Harvesting too soon, O's find farm not ripe

October 02, 2007|By Roch Kubatko | Roch Kubatko,SUN REPORTER

A few seconds after Boston Red Sox rookie Clay Buchholz snapped off a curveball to freeze the last batter and complete an improbable no-hitter, former Orioles pitcher Scott McGregor braced for the inevitable. He has heard the refrain before. Only the names change.

"When I saw Buchholz throw his no-hitter, I go, `Oh no, I know what's going to happen now. What's wrong with Radhames Liz?' Well, how many Buchholzes come along?"

Not enough in the Orioles' system. They're usually the victims, rather than the beneficiaries.

David Stockstill, Orioles director of minor league operations for three seasons, said, "We're still bringing up players from Double-A and Triple-A who are not really ready to go to the big leagues, step on the field and help a championship club."

Fair or unfair, the comparisons between Buchholz and Liz - and thus the organizations - were inevitable. The Red Sox have an opening in their rotation because of an injury and they fill it with Buchholz, who makes history in his second major league start. They need another outfielder and they bring up Jacoby Ellsbury, who hits .353 in 33 games. Their second baseman, Dustin Pedroia, is the front-runner for American League Rookie of the Year.

Another division rival, the New York Yankees, dipped into its system this year and brought up top pitching prospects Joba Chamberlain, Phil Hughes and Ian Kennedy.

When the Orioles' rotation was crumbling, they rushed Liz and Garrett Olson from the minors, gave starts to Brian Burres, Kurt Birkins and Jon Leicester, and purchased Victor Zambrano and Victor Santos from organizations that no longer wanted them. Moves born out of need that reeked of desperation.

Stockstill said: "As we get more time, then you get the Lizes and Olsons and they'll have more time in the minors to where they're more ready when brought up. But now, because of need, we bring up kids with very little experience or free agents who didn't make it somewhere else to fill holes normally filled by major league players."

The results, like comparisons to the Red Sox and Yankees, aren't favorable.

Pitching problems

Olson lacked the confidence to challenge hitters after dominating at Triple-A Norfolk, walked 28 batters in 32 1/3 innings and posted a 7.79 ERA before being shut down with tightness in his left forearm. Liz arrived from Double-A Bowie with serious flaws in his mechanics and walked 23 in 24 2/3 innings while finishing with a 6.93 ERA.

"He made tremendous strides, but he's definitely a work in progress," McGregor said of Liz, the organization's minor league Pitcher of the Year, who had four starts among his nine appearances with the Orioles.

"Most guys come up to the big leagues, and what [the Orioles] have done with Liz is good. They put him in the bullpen, work with him a little bit. ... It's just a process. Unfortunately, right now, our fans don't want to be that patient," said McGregor, Liz's pitching coach at Bowie.

They've waited long enough, but the top prospects in the organization remain below Double-A, with the exception of Bowie outfielder Nolan Reimold, who had two stints on the disabled list with oblique injuries.

A scout from another organization - who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of tampering rules - said the top three affiliates were "barren" in position players, though he didn't see Reimold this year, and places blame on the previous regime.

"The only everyday player I saw was that shortstop at Bowie, Luis Hernandez. And they got him off waivers. Nobody else was an everyday player. And no high-ceiling players like [Nick] Markakis."

Manager Dave Trembley said: "That's been the case here for a while, not a lot of position prospects, but you have to trust your minor league staff and your player development people that they're doing everything they can possible do to get these guys ready."

One Orioles affiliate made the playoffs, Single-A Frederick, which won the Carolina League championship behind pitcher Chorye Spoone (Northeast). The organization's Comeback Player of the Year came from low Single-A Delmarva - Brandon Snyder, the 13th overall pick in the 2005 draft, who underwent surgery on his left shoulder last season and switched from catcher to first base.

"I think we made outstanding progress," Stockstill said. "The prospects that are in our system improved. We've got quite a ways to go in a lot of areas, but from three years ago, I think it's a tremendous leap forward that we've made."

Said the opposing scout: "Let me just say that the Orioles, post-Syd Thrift [former general manager], have made tremendous strides in player development. The teams are much better organized, better disciplined. Before that, it was almost a joke in the industry. They've gotten much better. They're still not in the upper echelon, but they're fine. They're in the middle of the pack. And they're much improved from what they were."

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