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2019 will tell if Duquette’s fire sale did any good for the Orioles

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Dan Duquette is gone, but his last gift lives on, for now. It’s a make or break year for many of the prospects he acquired.

Tampa Bay Rays v Baltimore Orioles Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

The Orioles set off on their rebuilding course last July when former general manager Dan Duquette traded anyone with value in a series of trades that netted the O’s a total of 15 players. The 2019 season will go a long way towards figuring out whether Duquette’s last moves were shrewd or if the same front office deficiencies in scouting and player evaluation that led the O’s to their 47-115 record last year also meant that they just acquired a bunch of bums.

In a move whose symbolic importance far outstrips its actual importance, the O’s began 2019 by casting off the first of those 15 players from the organization. Infielder Breyvic Valera was designated for assignment a few days ago and dispatched in a trade to the Giants for cash considerations. That branch of Duquette’s trade tree will bear no fruit for the O’s.

Valera, who turns 27 today, was probably the least interesting of the 15 players acquired. Between his age and his apparent ceiling as a utility infielder at best, his inclusion in the Manny Machado trade made him seem like a throw-in at best. The fact that new GM Mike Elias decided within two months on the job that the Orioles have no use for Valera is not much of a surprise, nor is it a disappointment.

So far, Elias has offered general praise for the players left to him when he took over the Orioles. At his introductory press conference in November, he said, “There are players on this team and in the organization right now who are going to be a part of the next playoff team.”

About the farm system, Elias added, “There’s more than enough here to work with,” indicating, without naming names, that there are “future stars” and “really good pitchers” in the minors already. Whether this is something he meant seriously or if it was more in the vein of a diplomatic platitude to keep the returning players from feeling defeated, time will tell.

A lot of the players Duquette acquired in the Machado, Zach Britton, Kevin Gausman, and Jonathan Schoop trades are getting on the old side for prospects. Jonathan Villar, 28 in May, was the lone established MLBer acquired in these trades. If a player is 23 and in MLB, he’s young. If that same guy is struggling in Double-A at that age, he’s probably not far from the end of his road as a big league hopeful.

Of the 13 players who had no MLB time when the O’s acquired them, they will play the 2019 season at the following ages (age on July 1, 2019):

  • 26 - LHP Cody Carroll
  • 25 - RHP Dillon Tate
  • 24 - LHP Josh Rogers, C Brett Cumberland, LHP Bruce Zimmermann, RHP Evan Phillips
  • 23 - RHP Dean Kremer, IF Rylan Bannon, RHP Luis Ortiz
  • 22 - OF Yusniel Diaz, RHP Zach Pop
  • 21 - 3B Jean Carlos Encarnacion
  • 19 - IF Jean Carmona

Almost to a man, these players were performing well in their old systems before being traded, with performance that seemed to be exceeding their expectations as prospects. It seemed like Duquette may have even been targeting such players, hoping to catch guys whose stars were on the rise but whose reputations hadn’t caught up yet.

Because Orioles fans aren’t allowed to have nice things, those solid performances crashed back down in the 4-6 week sample sizes they got in the O’s system after the trades. It’s not worth getting upset about yet, though headlines like “Diaz struggled with Bowie as he made swing adjustments with his new team” certainly might lead to some facepalming.

There was never any chance that the Orioles were going to go 15/15 in getting useful big leaguers out of these trades. With nine of the 13 names above at 23 or older for the 2019 season, these guys are at the point where if they’re not succeeding, they’re running out of time where you can make excuses for how they still have potential.

A year from now, some number of these guys - hopefully not very many - are going to be headed towards Valera territory where it’s clear they have no future with the O’s. If we get through the year and many are finding success at new levels, Duquette’s last legacy should avoid comparisons to the Syd Thrift fire sale from the early years of the previous dark days. In a worst-case scenario where nearly all of those guys look like busts a year from now, Duquette will not be looking great.

The good news for all Orioles prospects hopes of reaching their maximum potential is that the arrival of Elias and company will mean an end to the days of the old player development program. Whether it was Duquette’s fault or Buck Showalter’s or both, there are a lot of anecdotes out there of the harm being done by backwards thinking in the O’s organization that is not present in better-run teams. That’s how the farm system ended up in poor shape despite the influx of talent from Duquette in July.

Now, the O’s seem to be one of the better-run teams. It’s just going to take time to put all of that modern thinking into action, and if it turns out that the Duquette haul was a lot of scrubs, there’s nothing Elias can really do to change that.

Only Diaz, the headliner of the Machado trade, rated among the top 100 prospects in the game at the time these deals were made. Not that being a top 100 prospect guarantees anything, anyway.

There’s no shortage of players who received that designation and later flamed out. Look no farther than Tate and Ortiz, the biggest-name minor leaguers in the Britton and Schoop trades, respectively, both former top 100 prospects who lost that status after years of never quite making the big leap. These are the ones the O’s need to work out the most.

Perhaps Elias’s people can reverse that course. The Orioles of the future could certainly benefit from some of the predicted stars and really good pitchers emerging. By the end of 2019, we’ll have a much better idea which of Duquette’s last gifts could still give something to the Orioles and which will turn out to be busts instead.