10 May 2018

Welcome to the Abyss

Frederich Nietzsche is a philosopher that frequently is quoted in college.  The quotes greased up and shoehorned into whatever moment the orator feels like it might be cool to quote someone who very few really take seriously. Nietzsche is more an accessory for a brand than guide to enlightenment.  One passage from his seminal work is as follows:
He who fights with monsters should be careful lest he thereby becomes a monster. And if thou gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will also gaze into thee.
Nietzsche was not much for hand holding and preferred simply to let his word stand on their own.  In that, they understandably are widely applied.  Even on silly things like baseball.

And so, the monster of which I will speak will be on the lack of talent in the Orioles system.  The monster of which I speak is one whose player acquisition is reactionary.  The monster of which I will speak is on the lack of organizational coherence and continuity.  The monster of which I will speak will be one that appears overwhelmingly without a succession plan.  These monsters are the things I have concerned myself for years.  They are the things I took to heart, often accepted as truths, and became incredibly confused.  My time has been spent looking for the sliver of opportunity that appears to become thinner and thinner until disappearing into the abyss.  To be succinct, my thesis here is that we are now, unquestionably, in the abyss.

Let's not revisit the MacPhail era.  Let's not revisit that horrible time of misery that we are often wont to hold in higher esteem because somehow a few of his players wound up being all right.  Instead, let's focus on Dan Duquette.  It is a fascinating story.  Duquette emerged from baseball exile in 2011 after a barrage of talent refused interviews and rejected offers to take the reins of controlling baseball operations for the Baltimore Orioles.  Duquette, whose demeanor derailed his promising executive career in baseball when John Henry insisted on hiring his own guy, got back into the saddle and found highly improbable success amidst great restriction on how much of the organization he actually controlled.

From 2012 to 2016, the Orioles were the winningest team in the American League.  The fact is too readily shrugged off, but it is a remarkable accomplishment given where this team was and the lack of talent it contained.  The end of the previous era brought forth the idea that the Orioles developmental system was terrible, particularly for pitchers.  Injury rates appeared high and well thought of pitchers seemed to fail to develop more often than in other organizations.  Duquette came in to right things.

His first effort was to bring back into the game all of the old scouts and friends he had from his days with the Brewers, Expos, and Red Sox.  He found his hands tied in the Dominican Republic, so he reduced activity there and pushed resources toward the Pacific Rim.  It largely was a failure.  Korean players were signed or courted with nothing much apparently happening.  The Seung-min Kim fiasco was a product of the Orioles clumsily trying to sign a Korean amateur, violating rules, reneging on a 500K contract, getting banned from Korean amateur events, and getting Kim into serious trouble in his home country.  Add that to signing softball players from New Zealand and some other outside of the box actions, such as scrambling for older fringe Cuban talent.  Long story short, it did not improve the talent of the Orioles minor league system and the organization wound up largely closing shop on everything involving international amateurs.  So while Duquette inherited a group that was around the 28th to 30th least investment in international amateurs, he lowered the bar further.  The club is now known for dealing away that MLB allotment for international signings for fringe prospects who have yet to provide any impact for the club.

One would think in that climate, that a failure in international spending would then follow with dedication to domestic sources of talent.  That was not the case.  The club has traded away draft picks from revenue sharing (the Orioles are considered by MLB to be a lower revenue small market team) in order to save money (see: Ryan Webb, Brian Matusz).  The club also deals out fringe MLB talent to try to fix active roster holes in seasons where playoffs might be played in Baltimore (see: Zach Davies for Gerardo Parra; a trade that reportedly resulted in a gleeful and surprised Brewers front office).  The club also readily signed players with qualifying offers, which resulted in lost first and second round picks.  As one can imagine, an approach that greatly restricts cheap talent inflow is one that is unlikely to be sustainable in the long run.

A long time has passed since the Orioles tried hard to go after front line free agents.  Perhaps the last time, from what I can remember, was when the Orioles signed Miguel Tejada and tried to acquire Vladimir Guerrero (when he was good).  Neither player had much interest in the Orioles, but Tejada took the money no one else was offering and Vlad waited out until a team, the Angels, came forward and offered competition to the Orioles' offering.  In the past fourteen years, the club has looked at mid-level free agent targets.  Duquette saw this and appears to have seen what the previous regimes missed.  By waiting out the market and letting other teams expend their payroll, the Orioles can rise up and be competitive in the marketplace.  In other words, if you cannot outspend the others then wait until their available payroll is less than yours.  Effectively codifying what was accidentally achieved in 2004.

While this seems like a decent idea, its performance has been a bit uneven.  There is risk here for a couple reasons.  One, you are letting holes on your active roster sit while potential solutions are being signed.  Two, you are targeting the players who were not made a priority by any other club.  That is why those guys are still available toward the end.  So, what results is a decent payout on fringey, red flag elite talent if they accept your offer.  A player, like Dexter Fowler, may well spurn you and leave you with a hole.  Or, well, you may get what you ask for.  For the Orioles, they succeeded in this approach four times.  They signed Ubaldo Jimenez to a deal, which was forgettable.  They signed Nelson Cruz to a deal, which was incredible.  The signed Yovani Gallardo to a deal, which was a poor idea and even worse after they figured out that he was hurt, still signing him.  And, now, you can add Alex Cobb to the pile.

The free agent free fall has been the main approach and, at best, you can call it uneven.  You can certainly call it an approach that does not benefit the team long term.  Other holes are filled with marginal fringe talents, which has been successful enough to be a major reason why this team was good for a long spell.

This leads me to a discussion about organizational coherence.  Anyone on the outside can tell the organization has problems.  You see it when Buck is in a particularly brittle mood and he throws the front office under the bus.  You see it when you accidentally come across social media posts from players' wives discussing how fortunate a wife is to have their husband out of the organization.  You hear it from players who have grumbled over the years about how instruction changes from level to level and from roving instructor to roving instructor.  You hear it from coaches who complain about having no idea why someone like Brady Anderson or Rick Peterson showed up or why they are messing with their players.  You hear it from everyone how siloed the organization is.  How folks working in one office develop products the players use, but never actually being allowed to work with the players to better hone that product.  Eventually, the picture is illuminated and you find that this organization is a game of telephone with some rather ignorant and grudge-holding gate keepers.

I am reminded of a story that has been relayed to me by three sources with most of the facts lining up.  What I was told was that one time in the Delmarva clubhouse, a video intern or someone like that, took it upon himself to post a sheet of exit velocities in the clubhouse.  This is a fairly normal and accepted metric in MLB.  You often hear players talking about exit velocity.  You probably have read about the Rays being quite explicit with their players about exit velocity as one of the most important ways to figure out how good your batting mechanics are.  Anyway, I was told that a "player-manager with family connections in player development" tore down the post and berated the employee for letting the players see any advanced analytics.

What was communicated to me was that the developmental staff never talked to anyone in analytics.  They do not work together.  The developmental staff is sent things, but those items are never incorporated.  Instead, development takes on a more old school approach where players, under a wide variety of conflicting instruction, are valued on their ability to perform under that adversity.  What I was also told is that this is done in contradiction to Dan Duquette's wishes.  That Duquette's hands have been greatly tied with which what he wants to accomplish in the minors with analytics.  Mind you, this is not saying that Duquette knows what he is doing.  He is after all the guy who brought in Rick Peterson, who is more guru than analyst.

back to the more general subject, I do not know where the leadership of one figure begins or ends.  Tony Pente recently put forward his thoughts, which largely jives with what I know (though, not completely).  I am unsure what kind of authority Duquette had in the beginning.  To what extent Buck has control or Brady.  I know the organization has been referred to as a two headed monster for ages and just recently has Brady entered into the confusing picture for opposing clubs.  I know that the front office conflicted with Buck last year on active roster composition during the season.  It is a mess and, yes, it does appear from my vantage point that this year is predominantly Brady's team with respect to changes made once the 2017 season ended.

This leads me to the future.  A topic that Pente touched on as well.  It is chaotic.  One hears a mix of things and it is hard to know what information is fresh, stale, or imagined.  Regardless, one hears that Duquette is a lame duck.  He found ways to succeed within this management nightmare, but it seems his power decreases each year.  Buck and Brady?  I do not know.  What I know is that the franchise tried to squeeze out as much as they could in the win column with the current window of competition.  They spent decent money on Cashner and Cobb.  They applied more plaster on top of the existing rotten wood.  They gave up on opportunities to cash in on talent like Manny Machado or Zach Britton and will suffer for that.

2019 has been seen as the cliff for awhile.  The future looked dim as the club was not replenishing its reserves.  A small bit of hope emerged as the club had several fringe top 100 talents at the end of last year, but the results have been disappointing for this wave of talent.  Chance Sisco does not look like a catcher.  His pop times are slow, he has trouble getting out from behind the plate, the team seems to pitch to help him throw out runners instead of pitching to batters, and his bat looks underwhelming.  He looks like what I feared he would be.  Aggressive bats like Austin Hays and Ryan Mountcastle still have those red flags.  Pitching looks good, but only with respect to bullpen arms in the deep minors.  A talent infusion is needed.

This is the monster.  We have been to the mountain and the abyss lays before us.  And as we stare into the abyss, the abyss stares back into us, perhaps changing us.  I have no answers.  I can only say that every player on the active roster should be available and should be dealt for younger, cheaper talent.  I doubt the processes to evaluate that incoming talent.  I doubt the ability of the current infrastructure to properly develop that talent.  At some point, you have to accept that there is an abyss and that you may well need to stop looking at it, stepping into the void and finding out your fortune.


Rob said...

I'm so scared.

V. Blekaitis said...

Thank you Jon. This is a column that everybody who cares about the Orioles should read.
It's hard for somebody who benefitted from the structure and direction of the Paul Richards and Harry Dalton days to bear witness to what has happened to this organization.
When I was a kid and a teenager, the Senators were the joke of the American League. And the Orioles were the model franchise.
Now there's been a complete reversal. The Nationals are run like the Orioles used to be (keeping real talent in the pipeline at all times), and the Orioles are like the Senators used to be.
In an earlier column, somebody here hinted that there may be a change in ownership by 2019 (or maybe later). Is that still believed to be true? If so, it's something to look forward to.

Unknown said...

" ..can only say that every player on the active roster should be available and should be dealt for younger, cheaper talent."

Before any player gets dealt, I would like to see organizational change first. Any assets that are acquired via trades should meet the philosophy of new management. I don't like the concept of the current decision makers acquiring talent to meet their own standards when they may not be here long term. And to be crystal clear, anyone involved in personnel decisions prior to 2016 should be gone. The Orioles need a fresh start from the top down.

If the Orioles wait until the end of the season to make wholesale managerial changes, I only want to see the players whose contracts end this season get traded. All other assets (Bundy, Gauzmen, Schoop, Manchini, etc) should be decided on when a new group takes over. In the meantime, let's just hope the Orioles make quality picks in this years draft. I'm a believer that organizations ultimately dig themselves out of holes via the draft and developmental process more so than trades.

Unknown said...

An excellent column. Well written and reasoned. There does not seem to be way out of the downward spiral until there is a new ownership team. As a small market team, the Orioles have to invest heavily in their farm system and have a coherent baseball philosophy from Single A to the big club.