Orioles vice president Jim Duquette grinned like an old gambler who had the winning card secreted in his palm.
It was a few weeks before spring training and Duquette had been talking over the club's most touted pitching prospects. "Don't forget Radhames Liz," he said. "He may have a better arm than any of them."
Two starts, 10 innings and 22 strikeouts into Liz's season for Single-A Frederick, the baseball world has awoken to Duquette's buried treasure. The young Dominican with the cool name, unorthodox delivery and fearsome fastball is suddenly a prospect on everyone's lips.
"No, doubt, his is one of those arms you don't see very often," said Frederick pitching coach and former New York Mets reliever Blaine Beatty.
The Salem Avalanche had the misfortune of facing Liz in his two dominant starts.
"He's got an outstanding arm," Avalanche manager Jim Pankovitz told The Roanoke (Va.) Times after the second game. "He throws hard and he's got good command of his breaking ball. And it's not a get-me-over breaking ball; it's a very sharp breaking ball. He's very poised and he knows how to set up hitters."
The Orioles signed Liz in the Dominican province of El Seybo when he was 19. He was a tall, skinny kid with fire-hose arms and spidery fingers. He didn't have much oomph on his fastball, but the club's Dominican scout, Carlos Bernhardt, saw promise in his body. The Orioles signed him over relatively little competition.
Liz started out in the Dominican Summer League for prospects with three or fewer years of pro experience. He distinguished himself in the second season, said Orioles minor league director David Stockstill, adding speed to his fastball and learning the rudiments of a slider and changeup.
But Liz was still throwing mostly fastballs - 95-mph ones, granted - when he came to the United States last season. He started at Single-A Delmarva, where he learned that he couldn't get outs using one pitch. The Orioles moved him down to Aberdeen.
Liz dominated at the lower classification, striking out 82 in 56 innings and posting a 1.77 ERA. He earned promotion back to Delmarva and struck out at least eight hitters in three of his four starts. The Orioles were thrilled, believing they had carved a real jewel out of rough rock.
But even Stockstill was amazed at Liz's performance in minor league camp this spring. The club had contemplated sending the 22-year-old back to Delmarva, but with Liz showing a new confidence in his slider, he was promoted to Frederick. He combined with two relievers for a no-hitter in his first start and pitched five more shutout innings in his second.
He still relies on his fastball "which just explodes," Stockstill said. But he has earned strikeouts with his slider as well.
Liz needs some fine-tuning. He consistently throws his fastball for strikes but can't always throw it where he wants within the strike zone. His slider and changeup come and go. He's also still learning English, though he watches a lot of television and hangs with American teammates in a concerted effort to improve.
"We see him as a No. 1-, No. 2-type arm," Stockstill said. "We have some very good pitchers, but if you're looking for just power arms, he and Brandon Erbe are probably the top two in the organization."
3 up, 3 down
Cory Morris -- The Triple-A Ottawa starter, who was called up to Baltimore briefly, has posted a 1.80 ERA in three starts.
Tony Alvarez -- The veteran outfielder is batting .309 and leading Double-A Bowie with three home runs and 15 RBIs.
Jarod Rine -- The 2003 draft pick is batting .333 with two home runs, seven RBIs and five steals for Single-A Frederick.
Franklyn Gracesqui -- The right-hander is still struggling to regain the velocity he showed in winter ball and has allowed 14 base runners in 8 1/3 innings for Ottawa.
Eli Whiteside -- The one-time candidate to be a third catcher for the Orioles is batting .143 in 10 starts for Ottawa.
Alejandro Freire -- After an invitation to big league camp, the first baseman is batting .204 with no home runs for Ottawa.
Double-A Bowie will travel to Portland, Maine, this weekend to face prospects from the divisional rival Boston Red Sox. Reliever Craig Hansen, who pitched for the Red Sox down the stretch last season, is a star for the Sea Dogs.