A couple weeks ago, I took a look at the sunken portion of the Orioles payroll. I noted that the team had made arbitration and free agent decisions on a group of guys who were cumulatively costing over $25 million and producing negative value. In the ensuing weeks, these players have continued to struggle, and the murmurs about the team's offseason have only picked up -- did Dan Duquette have a rare flop of an offseason?
You do still have to give Duquette his due in finding value in unknowns, from Jimmy Paredes to Chaz Roe to Chris Parmelee (maybe). But he also made a number of offseason decisions to sign or retain guys who haven't produced. So let's look at three questions: Which of these decisions were the result of bad process? Which were just bad luck? And was there a better set of players Duquette can or should have gotten instead?
Good Process, Bad Results
Delmon Young, Bud Norris, Everth Cabrera ($13.5M, -2.4 WAR)
For the most part, anyone who says that they knew Young and Norris would be as bad as they've been is just playing the part of Captain Hindsight. Offering Norris his final year of arbitration was a no-brainer after he had his best season in 2014. And re-signing Young to a one-year deal after his role in 2014 wasn't a terrible idea, either (although a two-year deal would have been, and that's where Duquette drew the line). There was no rational reason to believe those two would fail as hard as they did.
Everth Cabrera is a borderline decision, but I think it's fair to say that it was a good attempt. Cabrera looked like a classic change of scenery guy, he had shown power and contact skills in the past, and he could cover second base and shortstop, positions where the Orioles were thin due to injury at the season's start. Cabrera didn't pan out, but there were valid reasons to think he would, especially for $2.25M and a one-year commitment.
Just Bad Process
Wesley Wright, Alejandro De Aza, Ryan Lavarnway, Tommy Hunter ($11.85M, -0.5 WAR)
Two of these guys were brought in to fill needs the team didn't really have. Lavarnway was brought in to back up Caleb Joseph until Matt Wieters returned, showing the team's lack of confidence in Steve Clevenger -- but Clevenger couldn't have been any worse than Lavarnway ended up being. Wright's signing was supposed to presage a non-tendering of Brian Matusz, but Matusz is still around, Matuszing things up. But honestly, Wright was hurt and then apparently ineffective before his DFA, and Matusz is at least still a passable LOOGY -- so why sign Wright to begin with if you're going to keep Matusz?
Some folks will argue with the other two here -- Hunter and De Aza, who were tendered their final arbitration years for about $5M each, and have flopped in 2015 (with De Aza now gone and Hunter still struggling). There were SOME valid reasons to believe that the two could produce value equivalent to their deals (which would really only require about 1 WAR apiece), and that cutting them would have been risky, requiring more unknown replacements -- but the thing is that neither player had a consistent track record heading into the season. Non-tendering both would've been an entirely justifiable decision, and Chaz Roe and Chris Parmelee show you how easy it can be to replace the kind of players that De Aza and Hunter are.
But What Were the Alternatives?
This is where things get dicier. It's easy to play Monday morning quarterback on Duquette's decisions and say that they were bad -- but what would have been the better moves? Throw out the long-term deals given to guys like Nelson Cruz, Nick Markakis and Max Scherzer, because the money above pays for them this year, but not for the out years of those contracts, which can cripple a smaller market franchise. The real question is, how could the Orioles have applied that money to one- or two-year deals that would have produced better results?
Colby Rasmus is one fair starting point. If the Orioles had signed Rasmus as a 1-for-1 replacement for De Aza or Young, that would have worked out pretty well for them. Rasmus got a one year, $8M deal from Houston, and deployed well in a platoon situation, he has produced 1.4 WAR to date. The Orioles didn't like whatever they found out about Rasmus in their meetings with him, but his baseball results have been a lot better than what the Orioles have gotten from the guys above. It's also fair to point out that the lefty outfielder that Duquette did acquire, Travis Snider, had produced similar value to this point.
To be honest, the rest of this past offseason's free agents don't look so great right now (Alex Rios? Nori Aoki? Ew.) If you want to critique Duquette's offseason much further and offer a viable replacement plan, you have to look at trades Duquette might have made, which always requires a lot of guesswork. You can't just assume that the Orioles could've gotten Mike Trout for Brian Matusz. The names that trade rumors linked to the team, like Matt Kemp, haven't been much better than most of the lousy short-term free agents.
So you can say that Dan Duquette had some flops this offseason. I think it's entirely fair to say that some of his decisionmaking was overly deferential to inertia, belief in "our guys," and maybe even excess optimism. But some of those things may have been borne of necessity, or a lack of alternative options that looked any more appealing last winter. Aside from pointless (but minimally harmful) signings like Lavarnway and Wright, most of the rest of Duquette's decisions weren't much worse than other choices he might've made, with the possible exception of Rasmus over De Aza or Young.