Minor miracle

orioles farm system

After years at the bottom, the crop of prospects could soon be among the best, analysts say

September 16, 2008|By Jeff Zrebiec | Jeff Zrebiec,jeff.zrebiec@baltsun.com

Kevin Goldstein, who follows the top talent in the minor leagues for Baseball Prospectus, obviously knew all about Matt Wieters, Nolan Reimold and Chris Tillman.

But it still took him a bit by surprise to hear this season from so many scouts who planned to go to a place the Orioles hadn't exactly been stocking with top-notch talent in recent years.

"They all were excited to go to Bowie," Goldstein said, referring to the Bowie Baysox, the Orioles' Double-A affiliate. "Bowie turned into this prospect destination. That was a real nice team there. I think the Orioles' system is way up. Between the Erik Bedard trade and being able to draft and pay Matt Wieters, that system is much better than it was a year ago."

When Andy MacPhail was hired as the Orioles' president in June 2007, he said his focus would be on scouting and player development, areas where the organization has received severely low marks during its now 11-year losing skid. A Baseball America study done last year ranked the Orioles 28th out of 30 major league teams in player development. The report made enough of an impact on MacPhail that he kept a copy in his briefcase.

Fifteen months into MacPhail's tenure, the Orioles' minor league system has made significant improvements, according to prospect analysts. Wieters, a switch-hitting catcher the Orioles drafted fifth overall in 2007 and paid a franchise-record $6 million signing bonus, tore up Single-A and Double-A in 2008, his first professional season, and is considered one of the game's best prospects.

Tillman, a 20-year-old acquired as part of the five-player package from the Seattle Mariners for Bedard, has established himself as the organization's top pitching prospect. Tillman joins Brian Matusz, this year's first-round pick, Jake Arrieta, Brandon Erbe, David Hernandez, Zach Britton and Brad Bergesen, giving the Orioles a group of pitching prospects that Goldstein said is among the best in baseball.

"Tillman looks like a guy with refinement that could be a No. 2 starter, and they have a truckload of guys that also project as big league starters," Goldstein said. "That's a great projection to have. If everything works out, they could have the whole future rotation in the minor league system. Starting pitching-wise, they're up there with the top third of baseball."

That's the good news for the Orioles, who have failed miserably in previous tries at developing a homegrown rotation. The bad news is, most of the pitching prospects are not close to being major league-ready, and Radhames Liz and Garrett Olson, two of the Orioles' older pitching prospects, have been knocked around in extended big league looks, casting their status as future rotation fixtures into serious doubt.

The Orioles' other main challenge is that beyond Wieters and Reimold, a power-hitting outfielder, there isn't much in terms of position-player talent that excites scouts and prospect analysts. First-round picks Brandon Snyder (2005) and Billy Rowell (2006), who both played for the Single-A Frederick Keys this season, have gone through extreme growing pains.

Orioles director of player development David Stockstill acknowledged the gap between the Orioles' pitching and position-player talent. However, he says it's narrowing, citing the strong 2008 seasons from Reimold and Snyder, along with the performances of other fringe prospects, such as shortstop Blake Davis and outfielder Matt Angle.

"There's no doubt for the past many years we've drafted better pitchers than position players," Stockstill said. "But I think we're starting to get some better position prospects. As they develop and get to Double-A, we'll be able to make that statement more strongly."

MacPhail made several trips to watch the Orioles' affiliates during the season. He sat close to the field and took notes during the games, extending his stay in the minor league cities in an effort to see as many of the organization's young starters as possible.

"We probably had more pleasant developments than we had disappointments in terms of individual performances," MacPhail said. "I do think that we've done what we had hoped to do, which is augment the level of talent in the system. We've made progress, but we have more progress to make. We can't be satisfied. There's still considerable work to be done."

This season, the pitching-starved Orioles had several opportunities to call up a young arm from Bowie, whose staff included Tillman, Hernandez, Bergesen and Jason Berken. However, they balked, largely because most of the prospects were on their way to career highs in innings.

"Most of these guys we're talking about, the most advanced ones, are going to help us a lot in 2010, '11 and '12," Stockstill said. "The minor leagues is about slow progress. You get a Matt Wieters once in I don't know how many years. If you rush them, you set your system back and you have to start all over again, which we've been through time and time again."

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