On the field this season, most of the Orioles' minor-league teams were in the same boat as their parent club: looking up at the powers.
Only Frederick in the Single-A Carolina League and Bluefield in the Rookie-level Appalachian League were championship challengers, and both struggled to stay above the .500 level.
But individual opportunity, not team victories, became the quest as the Orioles turned to their youth for major assistance for the first time in a decade.
"We as an organization provided an opportunity for minor-leaguers to gain valuable experience this year," said director of minor-league operations Don Buford. "We have seen tremendous improvement from the start of the season. Hopefully, the carryover will make us competitive soon."
Youngsters such as Brian Roberts, Larry Bigbie and Josh Towers were rewarded with lengthy big-league tenures. Numerous others shuttled back and forth between Baltimore and either Triple-A Rochester or Double-A Bowie.
At the lower steps, players who fared well were advanced quickly, in some cases perhaps too quickly as the big club turned from its previous emphasis on high-priced free agents to homegrown dependence.
"Overall, I wouldn't say we were disappointing with two clubs out of six fighting for the playoffs," Buford said. "Players got experience at levels they normally wouldn't have. That was the important thing."
Eight of those will continue to gain exposure in the Arizona Fall League -outfielders Tim Raines Jr. and Keith Reed, second baseman-outfielder Willie Harris and pitchers Rick Bauer, Erik Bedard, Sean Douglass, Steve Bechler and Shane Hale.
This group - plus pitcher John Stephens and perhaps outfielder Darnell McDonald and infielder Eddy Garabito - holds the most promise.
Stephens, the Eastern League's Player of the Month for July, is the leading candidate for the Palmer Prize, emblematic of the system's top pitcher.
His credentials include a no-hitter, a challenge for the ERA and strikeout titles before being promoted to Triple-A and 33 consecutive scoreless innings. It appears his 1.84 ERA will stand up, and he left with 130 strikeouts in 132 innings.
The major competition for the award appears to be Rochester's Bauer, who had a solid 10-4 record.
The front-runner for the Brooks Robinson Award, symbolic of the minor-league Player of the Year, is Raines, who began the season at Frederick and jumped all the way to Triple-A.
His numbers improved at each stop, and not until a late-season hand injury did he slow down.
Not far behind is Bowie's Harris, who has flirted with .300 all season, has raced Raines for the organization's stolen base title and has thrived at two positions.
"We won a championship last year [Delmarva, Single-A South Atlantic League], and I think, all in all, we have been very competitive this season," Buford said.
Last week's trade will put Calvin Pickering into the International League playoffs with Louisville, the West Division champion. The big first baseman was swapped the day after being named a league all-star. He is almost a cinch to win the RBI title and is still scheduled to play for manager Andy Etchebarren in the Dominican League this winter. ... The Red Wings, who had won 20 of 31, needed a split in their final four games to avoid their worst record since 1985. ... Reed continued to sting the ball. He put together a nine-game hitting streak, and 10 of his 21 hits were for extra bases. ... Douglass will finish second in the league in strikeouts, ahead of Brandon Duckworth, who was promoted to the Philadelphia Phillies, and behind Brandon Knight. ... Bauer gave the team a 10-game winner for the fifth straight season. ... Stephens has pitched in tough luck. He has 53 strikeouts and 17 walks, and opponents are hitting a team-low .233 against him, but his record is 2-4. ... Veteran outfielder Darryl Brinkley has a .362 average with Rochester over two seasons. ... The team had committed 187 errors with four games remaining.
Franky Figueroa is going out with a bang. He hit in 17 of 18 games at a .479 clip and was robbed in the other game. During that span, he compiled six doubles and five homers and pulled to within one point of the Eastern League's top 10 in batting. ... Harris has broken Curtis Goodwin's franchise record with 53 multi-hit games and had a shot at Goodwin's team record of 59 steals. He hit in 11 in a row at a .412 clip and was the league Player of the Week for Aug. 26. ... The Baysox lost the longest game in their history to Erie, 8-7, in 13 innings. The game time was 4 hours, 59 minutes, the pitch count 460. ... Jimmy Hamilton shouldered a big bullpen burden with the pitching staff depleted, going 24 2/3 innings in August and allowing five runs. ... Bowie is 10-25 in one-run decisions. ... Randallstown's Stoney Briggs hit .400 over a five-game batting streak with two doubles and two homers.