Pitching lone crop on O's farm

October 01, 2006|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,[Sun Reporter]

With another losing Orioles season at a close, the inclination to look toward a better future is strong.

But the reality is that with Nick Markakis and Adam Loewen already established in the big leagues, Orioles fans might not have another elite prospect to look forward to until at least 2008.

Because it's still recovering from a series of weak drafts, the franchise lacks talent in the upper minor leagues, say talent evaluators around baseball. The Orioles have few outstanding positional prospects at any level.

But there is a bright side. For one, the system pumped out Markakis, the first Orioles youngster to look like a potential star hitter since Cal Ripken came along in 1981. Second, scouts and other prospect watchers say the Orioles have a bevy of promising pitchers. Loewen and Hayden Penn are the most advanced members of that group, but there are intriguing arms at Double-A and Single-A as well. Finally, talent evaluators think highly of the Orioles' past two drafts and believe that with its current regime in place, the club is likely to build a better base of talent year by year.

"It's better to have that gap at the upper levels than to have the whole franchise be a black hole," said Kevin Goldstein, who writes a column on prospects for Baseballprospectus.com. "You're looking at an organization that was pretty bad in almost every way three or four years ago and now, it's not great but it's a whole lot better."

Baseball America ranks all 30 major league farm systems annually. In 2003, the publication placed the Orioles last. They ranked 29th the year before that and 25th in 2005. But Baseball America put the Orioles at a respectable 12th this year, the first time in more than a decade the club's farm system ranked in the top half of baseball. The Orioles stand to rank about the same next season, said Baseball America executive editor Jim Callis.

"They had become a real laughingstock a few years ago," Callis said. "The perception was that their scouting side and their player development people weren't on the same page at all, and that's why you saw some of the mistakes you did. But you don't hear that anymore."

Orioles fans are used to worrying that even if their club improves, it won't be able to rival the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox for divisional supremacy. But Callis said that at least as far as prospects are concerned, the Orioles probably have more than the Red Sox or Toronto Blue Jays and have more depth than the Yankees (who boast a superb duo in starter Philip Hughes and outfielder Jose Tabata). Only the Tampa Bay Devil Rays clearly have more outstanding youngsters, and many rate theirs as the richest farm system in baseball.

Several veteran scouts said they're impressed with the young pitching talent the Orioles already have developed.

"You're starting to look at some real viable pitching there," one American League Central scout said. "I think they're getting closer. Some interesting things could happen there."

Top prospects lacking

One negative that many agree on is the lack of first-rate prospects at Double-A and Triple-A.

"I didn't see a lot there in the way of front-line players," said the AL Central scout in describing the Triple-A Ottawa Lynx.

But, he added, many clubs now use Triple-A as a holding pen for veterans who can be called up to patch sudden holes in the big leagues. The quality of the Lynx shouldn't necessarily be held against the whole system, he said.

Callis agreed that even the best systems face ebbs and flows that leave certain levels barren for a year or two. He said the absence of talent at Triple-A isn't a sign that the Orioles aren't progressing.

Of more concern is the relative lack of positional stars. "When you look at the position players, there's not a lot there," Goldstein said. "The best one is probably [Bill] Rowell, and he's only 18 years old."

That said, Rowell was so good in adjusting from high school ball to the Appalachian League that the infielder might already be the team's best prospect overall.

"He was regarded as the best or second-best high school hitter out there, and he looked like it," Goldstein said. "There's no question he can hit. He has excellent hand-eye coordination, natural power, he goes with the pitch, he hits breaking balls. He's just a very good hitter."

In 53 games between Rookie-level Bluefield and short-season Single-A Aberdeen this summer, Rowell hit .328 with three home runs and 32 RBIs.

Rowell was a shortstop in high school, but the Orioles hope he will play third base as a pro. He struggled there this summer, and Goldstein questioned whether he'll be able to play anything but first base or perhaps a corner outfield spot in the majors. Even as a teenager, Rowell is 6 feet 5 with broad shoulders, and it's not hard to imagine him someday carrying 240 pounds as opposed to his current 215. Not many third basemen are that big.

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