Adding Ortiz won't help homegrown O's grow up

June 28, 2006|By JOHN EISENBERG

Quietly, almost imperceptibly, the Orioles have become more of a homegrown team this season than at any point in recent years - maybe all the way back to the early 1980s, if not before that.

Position players Brian Roberts, Brandon Fahey, Nick Markakis, Ed Rogers and Luis Matos are all products of the club's minor league system, as are pitchers Erik Bedard, Daniel Cabrera, Chris Ray, Sendy Rleal, Chris Britton and Kurt Birkins.

When veteran starter Russ Ortiz was signed and Adam Loewen was sent to the minor leagues this week, the number of homegrowns on the 25-man roster dropped from 12 to 11. That's a huge improvement from the many years when you could count the homegrowns on one hand.

But why stop now? That's what I'm wondering in the wake of the Ortiz signing.

With a 35-42 record, the Orioles aren't headed anywhere in 2006 other than toward a ninth straight losing season. They should be focused on developing young players who can help them down the line. That's the only way they'll ever escape this depressing losing cycle. They certainly can't buy their way out of it, not as the bargain-hunters they primarily have been.

Loewen, 22, is almost surely an integral part of their future, a No. 1 draft pick with the potential to be a top-of-the-rotation starter. Whenever the Orioles allow themselves the indulgence of envisioning a winning future, they see Loewen in the rotation alongside Hayden Penn, Bedard and Cabrera - all homegrowns at various stages of their development.

In the five starts he made for the Orioles before being sent to the minors, Loewen demonstrated that he needs to have better command of his pitches and better rhythm on the mound; he allowed way too many base runners to be a consistent winner. But he also showed a knack for escaping jams, and if you looked closely enough, you could see a pitcher with the potential to dominate major league hitters.

Asked yesterday about his "comfort level" with the idea of having Loewen continue to start every fifth day, Orioles manager Sam Perlozzo paused a long time before saying, "I felt decent about him going out there. He was getting better. It was kind of like Daniel and Erik when they were struggling."

Interesting comparison. Bedard, 27, and Cabrera, 25, were also shoved into the major league rotation almost surely before they were ready, but while both are still developing, especially the erratic Cabrera, they're further along because of the experience. They're closer to being the pitchers the Orioles need them to be.

Why not do the same with Loewen?

Is he raw? Absolutely. Is he ready? No way. But given his potential, in a season when nothing is at stake other than holding off the Devil Rays for another fourth-place finish in the American League East, why waste precious innings on Ortiz, 32, when you can invest them in Loewen's development?

I understand that Ortiz has won 108 major league games and probably has a better chance of rediscovering his winning touch here than anywhere else because of his past success with Orioles pitching coach Leo Mazzone. I also understand the move is a no-brainer financially because the Arizona Diamondbacks owe Ortiz $22 million.

But this is precisely the kind of move that has kept the Orioles swaddled in losses for eight years - short-circuiting development for the sake of a discarded veteran on the way down. The Orioles have done it so often that it has become their signature move.

"But you can't sit around and not take a shot at trying to deepen up your pitching," Perlozzo said yesterday.

OK, we'll take that bait. The Orioles could, indeed, soon find themselves needing starters if they make a July trade that sends Rodrigo Lopez elsewhere. It would be a smart move, as Lopez, 30, is a free agent after this season, and with 56 wins since 2002, likely to command more money than the Orioles want to pay.

That scenario leads us to the only really acceptable excuse for taking Loewen out of the rotation for Ortiz, who is 5-16 since Opening Day 2005. If Lopez is gone soon, the club might need a veteran to provide at least a modicum of ballast for the rotation, and Ortiz, given the price and possible upside, represents a decent risk.

But it's all pointless unless Loewen is back here soon, along with Penn, 21, who deserves a shot in Baltimore once he has recovered from an appendectomy. Both Loewen and Penn almost surely are going to be pitching for the Orioles full time starting next season, and to delay their progress now only delays the possible day when the Orioles might actually have a chance to win again - with a team that, you can be sure, would depend a lot on homegrown players.

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