O's see a harvest ripening at last down on the farm

August 27, 1998|By Ken Rosenthal

CHICAGO -- The Yankees committed to Bernie Williams, Derek Jeter and Jorge Posada. The Braves committed to Chipper Jones, Andruw Jones and Ryan Klesko. But will the Orioles commit to Calvin Pickering, Jerry Hairston and Ryan Minor?

Owner Peter Angelos has shown a clear preference for big-name veteran talent. But for the first time in his five-year run, the Orioles' farm system is producing quality alternatives, options that simply weren't available before.

Pickering (first base), Hairston (second) and Minor (third) form three-fourths of the infield at Double-A Bowie and probably will need a full season at Triple-A Rochester before they're ready to play in Baltimore.

But manager Ray Miller said yesterday that newly promoted Willis Otanez will merit a major-league opportunity next season and openly mused about the possibility of Hairston replacing potential free agent Roberto Alomar.

"At some point, there's going to have to be an influx of youth, whether it's just one [player] a year, or one or two a year," Miller said. "We're going to have to try to build from within.

"The organization has kind of been at a standstill for three or four years. Now you're starting to hear some names. They're starting to put up some numbers. There's probably going to have to be a blending in of guys."

Miller projects Otanez as an "offensive force," particularly against left-handed pitching. He could figure in the first-base and outfield equation next season and spell Cal Ripken at third base, if the Orioles choose to end Ripken's consecutive-games streak.

Ripken, though, is but one part of the overall picture. The Orioles' main problem is the one-year gap that could exist between the departures of Alomar and Rafael Palmeiro this winter and the ETAs of Pickering, Hairston and Co.

Still, they need not relent on a five-year deal for Palmeiro the way they did for Brady Anderson and Scott Erickson. They've got so many corner-infield possibilities, they might be better off with catcher Mike Piazza or center fielder Bernie Williams -- if they're willing to pay one player $10 million a year.

They'd have no excuse not to spend at that level if they lost two players earning more than $12 million, but that's an issue for another day. The more immediate question is whether Angelos is willing to lose a Palmeiro and wait for a Pickering, lose an Alomar and try a Hairston.

Angelos did not return a phone call yesterday, and vice-chairman of business and finance Joe Foss declined comment. But within the organization, there is growing sentiment that Hairston might indeed be capable of jumping to the majors next season.

Chicago White Sox shortstop Mike Caruso is batting .315 after spending all of last season at Single-A. Hairston started the season at short, then converted to second shortly before his promotion to Double-A, where he is batting .341.

Assistant general manager Kevin Malone has told members of the organization that Hairston is "the real deal." Miller singled Hairston out yesterday as a player who could come quickly, and even suggested that the Orioles could spell him with Jeff Reboulet.

The manager noted the game is in Hairston's blood -- his father, grandfather and uncle played in the majors. Cal Ripken, Barry Bonds, Ken Griffey -- all grew up around major-league clubhouses, developing a feel for the game.

But can Hairston make the jump next season?

"I've been asked that. I've thought about it," Orioles farm director Syd Thrift said. "To say 'yes' would be foolish, in a way. But to say 'no' would be wrong, too. We have to let time be our ally."

Next season?

"Noooooo," another member of the organization said, "He's a polished guy, a good player. He could get there quick. I like him, but not next year."

Indeed, Hairston has played second base for only two months. Last spring, the Orioles were talking about Minor taking over at third next season and moving Ripken to first. But Minor, batting .258 with 17 homers and 70 RBIs at Bowie, didn't hit well enough to make the anticipated midseason jump to Triple-A.

Such is the risk with young players -- they're unpredictable. The Orioles know what they would be getting from Palmeiro, at least for the next year or two. They have no idea what they would get from Pickering, though he has batted .300 at every minor-league level.

At the moment, Pickering is dominating the Eastern League, batting .309 with 28 homers, 102 RBIs and a stunning 88 walks. Thrift marvels at his ability to wait on pitches, then crush home runs to the opposite field. He also said that Pickering's weight is down to 275 pounds, and that his fielding has improved considerably.

Here's another opinion, from a scout for a National League team who covers the Eastern League:

"Pickering has got a chance to be a very good offensive player. He can hit for average, hit for home runs. I worry that he's not going to be able to play first base. His hands are very suspect, and his range was below-average. But he can hit. He's an American League player."

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