No quick solutions seen to Rochester complaints

Inside the Orioles

Farm system hit hard by wave of injuries

Baseball

September 09, 2001|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

SEATTLE - Another week and another week of verbal serve-and-volley between the Orioles and their Triple-A affiliate in Rochester. It's getting so you can't tell the players unless they've got an ax to grind.

The latest exchange included a spirited defense of the minor-league system by director of player development Don Buford and more fan polls shouting displeasure in upstate New York. Buford last week only contradicted Red Wings president Naomi Silver and anyone else claiming the past minor-league season wasn't a success - an "eight" on a scale of 1-10, he said.

Silver has meanwhile called for more accountability from within player development and above.

The Orioles have asked for time, which in this case may be a worthy request. Vice president of baseball operations Syd Thrift says any judgments are best reserved for after the upcoming instructional, fall and winter leagues.

"I don't think it's right to say it's been a lost season for players who are going to play this winter," says Thrift. "What we care most about is where they stand next spring training."

With their top two affiliates crushed this season by injuries, lack of experience and - according to organizational detractors, a lack of a plan, the Orioles intend to rehabilitate themselves in places such as Arizona, Venezuela and the Dominican Republic.

Arm and shoulder injuries to numerous pitchers proved the biggest loss to a franchise committed to rebuilding itself through stockpiling of young arms.

Beau Hale, the Orioles' first-round draft choice in 2000, made 17 starts between Single-A Frederick and Double-A Bowie before being shut down.

Jay Spurgeon, the organization's Pitcher of the Year in 2000 after jumping from Frederick to Baltimore, suffered a freakish shoulder injury on a fielding attempt in his 15th start and was lost for the season. Erik Bedard was 9-1 with a 2.15 ERA at Frederick and was leading the Carolina League in strikeouts (130) before having his season halted at 17 starts.

No pitcher arrived with more promise than Richard Stahl, a gangly left-hander from suburban Atlanta who became the second of the Orioles' seven premium picks in the 1999 draft. But Stahl, 20, finished his second consecutive campaign sidelined by injury. Last season, he was hampered by stress fractures in his back; this year, arm problems flared after 12 starts between at Delmarva and Frederick, where Stahl posted ERAs of 2.67 and 1.95.

The Orioles also can bemoan the loss of one-time prodigy Matt Riley and Luis Rivera, pitchers who if healthy would likely be in Baltimore now.

Riley missed all of this season after undergoing ligament replacement - a.k.a. Tommy John surgery. Rivera, the pivotal player in the July 2000 trade that sent All-Star left fielder B.J. Surhoff to the Atlanta Braves, arrived at spring training with a humpbacked delivery and a shoulder injury after Thrift boasted only several weeks before camp opened of the prospect's improved velocity while pitching in the Venezuelan Winter League.

The Orioles also lost a year of development from center fielder Luis Matos, who still hasn't gained complete strength in his left shoulder since dislocating it on a spring training slide.

Silver understandably sees a fourth consecutive losing season from a team that committed 182 errors and experienced a horrendous lack of power. Tales of Sijngle-A pitchers enduring complicated overnight journeys to Triple-A only to arrive exhausted have spiced the local newspaper, which has been branded "negative" by the Orioles' front office.

A divorce from Rochester might represent more of an opportunity than an inconvenience for the Orioles. Longstanding speculation exists that the Orioles could act upon their desire to firm their standing as a regional franchise by installing their Triple-A affiliate at Bowie then transplanting their Double-A team to Frederick or perhaps even Cal Ripken's complex in Aberdeen. Asked about the possibility, Thrift says only, "We're happy with what we have now."

Thrift says the talent flow has been stretched thin by necessity. Numerous injuries on the major-league club have created a ripple effect throughout the organization. The Red Wings were the International League's youngest team when the season began. The release of several veterans as well as pushing replacements from below only aggravated the condition. Need forced Josh Towers and Calvin Maduro to Baltimore while the Red Wings suffered the loss of Spurgeon to injury.

Hale and Bedard are among those ticketed for the Arizona Fall League. Riley is expected to throw in the instructional league that begins later this month. Chad Paronto, Kris Foster, John Parrish and John Stephens intend to play winter ball as will position players Ivanon Coffie, Brian Roberts, Jay Gibbons and minor-league catcher Octavio Martinez.

"Our No. 1 commitment was addressing the back end of the bullpen. We knew going into the season we had one Achilles' heel, no closer," said Thrift. "We had been working on that project since the beginning of the season, and also given Julio a chance to develop. We think [Willis] Roberts has a chance to be a closer. And we've converted the back end to power arms - Roberts, [Jorge] Julio, B.J. Ryan. Foster has a future and [John] Bale has helped us there. We've made a concerted effort and believe we have a reasonably good future there."

For further clarification, "there" probably doesn't mean Rochester.

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