Still at Single-A, Rowell has singular focus

In 3rd straight year with Frederick, 2006 1st-round pick keeps sights set on majors

May 24, 2010|By Dan Connolly, The Baltimore Sun

FREDERICK — —

Billy Rowell is deep in thought, gazing intently into his locker at Harry Grove Stadium.

Is he contemplating his future, once considered the brightest in the Orioles organization but now clouded considerably in his third straight year with the Frederick Keys, the club's high Single-A affiliate?

Is he thinking about his past, when he wowed scouts with a high school power display that earned him a $2.1 million signing bonus as the Orioles' first-round pick in 2006?

"I need to get Muscle Milk," Rowell recounted later. "I need to get my Ensure. I need to get my Gatorade."

No epiphanies, no philosophical musings, just a grocery list.

Fitting, because while everyone else has a suggestion for, or an opinion about, Rowell and his rocky tenure in the minors, the 21-year-old is staring straight ahead.

He's not worried about labels or timetables or the pressure that a "can't miss" kid could miss. He's singularly focused, because he is positive he'll be a major leaguer one day.

"I don't really have a life outside of baseball. I don't have a girlfriend. I don't go out and drink," Rowell said. "I am the one sleeping early at 12, 1 [after a game] trying to get as much sleep as I can. I am the one that is eating the most nutritious stuff and keeping care of my body.

"I live this. I live for baseball. Maybe it is overkill. I don't know. I just feel like the harder you work at something, you are bound to have success at some point."

Rowell's commitment to the game has never been questioned. Growing up in New Jersey, he had a batting cage in his basement and another in his backyard. As a high school kid, he would drive about 50 miles one way several times a week to hit at former Oriole Jack Cust's domed facility in Flemington, N.J.

So it doesn't strike him as strange that his No. 1 stress reliever is to get prepared for another day at the minor league office.

"I stay at hotels all the time. What else do I have? All I do is get ready for the next game tomorrow," Rowell said. "That's what I was doing at my locker. … I am preparing for the next game already. That is my way of relaxing. That's what is funny about it, I know."

Rowell's time in the Orioles organization has been its own riddle, and his struggles, at times, have been a punch line.

When Brian Matusz, pitching in a minor league intrasquad game this spring, yielded a homer to Rowell, one of Matusz's Orioles teammates playfully jabbed at the left-hander for allowing Rowell to take him deep.

It wasn't always this way.

At 6 feet 5, 220 pounds with a strong arm and a fluid, left-handed swing, Rowell still possesses the physical tools to be the power hitter the Orioles badly crave. And he is at the age when many players are joining the minor leagues after being in college.

"What's better, three years of college experience or three years of High-A experience?" Rowell said. "I'd go with the High-A."

Yet his star has dulled dramatically since Baseball America named him the top prospect in the Orioles system in 2007, months after he was drafted ninth overall, one slot ahead of two-time Cy Young Award winner Tim Lincecum.

Rowell hit .248 with seven homers at Frederick in 2008 and repeated there in 2009 while switching from third base to right field. It was a nightmare by most accounts. He wasn't comfortable defensively, and his offense suffered. He posted career-worst marks in average (.225), on-base percentage (.284), slugging percentage (.336) and strikeouts (122 in 120 games). Entering 2010, Baseball America ranked Rowell 30th out of 30 Orioles prospects.

He originally was expected to play at Double-A Bowie this season, but Orioles player development director John Stockstill talked with Rowell and decided to keep him at Frederick for a third year — a perceived indignity for a prospect — so he could switch back to third base.

"He felt he should play third base, and I felt he should play third base and he was most comfortable there," Stockstill said. "Ultimately, the bat is the most important thing as far as getting him back on track."

In his first 37 games with the Keys in 2010, Rowell hit .264 with four homers, 22 RBIs and a .387 on-base percentage. After a hot start, he has hit a rough patch recently, collecting just three hits and striking out 13 times in his past 28 at-bats heading into Monday night.

"He's making good progress in his at-bats," said Stockstill, who wouldn't provide a timetable for Rowell's minor league progression. "He's back at third solely for his situation, for him to reach his ultimate, and our ultimate, goal."

The decision to put him at third in Frederick is one of the best things that has happened to Rowell since he signed, said Doug Rowell, his older cousin.

"I think [the Orioles] showing that type of confidence helped him adjust mentally, to know the organization is still behind him," Doug Rowell said. "And I think he's got that fire back."

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