Center fielder Adam Jones was professing ignorance about the makeup of the Baltimore Orioles’ ever-changing pitching staff, saying, “I don’t even know what our five-man rotation is.”
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First baseman Chris Davis, standing a few lockers away, smiled and agreed.
“We have, like, a nine-man rotation,” Davis said.
A nine-man rotation, a 35-man roster, the fourth-worst run differential in the American League and oh yes, a ticket to the postseason as a wild-card qualifier if the season ended today.
People ask, how are the Orioles doing it? Well, there is an element of luck for a team with a 24-6 record in one-run games, an .800 winning percentage that would be the highest in major-league history. But give Orioles general manager Dan Duquette and manager Buck Showalter credit. Their team’s remarkable ascent is not exactly an accident.
Duquette is finding talent under every rock imaginable, manipulating his 25-man roster aggressively, displaying the necessary short-term memory in moving on from mistakes.
Showalter is holding players accountable, trusting his minor-league evaluators, squeezing every last bit of talent out of a group that had no business trailing the New York Yankees by only three games in the AL East.
Outfielder Lew Ford began the season with the Long Island Ducks of the Atlantic League. Now he’s batting fifth for the Orioles against left-handers. Outfielder Nate McLouth was released by the Pirates on May 31. Now he’s batting third for the O’s against righties.
The Orioles, by their own count, have made 142 transactions in 128 games. STATS LLC, which uses a different method of calculation, says the O’s since Opening Day actually rank only fourth in the majors in player moves, behind Boston, Oakland and Toronto.
The Athletics, who lead the AL wild-card race, give off a similar vibe, overcoming injuries, cycling pitchers through their rotation and bullpen, getting surprising performances from unheralded players.
The difference with the Orioles is that Duquette is back as a GM for the first time since 2002, while the Athletics’ Billy Beane is in his 15th season. Evidently, Duquette wants to make up for lost time. Rather than allow problems to fester, he remains in a constant state of alert.
“When I was less experienced, I made some moves that were reactionary. These are more determined moves,” Duquette says. “Sometimes, you need patience. Other times, you need to act.
“I have better experience at what you have patience with, what you address now. Things that seem like a good idea at the time sometimes aren’t such a great idea once you see ‘em in action.”
Case in point: J.C. Romero, the veteran left-handed reliever who lasted exactly 10 days with the Orioles earlier this month. Or Tommy Hunter, the veteran righty who has been sent to Triple A four times this season.
Only 10 players — five of them relievers in the Orioles’ powerhouse bullpen — have been with the club all season. The team has used 10 different starting pitchers, seven since the All-Star break.
Right-hander Jake Arrieta, the Orioles’ Opening Day starter, has not pitched in the majors since July 5. Lefty Brian Matusz, another original member of their rotation, is back from the minors, but working out of the bullpen.
Addition, subtraction — the Orioles, even more than most clubs, are in a daily frenzy.
Duquette acquired left-hander Joe Saunders from the Arizona Diamondbacks on Sunday. He is on the verge of signing another veteran lefty, Randy Wolf.
The promotion of the Orioles’ top position prospect, Manny Machado, 20, was a classic example of Duquette problem-solving.
The O’s started the season thinking that Mark Reynolds might improve at third after losing 20 pounds. Didn’t happen. They had veteran Wilson Betemit as an alternative, but he wasn’t much better defensively.
They explored the acquisition of a player such as Chris Johnson or Danny Valencia to serve as a right-handed platoon partner for Betemit, a switch-hitter who wasn’t hitting lefties. But ultimately, they decided their best option was Machado, a shortstop who had played only two games at third in Double A.
Machado is holding his own offensively — a .750 OPS in 66 plate appearances – and making the Orioles better defensively. Then again, Showalter says he would have recommended against promoting Machado if he had a problematic clubhouse, players who would serve as a poor example.
It takes a village. It takes an organization.
And it takes a manager who holds players to a certain standard.
“We’re trying to raise the bar a little bit,” Showalter says. “I’ve had a couple of conversations with kids, good prospects. I’ve said, ‘Hey, that’s a 5-6 ERA in the American League. That’s not good enough. If you figure it out in Triple A, we’ll get you back here.’ And I’ve been able to follow through on some things I’ve told them.”
Adds Jones, who in May signed a six-year, $85.5 million extension, “That’s Buck — it’s accountability. He’s not sending you down because you suck — no one sucks at this level. He’s sending you down because he wants you to understand the value of competing and winning. That’s all Buck cares about.”
All Duquette cares about, too.
“It’s important to do as many little things as we could to help the team improve,” Duquette says. “Everybody thinks you’re always going to take one big step. A lot of times, it’s several little steps to get you where you want to go.”
Those little steps keep adding up, and soon could produce a massive step forward.
The Orioles’ first postseason appearance since 1997 is within reach.