Globe is O's on-deck circle

Outreach: Stepped-up international scouting has brought a world of prospects, if not success, to the Orioles.

Mining the Minors

September 27, 2000|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

Three years ago, the Orioles, Florida Marlins, Cleveland Indians and Atlanta Braves were the last four teams standing in the postseason.

The Marlins became the first wild-card world champion in only their sixth season before abruptly shedding payroll, changing ownership and gradually recovering to hover around .500 for most of this season.

The Indians became frustrated with five consecutive division championships and two World Series appearances and fired manager Mike Hargrove, who migrated to Baltimore. Cleveland now challenges for a sixth consecutive postseason berth.

The Braves, pressing for their ninth division championship in a row, remain a beacon of stability as manager Bobby Cox has his league's longest-running job and general manager John Schuerholz enjoys unchallenged stability within the industry.

The Orioles, meanwhile, have embarked on a renovation hoping to incorporate the tenets of their rivals' success - the Marlins' skill in international scouting, the Indians' ability to develop drafted players and the Braves' seamless communication between scouting and player development.

"You need all three elements to have a successful organization," says the Braves' Schuerholz, a Baltimore native. "Over time, the absence of one will overtake the presence of two."

The Orioles began to intensify their international scouting efforts shortly after Syd Thrift's arrival as director of player development five years ago.

Thrift, now vice president for baseball operations, clearly remembers his motivation for change. On a tour of the Orioles' playing facility about 20 miles outside San Pedro de Macoris in the Dominican Republic, Thrift discovered 10 teen-age boys crammed into a cinder-block house with flickering electricity, broken plumbing and swine roaming the yard.

"It was awful," recalls Thrift, who took pictures as evidence for new owner Peter Angelos. "It wasn't what I was expecting."

The Orioles have twice upgraded their Dominican housing since and are planning construction of an elaborate academy consisting of five fields, a dormitory and classrooms near San Pedro de Macoris. Rather than players having to bus to a single field, they'll live on site, practicing daily while also studying Spanish and English.

The ongoing commitment shows how far the Orioles have come in matching teams like the Marlins in international outreach. Yet much remains to be done. The club has plenty of foreign-born prospects, but none has yet made an impact in the majors.

In 1994, the Orioles' first full season under Angelos' stewardship, just under a quarter of the organization's 186 players were foreign-born. The 40-man major-league roster included only three - Armando Benitez, Manny Alexander and Sherman Obando. Today, nearly half of the Orioles' 252 players were born outside the United States, including 65 from the Dominican Republic, 24 from Venezuela, six from Canada and five from Curacao, according to Major League Baseball. The team's percentage of foreign-born players (44.8) well exceeds the industry average of 39.4 percent.

The Orioles have more international players than the Braves, Toronto Blue Jays and Los Angeles Dodgers, franchises known for their extensive reach.

Dominican inroads

The Orioles also are making progress in securing Dominican players. Only the Boston Red Sox (86), Oakland Athletics (85), New York Mets (82) and Marlins (67) have more than the Orioles' 65.

Every major-league team is represented in the Dominican Republic. Some, such as the Blue Jays and Dodgers, own their own academies. Other organizations rent facilities. The Marlins began construction of their facility soon after the 1990 expansion draft.

The Orioles, meanwhile, continue to bus their players to a single field, admittedly at a handicap.

"I think it gives them a big advantage," Thrift says of those organizations able to provide an academy lifestyle. "You don't just teach baseball there. You'll have a better pupil and a better player because there are educational and nutritional aspects to it."

The Marlins were first to separate Latin American scouting from their domestic operation and give each department its own budget and clout. Among Dave Dombrowski's first moves as Marlins general manager was to make the Latin American director a post considered the equal to scouting director. The Braves copied the move last month.

"In today's world, in order to be successful, you have to have a good international program," says Al Avila, the Marlins' director of scouting and Latin American operations. "You have to have good international resources and a productive draft. You throw some free agency in the mix to have a good organization. If you don't do well or ignore one aspect, you're going to suffer. It might not show up for a while, but it will show up."

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