O's youth on clock for 2007 arrival

October 22, 2005|By JOHN EISENBERG

The Orioles' hiring of renowned pitching coach Leo Mazzone is certain to ramp up the optimism for 2006. The team seldom lands someone so high on the Yankees' wish list.

Has it really been since the Roberto Alomar signing a decade ago?

After Mazzone's three-year deal was finalized yesterday, many fans probably headed straight to the list of free agent pitchers, searching for help to end the Orioles' run of eight straight losing seasons. A.J. Burnett? Kevin Millwood? Jeff Weaver? Any would do.

The Orioles wouldn't dare try to mute such an outbreak of hopefulness after a 2005 season so depressing and disappointing.

But in their heart of hearts [shhhhh, don't tell!], club officials are more excited about 2007 than 2006.

The fans, weary of defeat, probably don't want to hear it. Owner Peter Angelos surely doesn't. But in their heart of hearts, the Orioles expect several solid years of scouting, drafting and player development to really start paying off in what would be the second season under the Cumberland Couplet - new manager Sam Perlozzo and his best friend, Mazzone.

Oh, the front office is surely still going to do what it can to make 2006 better. Adding a known quantity like Burnett or Weaver would help a rotation that is capable enough, though hardly dominant. A closer is also going to be needed, given the likely departure of B.J. Ryan.

But the Orioles' best chance of executing a lasting turnaround involves taking a slightly longer view and waiting for a crop of current minor leaguers to mature.

Several actually reached Baltimore this year, however prematurely - starting pitcher Hayden Penn, reliever Chris Ray and outfielder Jeff Fiorentino.

Most are still working their way through the system, but clearly destined for Camden Yards - outfielders Nick Markakis and Nolan Reimold, starting pitcher Garrett Olson, reliever Sendy Rleal and others.

Although it's inevitable and understandable that fans are going to root hard for a winning 2006, they should be rooting hardest for Perlozzo and Mazzone to have all of these youngsters at their beckon by Opening Day 2007. That would be something to see.

With the Yankees and Red Sox certain to always spend more and fare better in free agency, the Orioles have to grow their own talent if they're going to consistently compete in the American League East. They have failed for years, repeatedly pinning their future on overrated prospects such as Matt Riley.

But the minor league system is in better shape now than at any point in the past decade, if not longer.

"They have some very good young talent, especially in pitching. They've done a terrific job in player development and scouting," said Jim Duquette, the team's new vice president of baseball operations.

He's not just blowing smoke. The Orioles' seven minor league affiliates finished above .500 combined. The Frederick Keys won the Single-A Carolina League. Olson, 21, a college pitcher [Cal Poly] taken in the first compensatory round of the 2005 draft, looked polished enough to elicit in-house comparisons to Mike Mussina. Rleal, a 25-year-old Dominican, had 75 strikeouts and 18 walks in 70 2/3 innings at Double-A Bowie. He could be in Baltimore in 2006.

Imagine a homegrown pitching staff including starters Penn, Olson, Daniel Cabrera and Erik Bedard, and relievers Ray and Rleal. That could happen by 2007.

Imagine an all-homegrown outfield of Markakis, Fiorentino and Reimold [a trio that combined to hit 53 home runs in 2005]. That, too, could happen by 2007.

While doing what they can to win in 2006, Mike Flanagan, Duquette and the rest of the reconfigured front office should always keep 2007 in mind. Make moves that make sense for both years and beyond.

That's why Angels catcher Bengie Molina makes the most sense as a free agent for the Orioles to pursue now.

Molina, 31, is relatively young and seemingly good for 15 homers and 70 RBIs a season, but more importantly, he's a defensive standout, superb at handling pitchers. With Javy Lopez turning 35 and in the final year of his contract [and not that strong defensively anyway], Molina would be the perfect addition. If the Orioles are going to rise with all these young pitchers, they need a solid catcher to provide ballast.

Mazzone could still be the key puzzle piece. Although no one should expect miracles - he has failed to connect with his share of pitchers, including Bruce Chen in the 1990s - he has taken a long line of youngsters and made them dependable major leaguers.

Orioles fans have every right to jump and shout about his hiring.

But they also might need to be patient - yes, still.

john.eisenberg@baltsun.com

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