Orioles need aid of farm to end drought

February 22, 2005|By John Eisenberg

THE START of spring training means the end of the offseason, which, for the Orioles, couldn't come soon enough.

It was, um, not a winter to remember in Birdland.

The front office simply didn't address many of the team's holes - starting pitching, first base, center field, etc. - for reasons ranging from financial concerns to front office indecision to the arrival of the Nationals in Washington.

But as frustrating as it was, the winter succeeded in illustrating the path the franchise needs to follow if it wants to climb out of the deep hole dug by seven straight losing seasons.

Buying a winner is no longer an option.

The Orioles are going to have to grow one, at least for the most part.

If their minor league system doesn't start producing more quality players and the occasional star, their talent level is never going to rise to what a playoff team needs.

Not enough free agents or stars available by trade are going to come here to allow the Orioles to build a winner that way.

Their chronic losing has turned them into something less than an attractive alternative, especially with the almighty Yankees and Red Sox in the same division. Some players on the open market might not mind those circumstances if the price is right, but a majority would rather go to a team that has a better chance of winning.

The Orioles' failed pursuit of free agent Carl Pavano was particularly instructive along these lines. Their offer was comparable to that of the Yankees, who signed Pavano, but the pitcher was never going to come here.

Richie Sexson and Carlos Delgado were among those who also turned down sizable offers from the Orioles, and, putting it bluntly, no one was dying to come.

Oh, wait, one guy was - Sammy Sosa, the newest and (so he says) happiest Oriole.

The trade for Sosa was a positive because, at the very least, it will make the team more interesting - an underrated need after all those losing seasons - and because the Orioles negotiated a highly favorable deal. They didn't give up much, and they don't have to pay Sosa much. Their risk is minimal.

Of course, the deal was a blatant attempt to generate a buzz of any kind and win back the fans frustrated by the team's inability to make additions potentially more helpful than Sosa. His star power quieted the carping for the time being, but that won't help if the starting pitching is again a problem in 2005. People will remember.

In any case, the point is the Orioles were able to obtain Sosa only because the Cubs were even more desperate, seemingly willing to do almost anything to unload their once-beloved slugger. The Orioles shrewdly made the most of the situation, but such opportunities are rare.

To add other players as attractive as Sosa, they're going to have to pay significantly more than the market warrants, as they did when they landed Miguel Tejada and, to a lesser degree, Javy Lopez. And if they have suddenly lost the urge to overpay with the arrival of the Nationals, their only remaining choice is to grow their own talent.

That, of course, is a thorny issue in its own right, the result of years of problematic drafting and player development. After the Orioles' system produced Cal Ripken in the early 1980s, it didn't produce another everyday player for more than a decade, and still hasn't produced another major-impact everyday player.

Granted, the track record has improved lately with the ascendance of such useful major leaguers as Larry Bigbie, Brian Roberts and Jerry Hairston, with a rising generation of hopefuls including outfielders Val Majewski and Nick Markakis and slugging first baseman Walter Young.

But it is hard to expect the operation to run smoothly and routinely spit out useful major leaguers when the team is on its third director of minor league operations since 2002.

Nor does it help when ownership overrules the scouting department on draft day, demanding that the first pick be used for a college pitcher rather than a high school shortstop. That happened in 2004.

As always in baseball, you're only going to win when you have good people in place and let them do their jobs.

Anyway, 2005 has brought together a new scouting director (Joe Jordan) and a new director of minor league operations (Dave Stockstill), and though their work will take place far from the major league limelight, it constitutes the Orioles' only real chance of becoming a consistent winner.

Free agents and trades aren't going to get them there, not even close.

At the very least, the disastrous baseball winter of 2004-05 was useful for making that clear.

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