A foreign concept

As it pertains to scouting and signing international talent, especially Asian players, the Orioles are playing catch-up

April 25, 2007|By Dan Connolly | Dan Connolly,SUN REPORTER

When Boston Red Sox pitching phenomenon Daisuke Matsuzaka makes his first visit to Camden Yards today, he won't see any familiar faces from Japan on the other side of the field.

In fact, Matsuzaka, who isn't scheduled to pitch in the two-game series, would have to burrow deep into the Orioles' farm system to find its lone Asian player: a Double-A pitcher who has yet to throw a ball in an affiliated game.

In an ever-expanding global market, the Orioles are the only team in the American League East without a Far East presence on the 25-man big league roster. The Toronto Blue Jays have one Asian player, the Red Sox have two, and the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and New York Yankees have three each.

Unto itself, that may not be a concern, but it may be indicative of a bigger problem.

"If you have a club that's consistently putting Latin American players into the big league level, that club doesn't have to spend in every market," said John Stockstill, the Orioles' assistant general manager in charge of professional and international scouting. "For us, it is important to be exploring every market and getting some form of talent from every market because we are not overflowing with talent from any one market."

If the Orioles want to consistently compete in the AL East, they need to be able to build their roster with the best players available, and that means mining the United States, Canada, Latin America, Asia and anywhere else kids are picking up balls and bats.

It's not that the Orioles aren't culturally diverse - they have big leaguers from five countries - and they've done a much better job recently of developing from within, as 15 members of their 40-man roster are homegrown. But of the nine members of their current 40-man roster from countries not subject to major league baseball's amateur draft, only two - pitchers Daniel Cabrera and Sendy Rleal - were originally signed by the Orioles.

And that is a definite handicap in a division in which the Orioles aren't going to outspend the Yankees and Red Sox for major league free agents.

"International scouting is critical," said Andrew Friedman, the second-year executive vice president of the cash-strapped Devil Rays. "When you look at the breakdown of players in the major leagues and their home countries, you see how diverse the game has gotten. And if you don't have a meaningful presence internationally you are cutting off a significant portion of the applicant pool to fill out a roster."

O's could be last

The Orioles aren't alone in failing to tap the ripening baseball landscapes of Japan, Korea and Taiwan. Of the 30 major league teams, only 12 have at least one Asian player on their 40-man rosters. Like the Orioles, most teams aren't actively involved in the Pacific Rim, but instead are using existing contacts and/or independent scouts to keep them updated on who looks good and who is, or could become, available.

Still, the Orioles' inability to cull their own worldwide talent is glaring. Several baseball executives said Baltimore was among the worst, and one said "they could be 30th of 30."

The Orioles have one international academy, a dilapidated facility in the Dominican Republic, which is basically a field with two separate barracks a few miles away. Of the Venezuelan players they have discovered, none have made it above Double-A. And the only Asian-born player in the system is Hyuk Son, a 23-year-old South Korean right-hander who was signed as an undrafted free agent last November and is currently on the Double-A Bowie disabled list with shoulder tightness.

The Orioles haven't gotten much return on their investment, but also haven't put as much up front as some other organizations.

According to one industry source, the club spent $750,000 in international signing bonuses in a recent two-year stretch, while the Yankees, Atlanta Braves and New York Mets each spent about $4 million or more during the same period.

The Orioles, however, are hopeful better times are on the international horizon. The club owns a tract of land in the Dominican that eventually will become an academy at least twice the size of its current facility. Also, in December 2005, they hired Stockstill away from the Chicago Cubs and created a position that would, at least in part, focus on international scouting. So far, the club has made pro scouting his priority, but Stockstill hopes to visit Japan this year.

Even if the Orioles' presence increases there, the question remains whether they are resolute about entering Asia and acquiring players.

"Absolutely," club executive vice president Mike Flanagan said. "I would say we are building contacts [in Asia] as we go along ... and it's through those contacts that we are having talks with clubs and letting them know how serious we are in wanting to do something with that market."

Japanese talent pricey

Unlike in Latin American countries, Japan is filled with major league ready talent - but it won't come cheaply.

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