O's appear to have good crop on farm

Teams closest to Baltimore feature key prospects

April 06, 2006|By CHILDS WALKER | CHILDS WALKER,SUN REPORTER

The Orioles' farm system has been drawing its best reviews in years, and with four teams starting play this week, prospect watchers should have plenty to talk about.

The three teams within easy driving distance of Baltimore - low Single-A Delmarva, high Single-A Frederick and Double-A Bowie - all feature players considered vital to the Orioles' future.

"We very strongly expect this to be a very exciting year," said David Stockstill, the Orioles' director of minor league operations.

Triple-A Ottawa lies farther from reach but is stocked with major league veterans who could be called up quickly if the club's bullpen or utility players falter.

Ottawa

The team's glitziest prospects reside at lower levels. But left-hander John Halama and utility man Ed Rogers could get called up at any moment.

Hayden Penn held a spot in the Orioles' rotation for 37 days last year after dominating at Double-A. He also looked good this spring, but Orioles manager Sam Perlozzo has said Penn must improve his curveball. He works mostly with a low-90s fastball and changeup.

"He needs to be able to show he can throw the breaking ball for strikes at any time," Stockstill said. "It's a good enough pitch stuff-wise, but if it's always a ball, they'll stop swinging in the major leagues."

Penn could be ready to start in Baltimore later this year, he added.

Outfielder Val Majewski is the other top prospect at Ottawa. He missed all of last season with a left shoulder injury and is now projected by outside prospect watchers as a fourth outfielder (he's also boning up on first base play).

"He just needs at-bats," Stockstill said. "There's no doubt in my mind he'll hit."

Infielder Brandon Fahey stuck around until the last weeks of big league camp and showed he was an excellent contact hitter.

Reliever Franklyn Gracesqui, meanwhile, has club officials baffled because he threw in the high 90s in winter ball but could barely hit 90 mph during spring training.

Bowie

The Baysox are loaded with pitching talent and feature a familiar face in outfielder Jeff Fiorentino.

Adam Loewen is the big name. Loewen was the Orioles' first-round pick in 2002, but the Canadian struggled with control in his first two professional seasons. The 6-foot-5 left-hander began coming on during the second half last year, and many scouts thought he was the best pitcher in the Arizona Fall League, an annual showcase for top prospects. He garnished his resume further with a strong performance against the United States in the World Baseball Classic.

Now, the Orioles want to see him consolidate his improvements and dominate.

"Command is what will make the difference for him," Stockstill said. "He's got all the pitches."

Loewen will be pitching under some strain because his contract says he must make the Orioles in 2007 or be waived.

Other top starters at Bowie include James Johnson, a strapping slider specialist who was the Carolina League Pitcher of the Year in 2005, and Brian Finch, a workhorse who was Most Valuable Player of the Carolina League championship series.

Behind them in the Bowie bullpen is Chris Britton, who struck out a remarkable 110 batters in 78 2/3 innings at Frederick last year. Britton is fun to watch with a funky delivery that makes the ball appear to come from his shirt. But he puts on weight easily and frustrated Orioles officials by arriving at camp heavy (at 6-3, he's listed at 278 pounds). He works hard, Stockstill said, and understands he'll have to wow managers who might otherwise fixate on his waistline.

"In minor league camp, he would do a hard 30-minute workout every day before anyone else even showed up," the scouting director said. "Anytime you put something negative in a manager's mind with your appearance, you have to work to convince them it's not a problem. He's done that."

Fiorentino played 13 games in the majors last year after a surprise call-up from Single-A. He hit 22 homers at Frederick and bulked up in the offseason, so he's shaping into a real power prospect, Stockstill said. Fiorentino will also play all three outfield spots, a trait that helped Nick Markakis make the Orioles this year

"He's just gotten better every day since a few weeks after being sent down last season," Stockstill said.

Leo Daigle, a free-agent signee who won the Carolina League triple crown last year, could provide some fireworks. So could former Winston-Salem teammate Noah Hall. Daigle, 26, and Hall, 28, are too old to be considered hot prospects, but will be great teammates for the system's younger players, Stockstill said.

Frederick

The club has stowed two of its best arms, Radhames Liz and Garrett Olson, and its best power prospect, outfielder Nolan Reimold, at Single-A Frederick.

Liz showed how overwhelming he can be by striking out 82 batters in 56 innings at Single-A Aberdeen last year. His fastball reaches the high 90s, but the 22-year-old Dominican remains raw.

"He's got to work on command," Stockstill said. "He gets out of the strike zone sometimes."

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