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Under Dan Duquette, the Orioles quickly became winners, then losers, again

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The just-departed Orioles GM turned the team from a 69-win afterthought to a 93-win wild card team in one offseason. On the flip side, it was a long fall from 2014 to this year’s 47-115 mess.

Toronto Blue Jays v Baltimore Orioles Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

When Dan Duquette took over the Orioles, they were fresh off a season where they won just 69 games, spinning wheels in a rut with the failure of “the cavalry” and no backup plan in sight. With only about three months to work with, Duquette turned that roster of losers into one that went on to win the wild card in 2012 and the American League East in 2014. For this, he deserves to be remembered as a hero in Baltimore sports lore.

Unfortunately for Duquette, despite his apparent best efforts to get a promotion to a better job in Toronto after that 2014 season, the Angelos family made him stay here to fulfill his contract, and then his narrative began to turn as the Orioles fortunes sank. It was a long fall from the AL East title in 2014 to the worst Orioles team that anyone has ever seen this season. Duquette built it up and under Duquette it all fell apart again, even worse than before.

Let’s start with Duquette’s great success. Now that we’re several years removed from it, it’s hard to forget how much of a dismal season it was in 2011, that last awesome game against the Red Sox notwithstanding. Former GM Andy MacPhail had his snappy phrase, “Grow the arms and buy the bats,” which even now sounds like a good idea as long as these aren’t your arms, with 2011 stats included:

  • Zach Britton - 4.61 ERA in 28 GS
  • Jake Arrieta - 5.05 ERA in 22 GS
  • Chris Tillman - 5.52 ERA in 13 GS
  • Brian Matusz - 10.69 ERA in 12 GS

There they are: The cavalry. Those were the arms MacPhail was growing. Three out of four of them would never see success as starting pitchers in Baltimore, and the fourth only apparently blossomed after working under Duquette hires. This was a disaster and until Duquette came in, took a look at it and said, “Oh, HELL no,” there was no alternate plan for the franchise.

We should not forget, either, the unlikelihood that the chaotic process that led to Duquette’s hiring would ever lead to a quality Orioles team. It seemed that every person with talent in baseball was running away screaming from the job. Blue Jays assistant Tony LaCava turned down the job; three years later, the Jays wanted to hire Duquette to be the boss of LaCava’s boss. Seven years later, LaCava remains an assistant GM.

Duquette’s low-key moves over that first offseason did not seem like the sorts of things that would fix a horrible rotation, yet that’s exactly what ended up happening. He traded fan favorite Jeremy Guthrie for Jason Hammel, the best O’s starter in 2012, signed Wei-Yin Chen from Japan, and Miguel Gonzalez from Mexico.

When 75% of the cavalry failed yet again, the Orioles did not have to throw up its arms and endure one of the worst pitching staffs in the AL yet again. There were other options and they worked out wonderfully.

It is certainly the case that Duquette’s first Orioles team could not have won without the Andy MacPhail holdovers. MacPhail’s trades brought the Orioles, among others, Adam Jones, Chris Davis, and J.J. Hardy, and he inked the Nick Markakis contract extension that kept him here through 2014. MacPhail drafted Manny Machado. You don’t have a winner without those guys. But remember that “buy the bats” for MacPhail meant Derrek Lee and Vladimir Guerrero.

In 2014, Duquette was able to put a bit more of his stamp on the team and the team’s fortunes rose higher. The rotation continued to feature Tillman, Chen and Gonzalez, along with Duquette draftee Kevin Gausman, Duquette trade piece Bud Norris, and, uh, Duquette signee Ubaldo Jimenez. The team had the third-best ERA in the American League in large part because for once they had a good starting rotation.

There was the bargain basement signing of Nelson Cruz that worked out perfectly, and off the scrap heap, he found Steve Pearce and Delmon Young, the man who gave us the greatest moment in Camden Yards history, non-Ripken division. The 96-win AL East champions were Dan Duquette’s Orioles. No one should pretend otherwise just because they don’t like what he did later.

The thing about climbing high is that sometimes that means you have farther to fall. The Orioles have been on the way down ever since. It started right after that 2014 offseason when the team decided it could move on from Markakis and Cruz and would be able to replace them. They were wrong, and their attempts to do so depleted the farm system of some pitching prospects.

It’s four years later and the Orioles still haven’t really figured out the corner outfield situation, though there was a brief bit of life in 2016 thanks to another shrewd Duquette deal, the one that brought Mark Trumbo here. No, Trumbo wasn’t a good right fielder, and he shouldn’t have been re-signed, but those 47 dingers in 2016 were awesome anyway.

If there is one thing I would really like to know about Duquette’s tenure, it is: Why were they unable to evaluate starting pitchers? Were there a bunch of idiot scouts telling them that it would be a good idea to forfeit a draft pick to sign Jimenez or Yovani Gallardo? Were similar idiots pounding the table and saying, “You’ve got to trade for Wade Miley!” and later, Jeremy Hellickson? Was Duquette himself the idiot behind these judgments?

The result of all of this was that the 2016 Orioles made the wild card game despite a rotten core of a starting rotation that had the third-worst ERA in the AL. The next year, this became even worse as the O’s hit an MLB-worst 5.70 ERA, and in 2018 they were once again the worst despite the ever-so-slight improvement to a 5.48 rotation ERA.

These, too, were Duquette rotations. The man who gave us Hammel, Chen, and Gonzalez could not repeat that magic as he tried to sign and trade for pitchers people have actually heard of. A barren farm system that he helped to strip as he chased wins in 2014, 2015, and 2016 was of no help in trying to arrest the decline once it began. Duquette never quite found the next Young or Nate McLouth, either, despite repeatedly trying.

It is official now that Duquette will not be back next year. His complete legacy cannot be written yet. That will be affected by the success or failure of the several trades that he made in July in order to try to kick the team into a rebuilding phase that they ultimately decided they did not want to see him in charge of.

If one or more of those prospects from each of the four big trades finds his way to success on the Orioles, that will be another positive in favor of Duquette. If the trade returns end up being largely bust city, with whiff after whiff on his attempts to bolster the franchise, those trades will instead be another obstacle to Duquette being remembered fondly in Baltimore.

There will always be the mystery of just how much Duquette was responsible for some of the bad moves in the later years. Many have written about the dysfunction in the front office; the normally-upbeat Steve Melewski recently describing “some of the discord behind the scenes” as “troubling” is only the latest example. Something really weird and apparently extremely bad was going on in the Warehouse.

It was probably not Duquette behind the free agent contract given to Davis, which sucked up a lot of budget that could have gone elsewhere. Then again, presented with the money to sign pitchers this past offseason, Duquette signed Andrew Cashner, Alex Cobb, and Tillman. Were they his moves? Were they “Buck guy” moves?

The question of who was the dope evaluating bad starting pitchers as being acceptable to acquire remains. Maybe someone will write a book some day. At least the Orioles have promised that the next GM will have the authority to make the final determination about everything relating to baseball operations. It’s sad that they have to specify that.

Was Dan Duquette a good general manager? Yes. Was he a bad one? Also yes. I am glad that the Orioles hired him when they did, and now, I am glad that he is gone.