Adam Jones of the Baltimore Orioles shakes hands with Dan Duquette, executive vice president of baseball operations for the team after announcing Jones had signed a six-year contract through the 2018 season before the start of the Orioles game against the Kansas City Royals at Oriole Park at Camden Yards in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
The Baltimore Orioles are in first place in the AL East, in part because Dan Duquette has not stopped tinkering.
The 2012 Orioles are tied for first place in the American League East, as of this writing on Friday, September 7. Anyone who thought they would be here today, in this situation, is likely lying, or hoping you don't remember all of the times they claimed the Orioles would sink in the standings with time. One of the reasons they have been able to stay afloat is that first-year general manager Dan Duquette has never let the roster settle, instead swapping parts in and out over the course of the season wherever needed. It's kept the team in the best possible situation, at least relatively speaking, as fallen or ineffective players have been replaced as soon as possible by whatever wasn't nailed down around the O's.
To this point, the Orioles have used 50 different players to get to where they are. That's a high number, but not a ridiculous one. For a Dan Duquette club, it's actually a bit normal. Boring, even, when compared to some teams under his control in the past. The 1992 and 1993 Montreal Expos used 47 and 48 players, respectively, but the real crazy roster tinkering began when Duquette moved to the Boston Red Sox.
In the strike-shortened 1994 campaign -- a season that didn't go on long enough for expanded September rosters to even be a thing -- the Red Sox used 45 different players. Granted, this wasn't for the same reasons as the O's, as this iteration of the Red Sox couldn't hit at all, and featured many aging or injured (or both) players. The '94 season was just the start, though: from 1995 through 2001, the Red Sox would average 50 players per season.
In 1995, the Red Sox won the American League East, in the first completed season with the new three-division format. The season was just 144 games long, thanks to a late start that was a residual effect of the previous season's strike, but Duquette's Red Sox managed to get 53 different players into the lineup or on the mound over the course of that shortened campaign.
Just one player in the lineup reached 140 games played (AL MVP Mo Vaughn), and two others -- second baseman Luis Alicea, and shortstop (and arguably the true MVP of that year's Sox) John Valentin -- crossing the 130 mark. The rest of the regulars played anywhere from Lee Tinsley's 100 games to Tim Naehring's 126. The other games were played by 17 others, 13 of whom played in at least 10 games. Willie McGee (67 games), Bill Haselman (64), Reggie Jefferson (46), Chris Donnels (40), Matt Stairs (39), and Mark Whiten (32) played in the most, with the rest of the bunch getting anywhere from two to 26 turns in the field.
It wasn't just the lineup, though. The rotation featured 13 different starters on the year. The one-through-three spots were mostly locked up by Tim Wakefield, Erik Hanson, and Roger Clemens, while Zane Smith, Vaughn Eshelman, Rheal Cormier, Mike Maddux, Aaron Sele, and Jeff Suppan fought over the remaining starts in between injuries and awful outings that saw them removed. All told, 26 different pitchers took the mound for the Sox, and while there were plenty of forgettable short-term performances, the group somehow combined for a 111 ERA+, besting the lineup's quality OPS+ of 108.
The 1996 squad, given another 18 games to play with in a full season, used 55 different players. This team was nowhere near as successful, though, as the rotation outside of Roger Clemens was below-average at its best, horrific at worst. The bullpen managed to slow the damage, with the Sox finishing with a 101 ERA+, but the lineup had less luck piecing together a completed puzzle, too, and Boston finished at 85-77, scoring just seven more runs than they allowed.
That's something to consider about next year's Orioles' team -- maybe the pieces don't all snap together as conveniently as they have in 2012, and things fall apart. That's a worry for this off-season, though, not one for now, as the 2012 Orioles seem to have a lot more 1995 Dan Duquette in them than 1996. Not everything they've touched has worked out -- Endy Chavez has been terrible at the plate, Manny Machado has slowed considerably since a fast start to his pro career, and no amount of demotions and promotions have fixed the problems of Jake Arrieta or Brian Matusz. There's been plenty of good to offset all of that, though.
Three pitchers acquired by Duquette this off-season -- Jason Hammel, Wei-Yin Chen, and Miguel Gonzalez -- lead the starters in ERA+. Chris Tillman, given yet another shot to start in the majors, has been successful in his 61 innings and 11 contests. In less long-term maneuvers, Duquette has scooped up whatever he can from trades, his own farm system, and the waiver wire, bringing aboard Bill Hall, Randy Wolf, Joe Saunders, Lew Ford, Dana Eveland, and many more for whenever a hole needed to be plugged.
The core of the lineup has done most of the work, but the O's have survived injuries to players like Nick Markakis and Mark Reynolds because of moves like those. The rotation is an absolute mess, but the duct tape is holding for now, since Duquette continues to apply pieces wherever he sees the strength waning. It's a risky strategy that isn't guaranteed to pan out, as any 2012 strategy centering around Randy Wolf would be, but for a team that wasn't supposed to be here just yet, it's one that works.
That's even more true when you consider that the Orioles haven't shipped out their future in order to remain in contention in the present. The future remains the real positive, but for now, Baltimore will continue to play with house money, with Duquette making whatever moves he can to keep this race alive and the O's relevant ahead of schedule.