Homegrown talent requires cultivation

O's must commit to rebuilding, allow developing talent time to blossom

May 10, 2006|By JOHN EISENBERG

Two losing baseball teams offered differing worldviews last week.

Responding to his increasingly mutinous fans, David Glass, owner of the lamentable Kansas City Royals, said his organization would "change everything we can" and not sit still and do whatever is necessary to improve, blah, blah.

Stan Kasten, new president of the Washington Nationals, said his downtrodden organization would "build through player development."

Give me the Nationals' future any day.

Both teams are in for at least several more years of losing, if not more, but boardroom-style bluster from ownership isn't worth the air it takes up. There's only one way to escape a long losing cycle in the major leagues, and that's to hunker down, take the heat in the short run and grow your own talent. Lots of it.

Kasten knows from his years of running the Atlanta Braves. There's no alternative. You can't buy enough players to take you from the basement to playoff contention, especially if you have payroll constraints, as many teams do. Nor can you buy, say, half a team, and fill in the blanks with home-growns.

If you're really, really bad, your only hope is to grow, grow, grow.

The Detroit Tigers, in town for a three-game series with the Orioles, have done it right. They collapsed over a period of years and hit bottom with a 43-win season in 2003, but they're winning again now (20-13) largely because they have developed a generation of fine, young pitchers such as Jeremy Bonderman, Mike Maroth and Justin Verlander.

Did they sign their share of expensive free agents to fill in the holes? Absolutely. Pudge Rodriguez, Magglio Ordonez and Kenny Rogers were anything but homegrowns.

Is it certain their turnaround is complete? Hardly. There's a long way to go.

But regardless of what happens from here, their future is full of possibility again largely because they stuck with young guys such as Maroth (21 losses in 2003) and Bonderman (19 losses the same season) long enough to see them blossom.

The Cleveland Indians followed the same blueprint under general manager Mark Shapiro and almost made the playoffs last year. Whether the Nationals join them remains to be seen, even with Kasten's pronouncement - it's easy to say you're going to concentrate on development, but a hard pledge to follow through. Nonetheless, announcing you intend to focus on developing your own talent is a hugely positive step.

The Orioles, meanwhile, could pretty much teach a class on how not to proceed. After falling apart in the late 1990s, they have never bought wholeheartedly into the notion of rebuilding with youngsters.

Even with their formerly beleaguered farm system starting to pump out more and more viable major leaguers, they have continued to sign veterans, often on their way down, and field mixed-bag teams dependent as much on age as youth. The result? Eight straight losing seasons, with another seemingly in the works in 2006.

What has kept them from handing their future over to youngsters? For a long time, they didn't have a choice; their farm system was among baseball's worst, and they didn't grow enough bona fide major leaguers. Although that's finally changing, they still seem incapable of enduring what the Tigers went through in 2003. Their attendance has remained relatively robust until now, and they haven't wanted to chase everyone away.

There's nothing left to lose now, however, with their attendance sagging to an all-time low since Camden Yards opened in 1992. Why not go over to the dark side?

It is a positive sign that they're sticking with rookie outfielder Nick Markakis, who is going to struggle mightily this season, but is no less talented or promising than he was two months ago, and, you can be sure, will become a dependable everyday player - a piece of the puzzle - a lot faster because of what he endures this season.

Maybe they also will stick with rookie infielder Brandon Fahey, a heady, slick-fielding player who has come through the system and surely earned a shot. His prospects might seem like a small-print issue, and his presence might cost the team a game here or there, but giving such players a shot is what this season should be all about.

That's what the Tigers did with Maroth and Bonderman, and look where it got them.

If more young players such as starting pitcher Hayden Penn land in Baltimore as this season progresses, it would serve as an admission that the Orioles are playing for the future rather than 2006, and that's fine. That's as it should be.

The club might be surprised to discover its fans wish it had done so a long time ago.

john.eisenberg@baltsun.com

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