Jerry Hairston knows the pipeline.
He entered in 1997 as a third-generation professional player selected by the Orioles in the amateur draft. In less than two seasons, he was playing at Camden Yards as the popular replacement for injured second baseman Delino DeShields. Hairston made it back to the top again this year, but not so easily that he has forgotten the perspective of being trapped on the farm.
"The feeling throughout the minor-league system was that with this organization you really didn't have a shot. Your best bet was to maybe get traded or play someplace else," Hairston said.
But just as the Orioles second baseman voices the concerns of some he has left behind, he also represents a fresh wave of talent no longer blocked by a mountain of multi-year contracts, no-trade clauses and reluctance to promote from within.
Barely six weeks after conceding the 2000 season was lost, the Orioles have provided a showcase for many of their own prospects as well as several acquired for veterans in a flurry of five trades immediately before the July 31 waiver deadline.
Hairston's arrival, coupled with the extended auditions given center fielder Luis Matos, first baseman Chris Richard, closer Ryan Kohlmeier and starting pitchers John Parrish and Jay Spurgeon, signals something more than a wasted season.
At the same time, a minor-league system consistently ranked among the game's worst by Baseball America and industry rivals appears to be regaining some of its former luster. The team awaits the promise of power pitching arms and outfield depth resulting from several solid drafts.
"It's much better now than it was two years ago, and it was better two years ago than two years before then," said director of minor-league instruction Tom Trebelhorn. "I think you can see a pipeline developing now. It's exciting to me."
"They have more talent than in the past," said one National League scout who asked to remain anonymous. "What they do with it is the big question."
Trebelhorn's formula for successful player development is succinct: readiness equals opportunity.
"Sometimes, when the opportunity is there, the readiness lags. And there are times when someone may be ready but the opportunity isn't available. The perfect situation is when the two come together."
The combination has eluded the Orioles for a generation. Cal Ripken, chosen in the 1978 amateur draft, remains the last position player selected, developed and deployed long enough by the Orioles to receive 500 at-bats in a season. Morale hovered somewhere between indifference and downright bitterness, say past and present player development personnel. While the franchise became increasingly dependent on free agency to fill Camden Yards, many on the farm lost hope.
"You remind the players there are 29 other clubs out there and you want those 29 to want you as much as the Orioles want you. That becomes the window of opportunity," said Don Buford, director of minor-league operations, acknowledging the period when the Orioles developed players like Jeffrey Hammonds and traded them.
Hairston, 24, recalls the departure of Hammonds, David Segui, and David Dellucci as hurting morale in the farm system.
"It can get to guys. It really can," said Hairston, who is likely to follow Ripken as the Orioles' next homegrown position player. "There were times it got to me."
Hairston felt the sensation as recently as this spring. Blocked by DeShields at second base and considered a less-attractive alternative to fellow prospect Jesus Garcia and veteran Mark Lewis as a part-time player, Hairston was optioned to Rochester on April 9. He then underwent arthroscopic shoulder surgery May 19 and spent much of the next two months rehabilitating at the team's minor-league complex in Sarasota, Fla.
Trebelhorn, the Orioles' director of player development during the regime of former general manager Frank Wren, concedes Hairston "was probably ready before the opportunity."
In 1999, the Orioles failed to contend, yet elevated only five position prospects from Rochester - Hairston, Garcia, Calvin Pickering, Ryan Minor and Tommy Davis - for a combined 10 home runs, 34 RBIs and 374 at-bats. Davis, used as a catcher, received only six plate appearances before he was quickly returned to Rochester. Three pitchers were promoted in 1999 - Matt Riley, Gabe Molina, and Brian Falkenborg - and only Molina appeared before rosters expanded Sept. 1.
"I don't think you can repair anything that's happened in the past. But I do feel like where we are now is very positive," Buford said. "You look at the contracts we had at the major-league level, and there wasn't much of a window of opportunity It's a matter of dollars and cents."