After a weekend in which two pillars of the Orioles' recent run of relevance — manager Buck Showalter and center fielder Adam Jones — were feted at Camden Yards as their contracts with the club run out after this month and their returns are anything but assured, a third piece of that resurgence, executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette, was quietly back to work Monday planning for a future that's not exactly clear either.
Duquette, who went through the clubhouse to thank players after Sunday’s season-ending 4-0 win against the Houston Astros, said Monday that he expects "the owners are going to make those decisions soon" as the postseason unpacking of the worst season in franchise history for the 115-loss Orioles begins. Perhaps because the alternative would be to consign himself to an uncertain future, he seems to be operating as if he'll be back.
"We're in the process of doing the evaluations, and the club is going to make those decisions in the next couple of weeks," Duquette said. "Then, we'll assemble our staff for next season."
That certainly sounds like someone who is planning for 2019 and beyond in Baltimore, and asked whether anything could be read into that, Duquette said, "We're in the process of planning for next season."
Duquette has been heading up baseball operations for the Orioles since after the 2011 season, and the Orioles returned to the postseason the following season thanks to a core of position players from the previous regime with a pitching staff built by Duquette. In the ensuing years, he and Showalter built Orioles teams that made three playoff appearances, but this year's team started slowly and never caught up, securing the first overall pick in next year's draft and trading stars such as Manny Machado, Zach Britton, Jonathan Schoop, Kevin Gausman and Brad Brach along the way.
Nearly every facet of the 2018 team underachieved, and many of the young players who came up later in the year had their challenges. All of those players came along in the Duquette era, and asked what would be different with him picking players this time around, he said, "We have a lot of work to do.
"We need to build a stronger pitching group and put in some fundamental building blocks on defense. That would be a good place to start."
His assessment of the 2018 season matched what many outside thought in that "the whole season was disappointing," but Duquette points to the flurry of trades once the team was clearly out of contention as a turning point for the Orioles.
He said at the time of the Machado trade in July that the team was going to divert resources from the major league payroll to invest in professional and international scouting, analytics, nutrition and other facets they've fallen behind in during their pursuit of major league success, which was not only unsuccessful but appears unsustainable.
"At that point at the major league level, that's a team in transition," Duquette said. "What we did with the flurry of activity in trading the player contracts, we tried to restock the upper end of the pipeline with some good young players, and then we cleared the way to build the infrastructure required to have a winning team in the future by moving the player contracts.
“We redirected our resources from the major league team to young players with an eye toward the future, and an eye toward building and signing and developing another wave of players to come to Baltimore and be a more competitive and entertaining club."
That didn't come without its hiccups. Duquette said the last 10 games of the season, against the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox and Astros, was a good way to end in terms of seeing where the club needs to go, but those final two weeks were marred by a curious lack of available pitching down the stretch.
Even with expanded rosters, injuries to Andrew Cashner (knee), Alex Cobb (finger), Miguel Castro (knee) and Luis Ortiz (hamstring), plus the decision to shut down right-hander Evan Phillips and left-hander Josh Rogers, the team had fewer available pitchers to end the season than they would have with rosters capped at 25.
Left-hander John Means was one of two pitchers brought back after two weeks of rest after the season to cover some innings, and eventually made his major league debut in Boston on Wednesday night. The second, right-hander Dillon Tate, threw a bit, but the team didn't like how his shoulder was responding, and shut him back down.
Duquette saw all that as a symptom of the trades, and the corresponding elevation of roles for young pitchers who might not have been ready.
"We traded arguably our best starting pitcher and our best reliever," Duquette said. "Whenever you do that, those two pieces are designed to help stabilize your club, and when we traded Brach and Britton and Gausman, we had to fill in those innings with younger pitchers that weren't quite ready, and needed experience. Some of the other pitchers that we had in the minors that we were developing for next year, they had some innings limitations on them with an eye towards the future.
"We looked to develop the pitchers we had on our staff, get as much experience as we could for the young guys, and also monitor their workload in the current season. That's a prudent way to go about it. Once you go into the rebuild mode, you're more on the building side, and you have to strike a balance between today and the future. We had a number of young pitchers that we're looking at. They got some valuable experience up here, and I think they'll be better in the future."