SEATTLE - -A copy of the study stayed in Andy MacPhail's briefcase during his early months as the Orioles' president of baseball operations. If nothing else, it served as a reminder of what needed to be done to turn around an organization that had fallen on hard times, and how difficult the task was going to be.
In 2007, Baseball America published a report that tracked player development in each organization and the number of homegrown players who graduated to the majors from each club. In the report, the Orioles ranked 28th out of 30 big league organizations.
As MacPhail approaches his second anniversary as head of the Orioles' front office, he says he is proudest of the growth of the club's minor league system, now ranked ninth by Baseball America, its best showing since 1994. With the major league team mired in last place in the American League East, the organization has been buoyed by the performance of several top prospects and the resurgence of its much-derided farm system.
"It's been remarkably positive in just about every respect," MacPhail said last week when asked about the farm system. "We've stayed, by and large, pretty healthy. Our more highly regarded guys are all having good years. I don't know how long it's going to hold up, but it's nice. And probably as important as any of those things, we've had players that have come up to the big leagues that really have held their own.
"I have to be kind of thinking a couple of years out," MacPhail said. "If you're looking at what's going on up and down our system, it occasionally can make some of the rough patches easier."
While pitchers Jason Berken, Brad Bergesen and David Hernandez, outfielder Nolan Reimold and catcher Matt Wieters have gotten the most attention during their big league debuts, MacPhail also is pleased with 2008 draftees Xavier Avery and L.J. Hoes, both 19, who are holding their own at Single-A Delmarva in the South Atlantic League.
The Orioles' big three pitching prospects - Chris Tillman, Jake Arrieta and Brian Matusz - have been dominant at times this season. And MacPhail said he is encouraged by the play of Brandon Snyder, a 2005 first-round pick and Double-A first baseman, who is among the Eastern League leaders in most offensive categories despite being sidelined by back soreness.
And while wins and losses rightfully take a back seat to player development in the minor leagues, MacPhail noted that the combined record through Wednesday of the Orioles' affiliates - including their Dominican Summer League team - is 114-94, and their .548 combined winning percentage is the third-highest in baseball behind the Milwaukee Brewers and the Oakland Athletics.
During his Orioles tenure, MacPhail has stressed the importance of scouting and player development, but he deflects credit for the organization's improvements. His trades of star shortstop Miguel Tejada and ace pitcher Erik Bedard before the 2008 season garnered 10 players in return and infused the organization with much-needed young talent. However, six of the Orioles' top 10 prospects according to the Baseball America rankings were in the organization or had been drafted before MacPhail took the helm in June 2007.
"There was far more talent in this system than other [organizations] I have come into, and the record has borne that out," MacPhail said. "I don't think the cupboard was bare by any stretch. We just needed to continue to focus on it and make an investment in it."
The recent progress of several young players has provided validation for Orioles executives past and present, including Mike Flanagan, who headed the front office for six years before MacPhail's arrival, and Joe Jordan, the club's director of amateur scouting for the past five seasons.
"It validates some of the things that, philosophically, we've tried to install," Jordan said. "With what we have right now with the number of guys performing and doing well, it's a really healthy and competitive environment. Guys understand that they have to go out and do their job or they're going to get left behind. That's an atmosphere we've tried to create."
Orioles officials give several reasons for the system's improvement. The club has spent more to secure young talent, shown by the combined $7 million in signing bonuses shelled out to Wieters and Arrieta after the 2007 draft. The Orioles have upgraded facilities and now have a baseball academy in the Dominican Republic. The organization has overhauled its video and scouting systems to better track, teach and evaluate young players.
And club officials have done it all while maintaining patience, not moving up prospects too soon simply because there is a need at the major league level. The organization's recent past is littered with young players who probably were promoted too soon, including pitcher Daniel Cabrera and outfielder Jeff Fiorentino.