Buford defends maligned farm system

O's development head says Rochester critics forget young successes

September 05, 2001|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

OAKLAND, CALIF. — Late Orioles game: Last night's game between the Orioles and the Athletics in Oakland, Calif., ended too late to be included in this edition. A complete report can be found in later editions or on the Internet at http://www.sunspot.net.

OAKLAND, Calif. - Orioles director of player development Don Buford yesterday defended the organization's player development record at Triple-A Rochester, saying criticism recently levied by the Red Wings' front office that club officials have to be held "accountable" for a poor season doesn't take into account numerous successes by younger players, some of whom were forced to Rochester prematurely by injuries at the major-league level.

"As far as the development aspect at Rochester goes, if you put together the whole year, a number of players have proven very honest and true," Buford said.

Stung by recently published comments by Red Wings chief operating officer Naomi Silver, Buford said poor seasons by veterans such as pitcher Rick Huisman, catcher Julio Vinas and outfielder Ken Woods further exposed what was already the youngest roster in the International League.

"From the very beginning, it was a mixture of younger players and the veteran players would be the stabilizers of the club. In the course of the year, the veterans didn't play up to expectations," Buford said. "But that's not to say a lot of our younger players didn't make significant progress."

Silver last week insisted that the talent sent to Rochester by the Orioles would have to significantly improve next season or she would seek to end her franchise's 40-year relationship with the club. Buford took exception to any implication that the franchise was not providing Rochester with a legitimate product.

"It's not fair for them to say who's a prospect and who isn't," Buford said. "Look at all the prospects there who went to the big leagues. Six or seven were on the 40-man roster."

Buford cited the progress made by middle infielder Eddy Garabito, shortstop Eddy Martinez, shortstop Brian Roberts, pitcher Josh Towers and closer Jorge Julio as examples of players who enjoyed solid seasons.

Towers and Julio reached Baltimore. Garabito, 22, hit .267 with a team-high 24 stolen bases. Martinez, 24, hit .269 with seven home runs and 33 RBIs in 305 at-bats. Buford also noted the seasons produced by reliever Chad Paronto and starting pitchers Sean Douglass and Rick Bauer, all of whom have appeared for the Orioles.

"I expressed the player development aspect to them before the year," Buford said. "We changed players trying to get better during the year. It wasn't like we didn't spend the money. They say everybody there can't play. You're categorizing guys who're playing in the big leagues."

Buford believes "negative" coverage of the 60-84 team by Rochester media has only exacerbated tension that has built during the Wings' four consecutive losing seasons.

"Before the season when we expressed to them that we would be young, a couple writers said the Orioles and Rochester wouldn't win 100 games between them."

Orioles vice president of baseball operations Syd Thrift last week admitted disappointment over Rochester's inability to be more competitive and acknowledged the importance of players winning at a lower level before reaching the major leagues.

Buford, in his first year as director of player development, made no apologies, citing the team's 19-12 August and the accelerated movement of several top position prospects through the system. "Look at what Keith Reed did [.344 with 11 RBIs in 16 games]. Look at [Larry] Bigbie. Look at Tim Raines since they had him at Triple-A," Buford said. "If they say those guys aren't prospects, I'd say all those guys are going to be playing in the big leagues after coming through the system."

Buford also contradicted several front office members who last week graded the minor-league season as a collective "two" on a scale of 1-10. "I'd give it an eight," Buford said.

Ripken's back

Cal Ripken returned to the lineup last night, albeit not at third base. Held out of Monday's game because of back stiffness that began during last Thursday's game at Camden Yards and aggravated by the team's cross-country flight Sunday night, Ripken served as designated hitter in his fourth consecutive start.

Ripken said Monday he would "hate to push it" and "blow out" his back with only several weeks remaining in his season and career. He abstained from pre-game infield.

The A's intend to honor Ripken before this afternoon's game by naming a local field after him.

Ripken's absence Monday once again became a catalyst for fan complaints. When shortstop Melvin Mora was injured during the game, fans began to chant, "We want Cal. We want Cal."

Such disregard for his players infuriates manager Mike Hargrove. "That's when I feel like ... " Hargrove said afterward, leaving the thought unfinished.

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