was a train wreck half the year. Tillman has been useless. These things hurt.
But a team can't count on the 25-man to take them to the promised land. While the Orioles seemed to get particularly unlucky with injuries and slumps, you do expect those slumps to happen and you need the farm to help out. While there were a couple bright spots out of the farm in the pen, otherwise no help was forthcoming. None of the rotation help was any good. The best option for DH in Norfolk had an OBP under .300 – not exactly pressuring Mark Trumbo for his job no matter how bad he was.
It was a known fact the Orioles rotation was shaky going into 2017, so what happened with Bridwell was particularly frustrating. Sending Parker Bridwell packing for cash and watching him throw a very competent 100+ innings for the Angels this year.
The frustrating part about Bridwell isn't really losing the pitcher himself. He wasn't doing well in the Orioles system. But he is representation of a systematic failure. The righty had been in the Orioles system for the entire duration of Duquette's tenure and the franchise had been completely unable to develop him. They had given up on him, he was relieving in the minors by the time this spring rolled around. Yet within only weeks of heading off to the Angels system, they were able to get him on a major-league mound throwing effective innings. Why?
Duquette has seemed to turn the clock back to what has been the Orioles' biggest problem over the last 20 years: The inability to develop talent internally, particularly pitching... Perhaps this is the most damning thing of all. No, your trades aren't always going to be good. Yes, sometimes your free-agent signings will bomb. But you should be able to fill a number of holes with your own guys.
Kevin Gausman and Dylan Bundy look like they will be fine after all, but they made their MLB debuts in 2013 and 2012. In four years since Gausman came up, not a single new pitcher. Just constant chances for Mike Wright. Manny Machado and Jonathan Schoop debuted in the same years. The only other starting position player the Orioles have managed to develop since then is Trey Mancini (and you could argue Caleb Joseph). Perhaps Tanner Scott, Chance Sisco, and Austin Hays will all deliver, but that remains to be seen.
The Orioles were in a great spot as a franchise after 2014. Young talent with lots of team control left. Some prospects on the farm. Flexibility with the payroll going forward. But the team blew their window with dysfunction and bad moves, and ultimately someone has to be responsible for that. It is not like they make their decisions with a Ouija board.
Duquette was offered a job with the Blue Jays in the 2014/2015 off season but the Orioles would not let him take it. That is too bad. He has a year left on his deal, but I do not see any real reason to wait until then to get some new philosophies in house.
Who do you replace Dan with? Well there are no shortage of baseball minds out there in this day and age. The Orioles should not have too much trouble finding someone interested in the job regardless of some of the bad organization reputation. Heck they found Duke when in the midst of a 14 -year losing streak.
Why not Buck?
(edited at 11:21 PM)