The Toronto Blue Jays' pursuit of Dan Duquette has become a fascinating story on many levels, but one question keeps hitting me amid all the will-he-or-won't-he speculation: What is Duquette actually worth?
It's a more nebulous issue than you might think.
When we analyze player-for-player transactions, we do so based on thousands upon thousands of past deals and on wide-ranging, fairly precise tools for measuring performance. Even so, trades are an inexact science at best, with the full implications often unclear for years.
So start from that base and then consider how little precedent we have with executive-for-player deals and how imprecisely we measure executive performance.
For a long time, executives were generally allowed to change jobs as they wished. The notion of general manager as star asset didn't gain widespread currency until the last 20 years — with "Moneyball" making Billy Beane a household name and Theo Epstein helping end Boston's championship drought.
Even so, top general managers are modestly compensated compared to even average players. We don't know the exact worth of Duquette's contract, which runs through 2018. But highly regarded colleagues such as Epstein and Brian Cashman of the New York Yankees have reportedly made $3-4 million in recent years. Andrew Friedman signed a record five-year, $35-million deal with the Dodgers in the offseason.
Given their track records, is it out of whack that a good set-up man such as Tommy Hunter makes a higher salary — $4.65 million — than all but the best-compensated executives in the game?
Maybe, but the fact is teams have always treated front-office officials as more fungible assets than players. The most recent deal that leaps to mind is the Chicago Cubs' acquisition of Epstein three years ago. After protracted negotiations, they gave the Red Sox a middling pitching prospect, Chris Carpenter, in return for one of the most respected general managers in the sport.
Carpenter has pitched exactly six innings in the major leagues since the deal. Epstein, meanwhile, has rebuilt the Cubs' farm system and has Chicago fans dreaming of contention in the near future. Pretty good swap for the Cubs, no?
The Orioles want to do better if they let Duquette go to a division rival. And as the party with greater leverage in negotiations, they're smart to think that way. But how much is enough?
Orioles fans certainly admire Duquette and give him credit for finding many of the overlooked players who played vital roles on the 2012 and 2014 playoff teams. But how much of the credit goes to Duquette and how much goes to manager Buck Showalter, who also has a strong say in the club's front-office decisions? It's almost impossible to know for sure, and yet that's the sort of assessment the Orioles have to make as they weigh Duquette's status.
I reached out to ESPN analyst Keith Law, who worked in the Blue Jays' front office once upon a time and knows the prospect landscape as well as anyone. I've discussed Duquette with Law in the past, and he holds him in high regard. But he told me via text, "I wouldn't give up a top prospect for any executive. I think Dan's done a great job but the value of a top prospect can run into the tens of millions of dollars."
It's an interesting point. Even though you might get a more certain return from a proven executive, the upside of a gifted player is always higher, especially when — as we've noted — players become so expensive as they get older.
In the past 24 hours, we've seen Toronto pitching prospect Jeff Hoffman bandied as the possible return for Duquette. Hoffman was Toronto's first-round pick last year and would have likely been selected in the top five if he didn't have Tommy John surgery. The swift reaction from fans and analysts seemed to suggest the Orioles should run away cackling if they could get Hoffman for Duquette.
And I get that. A 6-foot-4 kid with a 95-mph fastball is always going to feel more exciting than a guy in a suit who essentially resided in the baseball wilderness before the Orioles gave him a shot three years ago.
Law described Hoffman as an "athletic kid" with a "very live arm" but said the righthander won't make his upcoming list of the top 100 prospects in baseball. Though Hoffman has resumed throwing off a mound, his post-surgery form remains uncertain.
And that speaks to the essence of this debate. Orioles fans know better than most the vagaries of pitching prospects. They've watched young arms more highly regarded than Hoffman either flame out completely or flounder for years before finding roles in the bullpen or in other cities. Do you give up a guy who's helped rebuild your franchise for a return that might never mean a whole lot?
Probably so, given Hoffman would be a more interesting prize than other teams have received in similar circumstances. But it's no easy call.