Five questions: Baltimore Orioles

Can Dan Duquette rescue the franchise?

It’s no secret the Orioles have been an unsightly mess over the last decade-and-a-half. Terrible on-field play, poor front-office decisions, and oppressive ownership have resulted in a team that’s suffered 14 straight losing seasons.

Worse still, the Orioles may have reached their nadir during their botched general manager search this winter. Seeking a replacement for Andy MacPhail, the O’s targeted several up-and-coming executives, only to be rejected one by one. Jerry Dipoto opted for the Angels’ GM job, and Jays assistant GM Tony LaCava, the presumed frontrunner, went running for the hills after his first meeting with owner Peter Angelos. Several other promising candidates withdrew their names from consideration or refused an interview, wanting no part of the Orioles’ notoriously muddled front-office process.

Enter Duquette, the former Red Sox GM who had been out of baseball for 10 years. Eager to get back into the game, Duquette was willing to abide by the less-than-ideal conditions of the Orioles’ chief executive job. He faces a monumental task, to be sure. The O’s have become a perpetual 90-loss doormat in a stacked AL East division, and their minor-league system is frighteningly thin beyond its top three prospects (pitcher Dylan Bundy and infielders Manny Machado and Jonathon Schoop).

Duquette has wasted no time in revamping the organization, but early returns have been mixed. The most promising changes have occurred off the field, where Duquette has dramatically restructured the scouting and minor-league development operations. Considering the Orioles’ woeful recent history of drafting and developing quality big-league players, Duquette’s changes were a welcome sight and long overdue.

He brought in several of his former colleagues in Boston to ease the transition and also made shrewd hires such as pitching guru Rick Peterson to oversee the development of the Orioles’ minor-league pitchers. The addition of experienced coaches, scouts, and front-office execs with a track record of success will hopefully help the Orioles restock their underwhelming farm system over the next few years.

Duquette’s changes to the Orioles’ roster, though, have been less than successful. What he has in quantity—13 new additions to the O’s 40-man roster—he lacks in quality. Duquette has avoided the upper-tier and even mid-tier acquisitions, instead mostly dipping into the fringes of the free-agent market and futzing along the edges of the roster with bench players and relief pitchers.

Certainly, nobody expected the Orioles to break the bank for high-priced prizes like Prince Fielder and Yu Darvish, but it seems Duquette set his sights even lower than necessary when pursuing big-league players, settling for the likes of Dana Eveland and Wilson Betemit. His uninspiring acquisitions likely won’t bring any noticeable improvement to a team that finished 24 games under .500 last season.

So far, it’s unclear what direction Duquette plans to take for this team. He isn’t building a contender for 2012, but he also hasn’t shown much inclination toward rebuilding for the future. He hasn’t traded veteran assets for up-and-coming prospects. In his only significant move thus far, dealing O’s ace Jeremy Guthrie to Colorado, Duquette didn’t land a single prospect, instead acquiring two fellow veterans who are under team control just one year longer than Guthrie.

It seems Duquette has yet to take a definitive stand on whether to build for the present or build for the future, and instead has accomplished neither. Let’s remember, though, that he’s barely four months into his tenure. Duquette has plenty of time to develop a clear plan and hopefully remold the franchis into a winner somewhere down the road. We can only hope he’ll succeed where countless others have failed.

Will the Orioles’ pursuit of international talent pay off?

One of the most significant changes since Duquette took over is the Orioles’ increased activity in the international scene. Previous administrations were so inactive in the international market that it seemed they were barely aware that other countries even exist.

For years, the O’s have largely ignored the Dominican Republic, Cuba, and other countries that have produced quality talent for countless other teams. And when the O’s signed Koji Uehara before the 2009 season, he was the first player the club had ever signed from Japan.

Duquette, by contrast, has not shied away from looking globally. He signed two veterans of Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball league, left-handers Tsuyoshi Wada and Wei-Yin Chen, both of whom likely will be in the Orioles’ Opening Day rotation.

He has installed longtime scout Fred Ferreira as the new director of international recruiting and encouraged a renewed focus on players in Venezuela and the Dominican. He’s even gotten creative with a few acquisitions, such as signing 17-year-old New Zealand softball player Pita Rona.

Still, this being the Orioles, not everything has gone off without a hitch. Duquette and the Orioles committed a costly blunder in South Korea, signing 17-year-old pitcher Seong-Min Kim without first obtaining permission from MLB and the Korean Baseball Organization. As a result, the O’s were handed a fine from MLB, had Kim’s signing put on hold, and got themselves banned from South Korea.

All this for a kid who may or may not even be a legitimate prospect, depending on whom you ask. It was an embarrassing misstep for Duquette that raised some concerns about whether his 10 years out of the game have left him a bit rusty about how things are done.

The Orioles’ increased presence across the globe is a positive development, no doubt. If the O’s finally can start to develop international talent after years of letting the well run dry, they’ll be better able to keep pace with their divisional foes. Let’s just hope the Orioles learn to follow the rules before they end up blacklisted by an entire hemisphere.

Will the young pitchers finally step up?

It’s hard to believe it was only three years ago that then-manager Dave Trembley excitedly crowed about the “cavalry,” the Orioles’ cadre of highly touted, up-and-coming pitchers. Orioles fans had high hopes that promising hurlers such as Brian Matusz, Jake Arrieta, Chris Tillman, and Zach Britton would stabilize the rotation and become the young, talented core of the next great Orioles team.

Instead, the youngsters have hit a wall, and the Orioles’ pitching staff has been nothing short of disastrous. Arrieta has struggled with inconsistent command and high pitch counts and had season-ending elbow surgery last year. Britton started off his rookie season sizzling hot but fell off so badly that he was demoted to the minors in July, and he reported to camp this year with soreness in his shoulder. Tillman has essentially become an afterthought after three years of shuttling between the majors and minors without sustained success.

And Matusz? Ugh. I could write a separate Five Questions article just about him. Questions include: “What happened to Brian Matusz last year?” and “No, seriously, guys, what the heck happened to Brian Matusz last year?” He was a lost cause from the get-go, missing two months with a strained oblique and then returning with an inexplicable 3-4 mph drop in velocity. He posted the worst ERA in major-league history (10.69) for a pitcher with 10 or more starts.

There’s a possibility that none of the “cavalry” will be part of the Orioles’ 2012 Opening Day rotation. No rotation slots are officially locked down, but Chen and Wada are likely to take two spots, as are holdover Tommy Hunter and newcomer Jason Hammel. Plenty of other pitchers are in the mix, including Eveland, Alfredo Simon, Brad Bergesen, and non-roster invitee Armando Galarraga.

It’s conceivable (though not wise) that Britton, Arrieta, Matusz, and Tillman will all open 2012 at Triple-A Norfolk. Whenever they do get their chance to return to the majors, though, it’s time for them to step up. The O’s won’t go anywhere if their young pitching doesn’t pan out.

Will Brian Roberts ever play again?

It pains me to type those words. Brian Roberts has been a stellar player throughout his 11-year Orioles career, a two-time All-Star, a sparkplug at the top of the lineup, and the face of the franchise for the better part of a decade. He’s a surefire entry into the Orioles Hall of Fame when he calls it a career.

Sadly, he might be forced to do so sooner rather than later. Roberts has been riddled with injuries the last two seasons, none more serious than a concussion he suffered late in the 2010 season that plagued him again last May. He hasn’t played a game since.

Based on comments from Roberts this offseason, it might be a long time before we see him back on the field, if ever. He is still experiencing concussion symptoms—dizziness, nausea, etc.—and he had to cancel his scheduled appearance at the Orioles’ FanFest in January because his doctors recommended he avoid the noise and bright lights.

Roberts is trying to stay optimistic; he talks about “taking it one day at a time” and showed up early to spring training to run light drills. But the symptoms reportedly continue to bother him off an on, and it’s hard to imagine he’ll be cleared to play anytime soon. Concussions have ended careers before—see Corey Koskie—and the ugly truth is that the same might happen to Roberts. It would be a shame for his career to end this way without his ever getting to play for a winning team.

Will Matt Wieters emerge as a star?

I know this article has been kind of a downer so far. Sorry about that, but there’s just not much positive buzz about the Orioles this year. But let’s take a moment to celebrate one of the best reasons to be an Orioles fan: All-Star catcher Matt Wieters.

Since the moment Wieters was selected fifth overall in the 2007 draft, the hype around the Birds’ young backstop has been through the roof. He was dubbed as the game’s next superstar, an offensive and defensive force some called “Mauer with power.” After he destroyed minor-league pitching, Wieters’s major-league debut on May 29, 2009, brought an excited Camden Yards crowd of 42,704, including more than 15,000 walkups who couldn’t wait to see the next Orioles legend.

Wieters, though, didn’t instantly develop into a star, especially at the plate. His OPS in his first full season was a disappointing .695, and his swing looked long and slow. He has yet to emerge as the middle-of-the-lineup slugger many touted him to be.

Fortunately, there are reasons to think Wieters could still live up to the billing. His OPS rose to .778 in 2011, and he went on an offensive tear at the end of the year, blasting 12 home runs in the final two months after hitting just 10 in the first four. His .951 OPS in August and .867 in September, while small sample sizes, give hope that recent mechanical changes to his swing may reap huge dividends.

And defensively, Wieters is at the top of his class. He earned the 2011 AL Gold Glove at catcher, and deservedly so. The strong-armed catcher threw out 37 percent of attempted basestealers—tops in the AL—and allowed just one passed ball all season. Few are better at blocking pitches in the dirt or protecting the plate against runners barreling into home.

Pitchers rave about Wieters’ pitch-calling abilities and leadership skills. Not bad for a 25-year-old. Already, Wieters has more than lived up to the hype behind the plate. If he can do the same as a hitter, he’ll be a force to be reckoned with.

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Comments

  1. Paul said...

    Menalcus—I haven’t heard that theory. It would explain why Duquette aimed so low on the major-league signings, but I still don’t really buy it. Improving the minor league system is something that needed to be done regardless of whether Angelos is selling the team.

  2. Steve said...

    You were exactly right about the young pitchers. “The Cavalry.” If they fail, the franchise is doomed for many more years.

  3. Menalcus Lankford said...

    Nice summary, Paul.

      What do you think of the idea that Duquette is in on Angelos’s plan to sell the team—which means don’t commit money to major league contracts, which would be a negative for a buyer, but do improve the minor league system through better scouting and development, so that the buyer can see that there is potentially a future payoff there?

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