GM Wren is ready to draft new look

Inside the Orioles

Team gets rare chance for quick infusion with 7 of draft's first 50 picks

May 30, 1999|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

OAKLAND, Calif. -- Not often does a baseball executive have the opportunity to create his legacy less than eight months into his job. Orioles general manager Frank Wren and scouting director Tony DeMacio may have that chance on Wednesday.

This week, an organization frequently reminded of its inability to draft, develop and deploy an everyday position player since Cal Ripken becomes the focal point for baseball's amateur draft. Five years from now it may be said this was the week in which the Orioles made their strongest break from their addiction to free agents over player development. Instead of helping the escalation in major-league salaries (see Albert Belle), the Orioles possess their strongest tool yet in controlling future payrolls.

To say the Orioles enjoy an unprecedented opportunity this week isn't hype. They become the first team in the draft's 25-year history to enjoy four first-round picks. With seven of the first 50, a club with large-market resources, they find themselves in a role usually brokered by small-market teams such as the Montreal Expos.

Major League Baseball wrote the rules for compensatory draft picks to protect weakling franchises unable to retain their own free agents and usually too underfunded to use the marketplace for becoming competitive. The Orioles, with revenues second only to the New York Yankees, benefited because of two factors. Last season's 79-83 record ranked them among the game's lower half, guaranteeing that they would retain their own first-round draft pick regardless of how many players they signed last winter. They also had a franchise-record 13 free agents, many of whom were signed by upper-echelon clubs who did have to sacrifice their first-rounders as compensation.

As a result the Orioles' bonanza could conceivably elevate an oft-criticized minor-league system virtually overnight.

"We look at it as a real big opportunity when you have four of the first 23 and seven of first 50 picks. You just don't often get that may premium choices. It's a chance to inject some young kids," said Wren.

In places such as Minnesota, Oakland and Philadelphia, the draft represents a significant portion of the club's operating budget. Orioles majority owner Peter Angelos made it clear through the $1.95 million signing of Darnell McDonald in 1997 that cost will not stand in the way of infusing the player development system with elite talent.

"[Economics] factors in, but there's a cost of doing business. I don't think we're going to be in a position to short-change draft picks to save money. We're going to take players we think are the most talented knowing we have to pay for that," insisted Wren.

The Orioles pick 13th, 18th, 21st, 23rd, 34th, 44th and 50th. In return for signing free agents Mike Timlin, Albert Belle, Delino DeShields and Will Clark, they sacrifice picks in the second, third fourth and fifth rounds, leaving them with only one selection among 137 picks after their first seven. It is an opportunity any healthy franchise would covet.

How did it happen?

The Orioles keep their own pick, the 13th overall. Had they won four more games last season they they would have lost their "protected" status and sacrificed this selection.

They gained the St. Louis Cardinals' first-round selection (No. 18 overall) plus a "sandwich" pick between the first and second rounds (No. 44) for the loss of right fielder Eric Davis, who achieved Type A free-agent status despite missing much of the 1997 season following colon cancer surgery.

By jumping to the Texas Rangers for a five-year, $45 million offer, first baseman Rafael Palmeiro brought the Orioles Texas' first-round choice (No. 21) and a sandwich pick (No. 50).

Roberto Alomar's anticipated defection to the Cleveland Indians not only allowed the Orioles to commit his $6 million salary elsewhere, it brought them the Indians' first-round pick (No. 23) plus a third sandwich pick (No. 34).

The loss of reliever Alan Mills to the Los Angeles Dodgers earned a third-round pick -- No. 105 overall. It will be the Orioles' only other pick until No. 188.

Wren has experienced a similar situation before. While with the cash-strapped Expos in 1990 he participated in the drafting of 10 of the first 55 picks, including three first-rounders. Among those selected were future major-leaguers Shane Andrews, Rondell White, Gabe White, Chris Haney and Nate Minchey. Four years later the Expos enjoyed the National League's best record before the player strike shut down the season.

DeMacio, the first-year scouting director, participated in the Atlanta Braves' renaissance earlier this decade. By aggressively pursuing players other organizations shied from because of signability concerns, the Braves laid a foundation for the decade's most protracted run. Likewise, DeMacio was responsible for signing Chipper Jones in 1990 when consensus No. 1 pick and future bust Todd Van Poppel tried to broker the draft.

"We think it's a real important step to get us where we want it to be. This is building for three or four years down the road. It's an important step," Wren said.

Pub Date: 5/30/99

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