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Orioles' farm system lacking
So many good things are happening with the Orioles. The arrival of manager Buck Showalter. The long-awaited opening of a spring home. The acquisitions of veterans such as first baseman Derrek Lee, third baseman Mark Reynolds and designated hitter Vladimir Guerrero.
The one negative, though, is a biggie.
The Orioles’ farm system is again thin, putting them at a severe disadvantage as they try to compete in the game’s toughest division, the AL East.
The team’s offseason moves, while a good-faith effort to end the franchise’s streak of 13 consecutive losing seasons, represent nothing more than a Band-Aid.
Four of the new additions — Lee, Guerrero, shortstop J.J. Hardy and right-hander Justin Duchscherer — are potential free agents. The Orioles, lacking internal replacements, will be in a similar position next offseason, scrambling to put together a viable club.
Andy MacPhail, president of the team’s baseball operations, says the farm system looks bleak only from the perspective of “a snapshot in time.” Yet, Baseball America ranked the Orioles 21st in its most recent minor-league talent rankings and last in the AL East. Only two Orioles prospects — shortstop Manny Machado (No. 14) and left-hander Zach Britton (28) — cracked BA’s top 100.
Part of the Orioles’ decline is attributable to the promotions of top youngsters such as catcher Matt Wieters and left-hander Brian Matusz; BA ranked the team ninth in ’09 and eighth in ’10. MacPhail notes that the team also moved four young pitchers in trades for Hardy and Reynolds. Only one, however, right-hander Kam Mickolio, is a top 30 prospect for his new team, according to BA.
Still, as MacPhail suggests, the current rankings do not necessarily reflect how the Orioles’ system will evolve. The O’s have awarded $32.8 million in signing bonuses to draft picks since 2007. That figure, MacPhail says, is the third highest in baseball and highest of any AL East club.
It’s too early to judge the successes of those past four drafts, though some of the indicators from ’09 and even ’10 are troubling. However, it’s not too early to question the Orioles’ strategy of investing heavily in the draft at the expense of pursuing international talent.
Smart teams do both. The Orioles are practically a zero internationally.
In the AL East alone, both the Red Sox and Blue Jays are awaiting the arrivals of highly touted Cuban shortstops, and three other prospects in the Boston’s top 10 are Latin American, according to Baseball America. The Yankees’ top prospect, catcher Jesus Montero, is Venezuelan, and three of their next seven are Dominican. The Rays build more through the draft, but still boast four Dominicans in their top 18.
The Orioles? Reliever Koji Uehara is their first and only Japanese player. Their No. 10 prospect according to BA, shortstop Jonathan Schoop, is from Curacao. Their only homegrown Dominicans are at Nos. 21 and 29. Venezuelans? Mexicans? Cubans? Forget it.
Even the lowly Pirates are more aggressive in Latin America than the Orioles. The Braves, one of the top teams at player development, boast a top pitching prospect, right-hander Julio Teheran, from Colombia, and another, righty Randall Delgado, from Panama.
Yet staying domestic is the Orioles’ plan.
“Part of that is by design,” MacPhail says. “Amateur scouting has changed. It’s not, ‘Go out and find them in the hinterlands where they’re playing baseball’ anymore. It’s a lot of workouts at complexes with ‘buscones’ (Latin American talent brokers).
“Philosophically, I’m not as committed to making the same commitments that we do in the (amateur) draft if it’s just going to be a workout. If you can’t see the guy play in a game, I think that is fraught with peril.”
The Orioles did little internationally even before MacPhail took over in June 2007; their best-ever homegrown Dominican is probably reliever Armando Benitez. The question certainly is not one of money; the team routinely goes above the commissioner’s slot recommendations for lower-round picks.
Still, if your organizational philosophy is to go almost exclusively domestic, then you had better nail the draft, especially considering where the O’s are selecting. They will make their fifth straight top-five pick in 2011 and sixth straight pick in the top 10.
“We recognize that there is really nothing more fundamentally important to us than drafting well,” MacPhail says. “We cannot compete payroll-wise with the Red Sox and Yankees. It’s just not feasible. But we can when it comes to the draft.”
However, recent results are mixed. Wieters, Matusz and Machado likely will go down as stellar first-round picks. But two other first-rounders under scouting director Joe Jordan, catcher Brandon Snyder and first baseman Billy Rowell, are certified busts. A third, right-hander Matt Hobgood, could be headed in that direction.
The Orioles chose Hobgood over some of the top pitching prospects in the game: Shelby Miller, Jacob Turner, Mike Minor, Zack Wheeler. They chose Rowell over Tim Lincecum, Max Scherzer and Kyle Drabek. They chose Snyder over Matt Garza, Jacoby Ellsbury and Colby Rasmus.
The draft is inexact; virtually every team can relate its share of similar misses. Jordan did well to get Britton in the third round, righty Jake Arrieta in the fifth, righty Jason Berken in the sixth. Perhaps some of the Orioles’ other late-round investments will pay off soon. But the team operates with less margin for error than clubs that pull talent from a variety of sources.
MacPhail has made some excellent trades, getting a bounty for lefty Erik Bedard in February 2008 and obtaining third baseman Josh Bell for lefty George Sherrill in July 2009. But the Orioles rarely draw much from the minor-league free-agent market and lack the creativity of teams such as the Rays and Jays.
No doubt, the franchise is in a much better place than it was a year ago. But rival executives often refer to the Orioles as a sleeping giant, and the description still applies.
For the Orioles to regain their footing, their farm system needs to gush with talent, not offer dribs and drabs. Right now, in the area that matters most, the O’s aren’t good enough.