Roberts' rise through system a major development for O's

June 09, 2005|By John Eisenberg

WITH BRIAN Roberts a deserving All-Star this season, the Orioles have finally shed that old bugaboo about them having failed to draft and develop an impact position player since Cal Ripken.

But when you start delving into the tricky business of who gets the credit, you see why it took so long.

Frank Wren, the general manager who oversaw the 1999 draft that included Roberts? He was fired six years ago and is now the assistant general manager of the Atlanta Braves.

Tony DeMacio, the scouting director who really wanted Roberts? He was fired in 2004 and now scouts for the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Don Buford, the minor league director when Roberts was drafted? He was re-assigned after the 2002 season and is now a coach with the Washington Nationals.

Buford's old job has turned over twice more since he left.

"Farm directors, scouting directors, all with different philosophies," said Bien Figueroa, a nine-year veteran of the Orioles' minor league system and current manager of the Single-A Frederick Keys.

The steady drip of firings and hirings obviously didn't help the Orioles squeeze impact talent out of their system, but Figueroa and a small cast of development department survivors overcame the shuffle and helped Roberts become a star.

"Brian deserves the credit, of course," Figueroa said, "but a lot of people helped him."

Of those no longer with the organization, DeMacio was the most essential - for one reason.

"He got Brian to the Orioles," said Wren, who was general manager here for less than a year. "We spent hours discussing the draft beforehand, and Brian was Tony's `gut-feel' player from the beginning. Tony said, `He isn't the most gifted guy in terms of size and strength, but he's just a great baseball player.' "

Roberts, then a junior shortstop at the University of South Carolina, was taken with a "sandwich" draft pick between the first and second rounds, received as compensation when Roberto Alomar left the Orioles as a free agent for Cleveland.

Roberts spent most of the next four years in the minors, moving from Delmarva to Frederick to Bowie to Rochester. The scouting and personnel department heads over him came and went, but there was more stability among the on-field managers, coaches and instructors.

Figueroa coached him at Frederick and Bowie. Former major leaguer Butch Davis, now in his 11th season in the system, hit thousands of ground balls to him at Rochester. Former Orioles catcher Andy Etchebarren, now the manager of the Aberdeen IronBirds, managed him at Rochester.

"Brian was a complete player when he walked into the organization; he just needed experience," Figueroa said. "And then [the Orioles] changed him to a second baseman and we had to coach him through that. It took him awhile to get the fundamentals down, like the double play pivot. But as hard as he works, it was only a matter of time."

Feeling loyal to the players he had drafted, Wren stayed in touch with Roberts and monitored his progress. They visited several times when their paths crossed in the minors.

"We had a good, long visit early [in 2003]. I was scouting our Triple-A team [Richmond] and they played Ottawa [now the Orioles' Triple-A team]. Brian was the best player on the field - by far," Wren said.

He became the Orioles' regular second baseman when Jerry Hairston was injured in May last season and went on to hit .273, score 107 runs and hit 50 doubles in 2004.

This year, he is hitting .369 (leading the American League) with 11 home runs as he returns from a shoulder injury.

"Maybe we didn't envision that kind of power, but in every other way, we knew he was special," Wren said. "When I left the Orioles [after the 1999 season], the one thing I was pleased about was that I thought we had started an organizational foundation with Brian and a few other players."

Erik Bedard and Larry Bigbie were also taken in the June 1999 draft, a month before B.J. Ryan was obtained in a trade.

"I'd say those four are having quite a bit to do with the Orioles winning right now," Wren said.

The draft-and-develop success story is one of the few for the organization since the glory days of the 1970s. But just as the major league team is playing better in 2005, the minor league system is also showing signs of emerging from its long, dark period.

"Things are real good right now, better than I can ever recall," Figueroa said. "We have lots of good players and lots of good managers and coaches. The attitude is good."

Morale was boosted by the recent promotion of one of their own, David Stockstill, to director of minor league operations.

"When a player like Brian does so well, everyone in the system feels proud," Figueroa said. "We can do that with players. And we will do it again."

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