Duquette has knack for landing hidden talent
Executive vice president of baseball operations pursues players who can help club win
SARASOTA, Fla. -- Miguel Gonzalez was pitching in the Mexican League when the Baltimore Orioles signed him two springs ago. He was 27 years old and had washed out with the Angels and Red Sox. Gonzalez had also undergone Tommy John surgery. To say teams weren't lining up to sign him would be an understatement.
"Really, Miguel just hadn't quite had the opportunity," Orioles executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette said.
At least, that's the way Duquette looked at it. Turns out, he was right. In two seasons since, Gonzalez has started 43 games for the O's and compiled a very respectable 3.58 ERA. His 171 innings last season were important in helping keep the club in contention.
Duquette took a chance on Gonzalez because one of his scouts, a legendary baseball man named Fred Ferreira, was convinced he had the stuff and makeup to help the Orioles win. Duquette trusted Ferreira's opinion.
"Fred's a terrific talent hunter," Duquette said. "He's been at it for a long time. I think he has signed over 65 players at the amateur level that made the big leagues. So Fred saw Miguel in the Mexican League and recommended we sign him. We brought him up, and he has done really well. He helped solidify our team. That was Fred identifying a pitcher with good skills."
If you don't know one other thing about Duquette's genius, this story about Gonzalez and Ferreira says it all. In two-plus years on the job, Duquette and his baseball people have done an amazing job of finding talent in all sorts of places.
If others didn't see value in certain guys, well, that was their problem. Outfielder Nate McLouth's career was jump-started in Baltimore in 2012 after he'd been released by the Pirates. In return, he helped the O's make the playoffs for the first time in 15 years.
Steve Pearce, Lew Ford, Randy Wolf and a bunch of others who were either released or very, very available also helped the Orioles that year. They used 52 players in all, including 12 starting pitchers. Manager Buck Showalter started 11 players in left, five at second base and six at third.
Showalter is a big part of this deal, too. If he didn't have an openness about giving guys a chance, Duquette would be wasting his time bringing them in. That openness is on display in a large board the O's post every spring in which innings played and at-bats are prominently displayed.
When the Orioles court unheralded free agents, they can point to recent history as an example that their baseball people know talent and that their manager will give players a chance if they've earned it.
Baltimore will break camp with 25 players like every other team, but the O's see their overall roster as including, say, 50 or 60 players. Over the past two years, Showalter's late-night telephone calls to his Triple-A manager, Ron Johnson, have become legendary.
"Who do you have that can help me?" Showalter will ask.
Likewise, when Showalter sends players back to the Minor Leagues, he can look them in the eye and tell them that if they earn a chance, they're probably going to get it.
"You know the old expression about finding an orchid while searching for a rose? That's us," Showalter said. "We do a lot of work in the offseason to bring in people that kind of fit who we are and how they might fit with a need we have. I'm sure a lot of guys are surprised by the playing time they get here [in Spring Training]. But it helps us make better decisions on 'em. It's helped us acquire players in the offseason. There's nothing like word of mouth with the players. The one thing we can compete with anybody on is opportunity. If they get sent down, they don't like it, but they know what can happen."
Word gets around.
"He gives everybody an opportunity," Pearce said. "He doesn't care where you've been. He wants to see how you can contribute. If you're with another team, your role could have been so different. Sometimes, the player just needs a new atmosphere. If you come over here, you'll get judged on what you do."
At the core of this philosophy is a relentless sense of optimism.
"We don't really spend a lot of time on what players can't do," Duquette said. "We look for a significant strength or a significant skill."
If that sounds like a simple philosophy, it's not. Talent evaluators approach their jobs a thousand different ways, but negativity is a huge part of it. Rather than focus on what a player can do, it's on what he can't.
And there aren't many complete players.
"We tell our scouts that we want to know the players that they like," Duquette said. "Then we'd like for them to tell us how they think they can help the team. Like outstanding speed, good pitches, basic things. The players that have significant skills are worth giving an opportunity. Maybe the player had a skill, but didn't quite know how to get their game together. Sometimes, they get it together."
For instance, McLouth. The Orioles had attempted to sign him in free agency after the 2011 season. He chose the Pirates. When McLouth was hitting .140 in in May, he was released. The O's got a second chance at him.
"Sometimes, there's a good reason something happens," Duquette said. "Everybody's got little things that make 'em less than perfect. In McLouth's case, I think he'd just had a concussion and needed a little bit more time to recover. He was able to perform at the level he'd established for himself earlier in his career."
Likewise, scouts know that if they work for the Orioles they've got somebody in the front office who'll listen to their recommendations and a manager who will evaluate players only on what he sees.
"It's about opportunity with scouts, too," Duquette said. "Same as a player. If you like to sign players and make a contribution to the team, this is a good place for you as a scout. If you just like to turn in reports and check off the boxes, this is not the place for you. We're looking for players."
This spring, O's camp is another case study in that philosophy. Left-hander Kelvin De La Cruz, who has spent eight years in the Minors, is trying to catch on.
"He was a top prospect with Cleveland, and Buck did some consulting work with Cleveland," Duquette said. "He did well with the Dodgers' [Minor League team in 2013], had a good strikeout record at Triple-A. It looks like his skills are good for the Major Leagues. He just hasn't had an opportunity."
Duquette is also excited about watching veteran left-hander Johan Santana continue his rehabilitation from shoulder surgery. Santana was once one of baseball's best pitchers, but he hasn't pitched a game in almost two seasons.
The Orioles think that because Santana has a tremendous changeup, he can get by without the blazing fastball he once had. He's on a rehab program that could land him in Baltimore as early as June.
"He's determined to come back and pitch," Duquette said. "Very similar situation to Bret Saberhagen [who restarted his career with the Red Sox when Duquette was in charge]. He's feeling good, and I think we're going to get something out of him later on this season."
Duquette has been reminded of the value of keeping an open mind about players and listening to scouts at various points in his 12 seasons as a general manager. One of his first big finds was knuckleballer Tim Wakefield.
Sometimes, it's the little things. Wakefield made his big league debut in 1992 and went 8-1 down the stretch to help the Pirates pass Duquette's Montreal Expos to win the National League East. Wakefield's career stalled, and the Bucs released him.
Duquette never forgot the name, and when Wakefield became a free agent, Duquette's new team, the Red Sox, signed him. Duquette then asked Hall of Fame knuckleballer Phil Niekro to offer some pointers.
"Phil helped him gain a better understanding of what he would have to do to be consistent with the knuckleball," Duquette said. "For example, being able to change speeds with it, having another pitch he could throw for a strike when he was behind in the count. Those are the skills that Tim worked on."
Wakefield won 186 games in 17 seasons with the Red Sox and was part of two championship clubs. Wakefield's success made a significant impact with Duquette.
"We don't pursue players just to pursue players," Duquette said. "We pursue players we think can come in and help the team. If they can do something well and help the team, we'll give them the opportunity to do it."
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.