Big man on O's farm could be growth sign

August 31, 2004|By JOHN EISENBERG

TWO NUMBERS DREW me like a magnet to Bowie, where the Orioles' future supposedly resides.

The first number was the Orioles' recent losing streak that escalated into double digits, firmly rebutting the weeks of encouraging play that preceded it while leaving no doubt that the team should focus on 2005 and beyond.

The second number was 32, Walter Young's home run total for the Baysox this season.

Could Young, 24, take over for Rafael Palmeiro at first base next season?

It's an interesting fantasy to contemplate, and good for your mental health as the reality of a seventh straight losing season sets in.

Palmeiro, 39, is hitting .249 and has just one home run since the All-Star break, raising doubts about whether he belongs at first base next season.

Meanwhile, the 305-pound Young has suddenly blossomed, hitting .315 with 64 RBIs in 79 games since June 1 to augment his spectacular power.

This is how sharp organizations do it, grooming future generations to step in when needed.

But the Orioles haven't produced an impact position player since Cal Ripken.

Calvin Pickering, Juan Bell and others have taken turns being anointed as the next big thing over the years, but none has delivered on his promise.

Yes, the team's overall developmental record is better lately with homegrown talent such as Jerry Hairston, Brian Roberts, Larry Bigbie and Luis Matos figuring prominently in the major league mix.

But let's face it, the front office still had to go out and buy the heart of a batting order last winter.

We're fantasizing here about a young star suddenly ascending, a bold stroke of good fortune, which would be helpful and is long overdue, to say the least.

Young was happy to indulge the daydream despite having played just one season above Single-A.

"I believe I belong there [the majors]. There's no doubt in my mind I can play right along with those guys at that level," he said before a game at Prince George's Stadium.

Reality quickly intervenes, as it always does.

Palmeiro's contract includes an option for 2005 that triggers if he plays first base in 23 of the team's remaining 33 games, so he might well be back.

And Young, who was claimed off waivers from the Pirates last November, is clearly still a work in progress, just learning such fundamentals as proper pitch selection and hitting to the opposite field.

"He has made tremendous progress, but there is room for improvement," Bowie manager Dave Trembley said. "I see him going to Triple-A next season and probably starting off slowly, like he did here. But getting better."

It's probably a year too soon for this discussion, in other words, but the Orioles and their success-starved fans surely can wait as long as Young eventually blossoms, unlike the previous hot prospects who faded.

"I'm preparing myself to play at that level. I feel like I'm making strides," Young said.

A left-handed hitter with a football lineman's body, he should especially heed Pickering's cautionary tale, which was renewed last week when Pickering, now 27, resurfaced and hit a handful of homers for the Royals.

Syd Thrift called him "the next Mo Vaughn" when he hit 31 homers for Bowie in 1998, but he was overweight and prone to injuries, and the Orioles traded him to the Reds in August 2001.

Young, who broke Pickering's Bowie record with a mammoth home run Saturday night, could stand to improve his conditioning.

"I have challenged Walter to work on that this winter. We'll find out how badly Walter wants it," said Trembley, finishing his 18th season as a minor league manager.

There are encouraging signs. Young was swinging wildly at curveballs earlier this season and mostly just trying to jack balls over the fence. He put in hours of extra work with Trembley, Bowie field coach Butch Davis and the Orioles' minor league hitting coordinator, Dave Stockstill.

"A lot of the improvement has happened at 2 o'clock in the cage," Trembley said. "Walter is very willing. And he has made huge progress. Our organization obviously has been looking for power, and I don't know of anyone else in the organization who has it, so it gets interesting."

The ascendance of such a player would be the surest sign of any real organizational rebirth.

The Orioles insist they are developing players more shrewdly now after years of disappointing results, but they're still going outside the organization for the pieces that compose the heart of the team.

Wouldn't it be something if, for once, they grew one?

Orioles tonight

Opponent: Tampa Bay Devil Rays

Site: Tropicana Field, St. Petersburg, Fla.

Time: 7:15

TV/Radio: Comcast SportsNet/WBAL (1090 AM)

Starters: Orioles' Bruce Chen (0-0, 0.00) vs. Devil Rays' Rob Bell (6-7, 4.44)

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