The three full-season Orioles farm clubs based in Maryland begin their seasons on the road tonight with an eye on both player improvement and success.
"Developing winning players in competitive games needs to be part of the formula," said Dave Stockstill, assistant general manager and director of minor league operations. "There are times when you can't take away from development, but you want to put your prospects in situations where they can be part of winning, so when they get to the big leagues they're used to it."
In locations ranging from Trenton, N.J., where Double-A Bowie begins; to Salem, Va., site of the Single-A Frederick opener; to Lexington, Ky., which hosts Single-A Delmarva, the plan begins to unfold. As with the parent Orioles, all three teams will not play at their home parks until the second week of the season.
(The short-season Single-A team in Aberdeen, the IronBirds, will begin its season June 19.)
Stockstill said the Triple-A team in Norfolk, Va., will be "very strong," Bowie has a chance to be "pretty good" and Frederick is a "mixture that is wait-and-see." At Delmarva, the team will be very young and require patience.
The Baysox have several players who probably belong at a higher level, notably outfielder Jeff Fiorentino, who hit .256 in an Orioles stint last season. His mates in the outfield - Val Majewski, Nolan Reimold, who hit 19 homers at Frederick, and Matt Cepicky - should combine with him to give the team punch, and the middle infield is considered strong with Luis Hernandez and Paco Figueroa, a .284 hitter at Frederick.
Former No. 1 pick Beau Hale, whose career has been marred by shoulder injuries, will start the opener after finishing well last year, and James Hoey, who had a brief look in the majors in 2006, will close and also work some two-inning stints. Chris Waters, top prospect Radhames Liz and Oscar Alvarez are also in the rotation. The fifth spot is still open.
"We've got a bunch of players who can help the big league club," manager Bien Figueroa said. "We've got speed and power, everything. I expect this is probably one of the best teams Bowie has ever had."
Ryan Hubele is scheduled to do the bulk of the catching after Eli Whiteside was promoted to Norfolk before the season.
A newcomer to the Orioles system, Tommy Thompson, takes the managerial reins for the Keys, who will be playing on a refurbished field that is drawing raves.
Brandon Erbe, a third-round draft pick in 2005, will head a young pitching staff that is short on experience but long on potential. The rotation is all right-handed (Jason Berken, Chorye Spoone, David Hernandez and Manuel Basilio are the other starters). The bullpen will have three left-handers.
The infield includes Dustin Yount, son of Hall of Famer Robin Yount, and primarily comprises players promoted from Delmarva. It will be aided by the consistency of the new surface. "We've got a lot of work to do on defense, and the field will help," Thompson said.
Frederick has 11 players who were on its roster last season, but the key will be the performance of the new starters.
Three of the top-rated prospects in the organization, pitcher Pedro Beato and infielders Brandon Snyder and Pedro Florimon, will play for the Shorebirds, but the biggest splash could be the arrival of 2006's top draft pick, Billy Rowell, who batted a combined .328 at Rookie-level Bluefield and short-season Single-A Aberdeen last season.
Rowell is at extended spring training recovering from a strained oblique muscle. Another leading prospect, second baseman Ryan Adams, is not expected to arrive until several weeks after Rowell because of assorted ailments.
The Shorebirds were a South Atlantic League playoff team two years ago under manager Gary Kendall, and much of the roster has only short-season Single-A experience, so the players could take some time to jell.