The Orioles starting rotation is in dire straits. This is not any kind of secret. The rotation was the biggest thing to worry about with this year’s edition of the team going back to last year, when the team also had a bad rotation. Those worries persisted over the offseason and the O’s have done nothing to make that concern go away.
The 2016 Orioles rotation is somehow even worse than last year’s. How could we have found a rotation with a 4.53 ERA so disappointing? We didn’t know how good we had it. If they carried that ERA again this year, they’d be in 10th in starter ERA in the American League - still bad, but not BAD.
Instead, entering Sunday’s game, they had a 5.00 ERA for the year. Even being aware of how bad they’ve been, it’s still a surprise to look at a number like that as a realization of just how bad it’s been. It’s so bad that I just explained how bad and I still can’t believe how bad it is.
It’s not very hard to read between the lines for who long-time baseball writer Peter Gammons blames for this situation:
The '16 Orioles have used 4 starting P not signed or traded for by Andy MacPhail. Those four are 10-16, 5.75— Peter Gammons (@pgammo) August 21, 2016
The above tweet is wrong, though if corrected, its core point still stands. Gammons seems to have forgotten to count Kevin Gausman, drafted in 2012, the first draft with Dan Duquette at the helm. Add Gausman’s 2016 performance to that of Ubaldo Jimenez, Yovani Gallardo, Vance Worley, and Wade Miley, and you come up with a 5.31 ERA for starts made by those gentlemen this year.
Even the two struggling starters who were drafted by MacPhail, Mike Wright and Tyler Wilson, who have combined for a 5.64 ERA, were only pressed into big league duty because of the inadequacy of Duquette’s plan. He’s had long enough to build up the organization so those guys wouldn’t be needed.
That’s a horrible collective performance, and there’s no getting around that Duquette, as the architect of this unit, deserves a lot of blame for its utter failure. However, if there is some implication that Duquette doesn’t know what he’s doing, or perhaps that he’s only achieved any success because of players he’s inherited from the Andy MacPhail days, that’s just wrong.
I don’t know if Gammons is trying to make that implication. I do know that there are plenty of voices within the sphere of Orioles fans who seem to believe that Duquette is some kind of blundering, incompetent doofus. I’m sure you have also heard those voices, or at least read their words, more over the span of the current disappointing O’s homestand.
Hey, they’re not totally wrong
It’s something of an understandable opinion. Gallardo is in August of the first year of a two year deal and has yet to do much to suggest it was a good idea to give up a draft pick to sign him. A whole lot of people would like to see Jimenez on the first train out of town, and even those like me who feel bad for the guy on a human level for all of his struggles aren’t enthused to see him pitch.
These two moves have worked out so poorly that you really have to wonder what it is that made Duquette ever believe they could possibly be good ideas.
Then there’s Miley, the “big” trade deadline acquisition. It’s only been four games, but his Friday shenanigans ruining the Orioles historic first run home run party were not a great introduction. Had Miley been merely mediocre (as advertised) instead of astoundingly bad, the O’s are probably just a half game back in the division right now.
Baseball fandom is a “What have you done for me lately?” kind of thing. Of course it is. What’s happening right now matters more than what happened last year, because fans are living with the consequences right now. The future is also going to be much more influenced by the current trajectory rather than any past events.
Still, hitting Duquette with the “It’s still MacPhail’s team winning!” card is not giving him credit for what he has accomplished with the two playoff teams he has overseen, things that would not have happened if MacPhail stuck around.
A good 2012 team emerges from nowhere
The team that Duquette inherited in that first season, particularly its pitching staff, was a genuine mess. The MacPhail Orioles were basically committed to the continually-failing “cavalry” of Jake Arrieta, Zach Britton, Brian Matusz, and Chris Tillman as starters. They also had Jeremy Guthrie and Tommy Hunter kicking around.
That first offseason saw Duquette spin Guthrie for Jason Hammel. He signed Wei-Yin Chen for practically peanuts. He stashed Miguel Gonzalez in the minors. He gave himself some options that MacPhail never did. When the young guns again failed to pan out as starters (other than Tillman, eventually,) the Orioles had other choices.
Gonzalez was very good once the Orioles brought him up. Tillman was great at last in the second half. Chen proved to be the league average starter the Orioles always desperately need and, in less successful years, do not find. These allowed the O’s to use less of Hunter, Britton, Arrieta, and Matusz as starters. Duquette even found wild card game hero Joe Saunders late in the season.
I have yet to see a convincing reason to believe that the 2012 turnaround, especially the late-season improvement of its pitching staff, would have happened if MacPhail was still the GM of the team. In MacPhail’s last year as GM, he committed about $25 million to Vladimir Guerrero, Derrek Lee, and Kevin Gregg.
Two years on, the moves were still bearing fruit
Remember when the Orioles won the division? That was awesome. They won that division while having a starting pitcher in 128 of the 162 regular season games who was drafted, signed, or traded for by Duquette. That’s every start that was made by a pitcher other than Tillman.
Both of Chen and Gonzalez continued to benefit the Orioles. Gausman stepped into the big league ranks in just his second full professional season and handled himself well. Bud Norris, acquired at the 2013 trade deadline, put things together in his first full year as an Oriole.
Duquette’s fingerprints were all over this rotation and all over the pitching staff in general. Did you know that the 2014 O’s only allowed 593 runs over the whole season? The 2016 Orioles still have 39 games left to play and they’ve already allowed 561 runs! That 2014 staff - starters and relievers both - was so good as a unit without having any one great starter.
There are problems with the O’s farm now, but those problems are largely not chickens coming home to roost from the decisions that led to the success of the past four years. Not getting to pick until the third round of the 2014 draft has an impact, but the O’s aren’t feeling that impact at the big league level yet.
Looking for the next miracle
The man is clearly not King Midas. Not everything that he touches turns to gold. No one bats 1.000 at this.
Duquette has some problematic ideas, like valuing competitive balance draft picks as only bait to dangle for a modest salary dump. His late-offseason pitching signings, which appear to be a deliberate strategy, have not worked out.
There have been trades that have been egregiously misguided, like last year’s acquisitions of Travis Snider and Gerardo Parra, which cost the O’s three pitching prospects, two of whom have pitched in the big leagues this season.
The fate of assorted top O’s draft picks - Gausman, Dylan Bundy, Hunter Harvey - leaves one naturally wondering whether the O’s have the right staff in place to develop these guys to be healthy and productive big league pitchers. Same with the fact that Arrieta’s now a Cy Young winner with the Cubs. These things are sources of regular frustration.
Duquette is going to have to pull a rabbit out of his hat to get things going again, or hope that Gallardo and Miley start pitching better, at the very least. The Orioles have a lot of money tied up in those two and Jimenez. They can’t - and given the status of the free agent market coming this offseason, probably shouldn’t - rely on improving much of the rotation from outside the organization this year.
Maybe, in the end, it will turn out that Duquette was best used only as the guy to jump-start a floundering franchise. He has definitely done that. Maybe he will not prove to be the guy who is best for building an organization that can sustain success.
That’s a suspicion that will linger if this year’s O’s fall apart, or even just fall out of a playoff spot, over the last month and a half. The team is, unfortunately, headed in that direction at this moment in time. The season’s ongoing problem with the starting rotation is a big part of why.
Duquette has done enough in his tenure that he doesn’t deserve to have fans practically storming the Warehouse with torches and pitchforks. Or at least, not yet.