A defense of Dan Duquette

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Dan Duquette in 2015. Photo by Keith Allison.

There likely won’t be any front-page farewell tributes to Dan Duquette, the former executive vice president of operations who the Orioles yesterday announced would not be returning.

Unlike former manager Buck Showalter, whose contract was also not renewed, Duquette never had clever turns of phrase or outwardly embraced the city in a way fans could appreciate, remembrances mentioned in The Sun‘s story weighing fans’ reactions to the skipper’s departure. Duquette was the strait-laced baseball man, and in interviews, he seemed as careful about what he didn’t say as much as what he did, sometimes making him come off as affectless.

But if Showalter gets credit for leading the Orioles back to the playoffs and into a stretch of winning that lasted from 2012-2016, Duquette must be recognized as the architect. Yes, he inherited a great core that included Adam Jones, Matt Wieters, Nick Markakis and Chris Davis in the majors, along with Manny Machado and Jonathan Schoop in the minors. But what made Duquette great in Baltimore was his ability to make shrewd moves that surrounded that core with a cast of players to push them over the top.

Conversely, he and Showalter both must share the blame for a 47-115 season–the worst record in franchise history and one of the worst in the history of modern baseball.

It was in that context, as this disastrous campaign wound to a close, that an earlier report came out suggesting Showalter would be gone but Duquette would be re-signed. Many fans dismissed this as absurd, placing the blame for the lack of talent on the field at Duquette’s feet. But it’s not as crazy as it sounds when you consider the handicaps placed on whoever’s running the Baltimore Orioles and the groundwork that has been laid for the future. Maybe he deserved more respect than he got. Here are three reasons why.

1. Being GM of the Orioles is like running a team with one hand tied behind your back, and he made it work.

Principal owner Peter Angelos, who has reportedly ceded control of the franchise to his sons, John and Lou, has a well-established reputation as a meddling owner who inserts himself into personnel decisions. That includes nixing trades or free agent signings, or in one of the worst cases, taking over negotiations (more on that later).

One of the most questionable choices Angelos made during his stewardship was his complete lack of investment in international free agents, a source of considerable major league talent that practically every other club taps into. As Baseball America observed earlier this year, “Ownership’s disregard for international signings continues to damage the franchise, leaving the Orioles farm system nearly devoid of homegrown international prospects.”

Duquette was left to trade away international pool money for prospects–some became big-league contributors, others did not.

It wasn’t until this summer, when it was painfully clear the Orioles would need to undergo a rebuild and dealt away star infielder Manny Machado, that Duquette won concessions from ownership to invest more money in scouting and the international market.

To top it all off, the emergence of Brady Anderson–an Angelos family confidant–as vice president of baseball operations reportedly undermined Duquette’s ability to do his job and created confusion within the organization. As The Athletic‘s Dan Connolly points out (paywall), this situation is still unresolved as the Orioles go about picking the next person to lead the front office. Which leads us to…

2. The worst contracts on the books are not Duquette’s fault.

A particularly bleak ritual of watching the 2018 Orioles was seeing Chris Davis go up to the plate and fail again and again and again. His .168 batting average is the lowest of any qualifying hitter in baseball history. Like it or not, the Orioles are stuck with Davis for another four years, and owe him a bunch of deferred money even after that.

The extension, signed in 2016 after Davis hit 47 home runs and 117 RBI, would seem to fall squarely on the shoulders of Duquette, the man in charge of acquiring and resigning players. But no, this goes back to Angelos’ meddling–this time in an effort to make sure a deal got done, rather than blocking it.

Angelos met with Davis’ agent, Scott Boras, and talked with the slugger on the phone, offering the first baseman a sense of comfort an extension would be worked out. And even though the team’s initial offer was rejected and there was seemingly no other club courting Davis, the team upped the annual salary anyway, essentially bidding against themselves.

Not long after the ink dried, the contract proved to be a terrible one, and it currently is an anchor on the franchise as the rebuild continues to take shape. As Orioles reporter Britt Ghiroli tweeted yesterday, Davis accounts for 40 percent of the money committed to next year’s payroll all by himself.

And then there’s Anderson. He reportedly played a key role in bringing back reliever Darren O’Day and right fielder Mark Trumbo following the 2016 season. Both regressed and dealt with injuries; O’Day was shipped off to the Atlanta Braves in July as a salary dump, while Trumbo will likely be back next season.

Heading into this year, Anderson brokered deals for pitchers Andrew Cashner, Alex Cobb and Chris Tillman. As ESPN reported: “Two sources cited examples of players or agents reaching out to Anderson when they thought Duquette was taking too tough a stance in contract talks. The blurred lines can reflect the lack of a unified front and pose a temptation for players and/or agents to try to do an ‘end around’ and circumvent the process.”

Tillman, once an Oriole great, flamed out, and both Cashner and Cobb performed well below expectations.

3. Duquette had the minor league system heading in the right direction even before the trade deadline.

Often disparaged by national publications, something that drew Duquette’s ire, the Orioles’ farm system has improved by leaps and bounds in recent years. To be clear, there were some rough years in the early going, but Duquette, director of scouting Gary Rajsich and director of player development Brian Graham clearly landed on a system that works.

Case in point: The 2015 draft started paying dividends this year, with outfielders DJ Stewart and Cedric Mullins and pitcher Ryan Meisinger all making their major league debuts. Two other draftees from that class, third baseman Ryan Mountcastle and outfielder Ryan McKenna, should be knocking on the door soon.

With each successive draft, the Orioles added multiple prospects that, at the very least, show the potential to make the big leagues. In 2016 there were starting pitchers Keegan Akin and Brenan Hanifee and outfielder Austin Hays (first-round selection Cody Sedlock has been beset by injuries, but still could prove to be a valuable piece). A year later, they took starting pitchers D.L. Hall, Michael Baumann and Cameron Bishop, and infielder Adam Hall.

While it’s still a bit early to assess 2018, the early returns on starters Grayson Rodriguez, Drew Rom and Kevin Magee are promising.

Sure, not all of these guys will pan out, but that’s true of of every team’s prospects. The difference between the Orioles of 2012 and the Orioles now is that more players are having success in the minors, which often leads to success in the majors. Add in all the players acquired in the trades of Machado, Schoop and reliever Zach Britton, and it’s clear the foundation for the next great Orioles team has been set.

That team will now be run by someone else.

Brandon Weigel

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