Little said, much done down on the farm

Inside the Orioles

Wren's quiet revolution serves to revamp a lacking O's minor-league system

August 08, 1999|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

Frank Wren has instituted an uncommon rule for his minor-league staff in Sarasota, Bluefield, Delmarva and Frederick: regarding the Orioles' top prospects, the less said the better.

"I don't want [minor-league managers] calling in reports about what a guy didn't do on a particular day. My philosophy is to file written reports about a player's progress, but not to call every night to talk about a young player's warts," Wren says. "I think that's counterproductive."

Following years of Orioles nonproductivity at the minor-league level, the first-year general manager prefers the club keep its quiet revolution just that.

"They'll eventually show everyone whether they can play," he says. "Who does it serve to talk about it now?"

If industry rivals want to perceive his franchise as still addicted to free agency to the detriment of the amateur draft and player development, Wren says fine.

Like most in his position, Wren keeps a folder on every other organization's prospects. The Cleveland Indians' is bulging, much like the Atlanta Braves' at the beginning of this decade and the Montreal Expos' at the end of the 1980s. Others contain only a name or two. The Orioles used to be one of those clubs.

When he took over last October, Wren expected to discover a developmental wasteland. However, after witnessing spring training's early camp for elite prospects and regularly touring the organization's Maryland affiliates, he is convinced a minor-league system ranked last by Baseball America in 1997 has advanced to at least the middle of the industry. Faint praise? Not when put into the context of an organization incapable of drafting, developing and deploying an everyday position player since Cal Ripken.

First-year director of player development Tom Trebelhorn is considered so valuable that majority owner Peter Angelos rejected any suggestion of him serving as interim manager.

Barren organizations love to sell the gold being mined at Rookie League and Single-A while the major-league team sucks air from the higher classifications. The Orioles played that game until recently while Rochester and Bowie served as retirement homes for former prospects. Respectable winning percentages masked overaged rosters. Last season may have represented the bottom when Richie Lewis, Bobby Munoz, Jesus Tavarez, an injured Nerio Rodriguez and Joel Bennett were the best Triple-A Rochester had to offer.

The Orioles project next year's rotation to consist of three arms drafted and developed internally and expect to have at least two organizational rookies -- Jerry Hairston and Jesse Garcia -- on the Opening Day roster.

While the Orioles still speak enthusiastically about third baseman Ryan Minor, first baseman Calvin Pickering, reliever Gabe Molina and slap-and-run outfielder Eugene Kingsale, other clubs increasingly recognize them more for their deficiencies than their promise.

The action now centers on the 23-and-under crowd of Matt Riley, Hairston, center fielder Luis Matos, catcher Jayson Werth, outfielders Keith Reed and Larry Bigbie, pitcher Michael Paradis, shortstop Brian Roberts and first baseman Rick Elder. Others such as 16-year-old Curacao outfielder Quincy Ascencion, converted catcher Juan Guzman and shortstop Maikell Diaz are indicative of a greater push in international scouting.

Last weekend's trade of pending free agent Juan Guzman to the Cincinnati Reds for left-handed reliever B. J. Ryan expanded into an opportunity for the club to further back its stance toward adding youth.

Reds general manager Jim Bowden delayed the transaction by seeking approval from club executives concerned about assuming the balance of Guzman's contract. Wren successfully lobbied Angelos to pay half of Guzman's remaining salary -- about $900,000 -- in order to finalize the deal for Ryan. However, before agreeing, Wren also obtained right-handed pitcher Sequea Jacobo, a 17-year-old Venezuelan he projects will be widely seen as possessing first-round potential next June when American, Canadian and Puerto Rican youth his age will be entering the draft.

Wren, who saw player development as a necessity with the Expos, believes the Orioles are within another draft of crashing the elite player development systems. "It can happen that quickly. There may be a lag in recognition, but the players will be there," he says.

In the past three years the Orioles have drafted 11 first-round and "sandwich" picks, the most expensive being Colorado high school outfielder Darnell McDonald in 1997, who spurned a football scholarship from the University of Texas for a $1.95 million signing bonus. The club has invested more than $6.4 million to sign six of its top seven selections from this June, leaving only first-rounder Richard Stahl, who is seeking more than $2 million to forgo a scholarship at Georgia Tech.

Upon Pat Gillick's resignation last September, chief operating officer Joe Foss said that Gillick's legacy would be player development. While dismissive of Gillick's role in the Orioles' repeat appearances in the American League Championship Series, Foss may be proven correct.

Riley -- who turned 20 last Monday -- was signed for $175,000 as a third-round draft-and-follow acquisition in May 1998. He has since established himself as the organization's most valued prospect and is expected to make his major-league debut next month barring fatigue or organizational reluctance to begin his service time. Hairston was an 11th-round choice behind Riley. After attending Southern Illinois University in 1996, he jumped from Rookie League to Baltimore in 194 games and 735 at-bats.

For once the Orioles may be able to make the legitimate claim -- to be continued.

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