Drought on O's farm, too

Minors: Its top officials unsigned, its three top affiliates 109 games below .500 and its critics citing fundamental flaws, the Orioles' player development system has much `re-evaluating' to do.


September 10, 2002|By Roch Kubatko | Roch Kubatko,SUN STAFF

The optimists within the Orioles organization point to the two playoff teams in their farm system and the number of draft picks under contract as proof the minor-league season wasn't a complete bust.

The pessimists total all the losses, the injuries and the prospects who disappointed, and call for sweeping changes.

But it's not clear who could be wielding the broom.

The contracts of Syd Thrift, vice president for baseball operations, director of minor-league operations Don Buford and scouting director Tony DeMacio expire after the season. Owner Peter Angelos hasn't confirmed that Thrift will return, though he has publicly supported the moves Thrift made during the winter to improve the team.

Should he remain in his present role, Thrift said he'll be involved in a process of "re-evaluating everything" in player development after a season when the top three affiliates, Triple-A Rochester (55-89), Double-A Bowie (55-85) and Single-A Frederick (47-92), combined to finish 109 games below .500.

"We've got to do what's best for the organization," Thrift said. Asked about the possibility that Buford or DeMacio might not return, Thrift said: "In baseball, anything's possible. I don't know what we're going to do right now. We haven't gotten to that stage yet. ...

"All of us are accountable for what we do in our performance. I know what it's like to be criticized. But the most important thing is, what can you do to improve? I don't think it helps any to say, `This guy didn't do this, this guy didn't do that.' We have to figure out, `What did we do right? What did we do wrong?' You build on your strengths and try to eliminate your weaknesses."

The Rochester Red Wings filed for free agency in August and could break their 41-year tie to the Orioles -- the longest for a Triple-A franchise -- after posting the worst record among teams in its classification for the second straight season.

The Orioles reassigned Bowie Baysox manager Dave Cash and pitching coach Tom Burgmeier during the All-Star break, replacing them with Dave Stock- still and Dave Schmidt. The Eastern League's Baysox went 26-26 in the second half.

"I don't think anyone who saw that Bowie team could say there aren't legitimate prospects there," said Ed Kenney, a special assistant to Thrift.

"Bowie got off to such a bad start," Buford said, "that I think complacency set in with that ballclub and it shouldn't have."

"The records indicate some things," Thrift said. "I'm always disappointed when I don't win. ... A lot of times things happen that don't really indicate the true story. In the case of Bowie, when the changes were made, the players' performance changed because we had top prospects there who weren't doing anything. Frederick had a better second half and the players got better. Delmarva had a marvelous second-half finish. Bluefield had a great year."

When the Red Wings were mentioned, Thrift said: "Rochester had a dismal year. Some of the players we signed, we expected a better performance from and didn't get it. We spent a lot of money."

Looking beyond the records doesn't bring much comfort. One high-ranking club official said: "It's hard to say you're satisfied when we didn't develop a single player for the big leagues. Guys like [Rick] Bauer, [Jorge] Julio and [Jerry] Hairston developed here [in the majors]."

Some of the issues are easier to explain away. The Orioles were busiest over the winter signing minor-league free agents to provide depth at the upper levels of the farm system, but Thrift needed them in the majors when injuries tore into the Orioles' roster. Pitchers Rodrigo Lopez and Travis Driskill, who figured to spend much of the season at Rochester, became valuable members of the Orioles' rotation. And Thrift wanted to keep his Double-A prospects at Bowie instead of rushing them to Triple-A to replace the call-ups.

But other criticisms, both from within the organization and outside it, warrant greater attention.

A major-league scout familiar with the Orioles organization offered a harsh assessment.

"If I was to point my finger, I think the player development system is brutal, brutal, brutal," said the scout, who, in keeping with the practice in his profession, spoke on the condition of anonymity. "I've seen their teams, and you never see their players working on things before games. They don't take infield, you don't see catchers working on blocking balls. I see the guys making the same mistakes year after year, and I don't see anyone developing. I think it's really a mess. They don't have a lot there.

"I haven't seen any one specific player who is going to step up and make a difference. You've got a disjointed system. I think the environment has been really poor. Those teams don't have discipline. They're fundamentally poor. Kids get away with stuff they wouldn't get away with in any other organization."

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