Joy R. Absalon-US PRESSWIRE
When Dan Duquette took over the 1995 Boston Red Sox, he made a lot of similar moves to those that brought the 2012 Orioles success. But will he learn from the past to make sure the Orioles stay on the path to success?
Even the most optimistic Orioles fans did not see a 93-win season coming. There was no reason they should have, either: the roster that brought them there was different from the one that began the season, was different from the one that brought them to the midpoint. The constant tinkering and roster-shuffling of general manager Dan Duquette helped bring the Orioles to their first playoff berth and winning season since 1997, and he deserves credit for the season-long juggling act he performed.
This isn't Duquette's first go-round with a surprise contender, seemingly random contributors, and never-ending roster-tweaking. In fact, the last time Duquette was in the American League East, he pulled a similar trick to bring the Red Sox out of a rough patch and into relevance once more.
The 1995 Red Sox finished first in the AL East, winning 86 games in a shortened, 144-game season. Red Sox fans looking back at that roster now likely feel similar to how Orioles fans will feel about their 2012 squad a decade from now. That feeling, by the way, is something akin to, "Wait, how did they manage that?"
That Boston squad used 53 players in their quest for October baseball, while this past season's O's utilized 52. The expected cornerstones of the lineup did the sorts of things they were supposed to on both teams. For Baltimore, it was the breakout season of Adam Jones, a return to form for Nick Markakis, and Matt Wieters doing Matt Wieters things that helped power the Orioles' attack. Back in '95, Mo Vaughn had an MVP-caliber season, shortstop John Valentin hit .299/.399/.533 in his own breakout campaign, and Tim Naehring managed to stay healthy enough to remind people of why his talent was noteworthy. Those homegrown pieces* - all six of which were between 26 and 28 years old at the time - formed the core, but it was everything that surrounded them that has the Dan Duquette stamp all over it.
*Adam Jones, traded for when he was just 22 with just 73 major-league games to his credit, is close enough to homegrown to merit the label.
The Red Sox traded for Jose Canseco, who had struggled to stay on the field and produce at the levels that made him famous long before he was an author. They signed backstop Mike MacFarlane to fill a hole that had needed filling for much of the previous decade. Duquette traded for second baseman Luis Alicea, gave former first-rounder (but non-prospect) Lee Tinsley another shot at a starting gig, and selected Troy O'Leary off of waivers shortly before the season began. Duquette also brought in knuckle-baller Tim Wakefield, whom the Pirates had cut while still under team control, signed Willie McGee off of the scrapheap at mid-season, and brought in the twice-traded and subsequently released (but still just 26 years old) Reggie Jefferson as Canseco insurance.
Duquette brought Matt Stairs in from Montreal - where Duke had been the GM. He signed Erik Hanson right before the right-hander's lone all-star nomination. Mike Maddux revived his career in relief under Duquette, Stan Belinda had his best season ever in the bullpen in '95, and though the rotation struggled to cope with injuries, Duquette just plugged holes with arms until the leaks stopped. Does any of this sound familiar, Baltimore?
Jumping to 2012, Duquette signed international free agent Wei-Yin Chen, traded for Jason Hammel, signed minor-league free agent Miguel Gonzalez, and acquired Joe Saunders mid-season. Somehow, this collection of arms helped bring the Orioles to the postseason, even though none of the arms that were supposed to be of consequence contributed much. Brian Matusz, Zach Britton, and Jake Arrieta were all injured, took steps backward, or both, but Duquette continued to find pitchers to throw into the rotation as long as the rules allowed him to.
As with Boston, the collection of unheralded bullpen arms fused together into an unexpected team strength. The Orioles' ridiculous 29-9 record in one-run games, and the related 16-2 record in extra-inning contests, was in large part due to a relief unit that pitched 545 innings of 3.00-ERA ball. If you're wondering how Baltimore's pitching survived ineffectiveness and injuries in the rotation, that 37 percent of their innings came from lights-out relievers helped.
The lineup had similar bouts of everything going right for it, too. Nate McLouth, after 34 embarrassingly terrible games with the Pirates - the exclamation point on what was becoming a three-year downward spiral - latched on with the Orioles, inexplicably became an offensive threat, and led all Orioles left fielders in playing time. The Orioles needed help in the infield, so they pushed teenage prospect Manny Machado to the majors, out of position at third base. While he wasn't incredible with the bat, the fact he was even average at his age helped the Orioles considerably down the stretch. Jim Thome was brought in from Philly to help out at DH, and while he was lacking in taters, he did get on base 35 percent of the time. Career .234/.309/.369 hitter Steve Pearce hit .254/.321/.437 for the Orioles in 83 plate appearances. Chris Davis finally did what people thought he would years and a team ago, and bashed 33 homers while slugging over .500.
When this happens in the present day, it's all very exciting. Duquette played a season-long game of craps with his roster, and didn't roll seven for 180 days. No one can take that away from the Orioles, just as no one could with his surprising '95 Red Sox club. The problem, though, is what comes next.
The Orioles have a lot to like in their core - the aforementioned Jones, Wieters, and Markakis trio is a productive one, and now that Manny Machado is here, there is even more to like. But there are also issues. Bullpens that succeed once don't necessarily do so again. The pitchers who were so good for the '95 Red Sox were hurt, regressed, or just flat-out stunk the next season. While this isn't a worry for bullpen ace Jim Johnson, it's fair to ask if the likes of Troy Patton, Luis Ayala, or Darren O'Day are guaranteed to have dominating relief efforts once more. It's hard to build a bullpen, and doing it once well doesn't mean it's a given each time out.
The 1996 Red Sox dealt with injuries in their rotation just like the preceding team had, but this time around, Duquette's magic cure-alls didn't do the trick. Tinsley once again became irrelevant. Naehring was not as healthy. Mike Greenwell became more of a question than an answer in left. Canseco once again missed significant time. O'Leary took steps back. Valentin, while still productive, was no longer challenging Cal Ripken as King of Shortstops. The players brought in to help with these issues, such as Darren Bragg and Wil Cordero, did little to stop the bleeding. Nine different pitchers made starts, and just one was better-than-average (or average at all) in the role over the course of the season. While that was great for Roger Clemens, it wasn't so good for the other eight hurlers. And the 2013 Orioles don't have a Roger Clemens, nor do they have any guaranteed-to-succeed arms in the rotation.
Look how much help it took for the lineup to succeed even to the level it did in 2012. In a tough AL East, all it takes is one major injury, or for Chris Davis to turn into a strikeout-generating pumpkin at the stroke of Opening Day, or to be stuck with a little too much Lew Ford and not enough Nate McClouth on the waiver wire to make life difficult. Duquette hit all of the right notes in 2012, but he did so in 1995 as well, and that didn't help Boston out in subsequent years.
This isn't to say that Duquette won't succeed again in Baltimore. It's just that it's not as simple as repeating the trick. Eventually, he found his groove in '96, through trades and pick-ups as is his way, but the hole Boston dug - they were 14 games under. 500 on July 6 - was too deep to climb out of entirely, and they finished in third place. Orioles fans have to hope that Duquette is mindful of the limitations inherent in his approach, and that he's able to pick up the pieces and rebuild on the fly once more should things start to fall apart again.
Marc Normandin is one of SBN's Designated Columnists and one of the managers of Over the Monster. Follow him at @Marc_Normandin.