O's working farm, but far from harvest Publication calls club's minor-league talent baseball's worst

Orioles vow turnaround

Dodgers, Expos show how to do it right

April 09, 1997|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

It is an organizational obsession, but not yet a specialty. The Orioles want to create the best player development system in baseball, but they have a long way to go and a lot of strong franchises to overtake.

The Los Angeles Dodgers, for instance, who have produced the past five National League Rookies of the Year and might be the greatest player development machine in the history of pro sports.

Or the Montreal Expos, who have churned out dozens of top prospects in the past decade, even if it has not been enough to raise that organization to elite status.

Or the Atlanta Braves, who have struck a successful balance between player acquisition and player development, stocking their roster with top-name players from outside the organization and good prospects from within.

The Orioles, meanwhile, have had only marginal success achieving such a balance, prompting general manager Pat Gillick and assistant GM Kevin Malone to reaffirm the club's once-revered commitment to a solid minor-league foundation and set to work to rebuild it from the ground up.

There's a long way to go. Baseball America this month ranked the talent in the Orioles' minor-league system 28th and last in baseball.

"There has been a little bit of progress," Gillick said, "but it has probably been like this the last 12 or 13 years. This club didn't have a first-round draft choice in 1994 or 1996. You can't lose first-round choices and expect to build a system."

The most telling illustration of the franchise's recent lack of success in player development is that only one position player in the everyday lineup was signed by the Orioles as an amateur. That guy, of course, is Cal Ripken, who was signed when the club was a player-development powerhouse in the late 1970s.

It's not that the Orioles have failed to develop any good players recently. Outfielder Steve Finley was an Orioles prospect. So was pitcher Pete Harnisch. They left in the ill-fated deal for first baseman Glenn Davis. New York Mets outfielder Alex Ochoa may go from the Orioles' minor-league system to greatness, but he was traded for Bobby Bonilla in 1995. There just hasn't been the sustained commitment to develop more of those players and keep them.

Malone, one of the many architects of the Montreal prospect machine, says it takes a lot more than good intentions.

"They [the Expos] have a philosophy," Malone said. "They are committed to it. They don't waver. They don't compromise. Their philosophy is, go out and sign athletes sign impact players. Then stick with it."

The Expos have never played in the World Series, but their player development system is the envy of all baseball. Every year, it seems, they trade away a handful of the top players in the game. Every year, it seems, they have more. They cannot afford to be a perennial playoff participant -- they do not have money to keep veteran players -- but they have remained surprisingly competitive with a team that's almost entirely home-grown.

"We don't brag about it, said Expos manager Felipe Alou, "but given the circumstances, you'd have to say we're pretty good at scouting and development."

The Dodgers and Braves get more respect, but they are not working with major economic restraints. The Expos are forced by low budgets to make each year's team out of whole cloth.

"Montreal is better than the Braves as far as what they have accomplished," Malone said. "You have to remember, the Braves have spent a lot of money. What the Expos have done is much harder."

So, if you're the Orioles, whom do you emulate?

Gillick has his own model, of course. He completed one of the greatest from-the-ground-up projects in baseball history when he took the expansion Blue Jays and turned them into a power in less than a decade, but he may not have that kind of time.

What does it take?

Orioles player development director Syd Thrift knows what it takes. He just doesn't know how long it will take. The Orioles have enough money. The question is whether they have enough patience.

"Stage 1 is recruiting," he said. "Stage 2 is training. Any team that has a good system didn't develop it overnight. The Expos developed their system over 15 years."

Thrift credits their success to a philosophy handed down through the organization from general manager to general manager -- a line that includes respected executives John McHale, Bob Gebhard, Dave Dombrowski, Dan Duquette and Malone.

"They did the right stuff from the very beginning," Thrift said. "The Dodgers also represent what I'm talking about. You don't have three, four, five Rookies of the Year in succession without continuity. Continuity is absolutely essential."

No team in history has had more Rookie of the Year winners than the Dodgers (16). It is not a coincidence.

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