Wednesday, May 7, 2008

O’s rebuilding the right way

Over the last several years, the Baltimore Orioles’ front office, to put it mildly, hasn’t exactly made the best moves for the franchise. In 2003, the Orioles traded Sidney Ponson, who was actually pitching well at the time, to the Giants for pitchers Damian Moss, Kurt Ainsworth, and Ryan Hannaman; all three failed to live up to their potential. Also, in separate trades, the O’s brought in old guys like Jason Grimsley, Steve Kline, Karim Garcia, and Sammy Sosa; not only were they bad, but they were awful clubhouse guys. And these examples are just a small portion of the bad trades.

In semi-recent draft history, the O’s also have struggled mightily. In 1999, in a situation where they had seven picks in the top 50, the O’s managed to pick one solid player, Brian Roberts, who was picked 50th. The other six players selected before him -- Mike Paradis (13th), Richard Stahl (18th), Larry Bigbie (21st), Keith Reed (23rd), Joshua Cenate (34th), and Scott Rice (44th) -- were never close to making any kind of significant noise in the majors. In 2000, the O’s picked Beau Hale (14th) and Nelson Johnson (32nd), and the following year, Baltimore selected Chris Smith (7th), Mike Fontenot (19th), and Bryan Bass (31st). The best of that group, by far, is second baseman Fontenot, and he was sent to the Cubs in a package in 2005 for Sammy Sosa. Only a few years ago, with Adam Loewen and particularly Nick Markakis picked in the first round in 2002 and 2003 respectively, did the Orioles seemingly get back on track.

With so many missed opportunities and bad decisions, the Orioles have had a very weak farm system for years. But because of some improved drafting and a couple of trades in the past offseason, the O’s may finally be able to build up the farm system and have the ability to pump young talent into a franchise that has been struggling for over a decade.

Though the Orioles (15-13) have started off the season playing well, plenty of players on this year’s roster -- Aubrey Huff, Ramon Hernandez, Kevin Millar, Luis Hernandez, and Melvin Mora -- probably won’t be a part of the Orioles’ future. But while the team continues to play hard and impress the fans, young, extremely talented prospects are improving and working to be a large part of the team’s success in the future.

Low-A: Delmarva Shorebirds

The most promising player at Delmarva appears to be LHP Tony Butler, who was acquired from the Seattle Mariners in the Erik Bedard trade. Butler, a six foot seven, 210 pound 20-year-old, presents an intimidating appearance on the mound. So far in the young season, Butler is 1-1 with a 3.41 ERA and 24 strikeouts. Though he may be a few years away from coming to Baltimore, Butler could definitely become a useful left-handed starter for the Orioles, especially with Adam Loewen’s injury concerns.

High-A: Frederick Keys

The Keys’ roster is loaded with young talent, and the best of the bunch may be catcher Matt Wieters. Wieters, selected in last year’s draft in the first round, has opened the season on a torrid pace. He’s currently hitting at a .338 mark and has 5 home runs and 15 RBI, and his OPS is a shocking 1.025. A switch hitter out of Georgia Tech, Wieters stands six foot five and turns just 22 on May 21. He has the ability to hit for average and power, and he may give the Orioles a significant upgrade at catcher very soon.

Brandon Snyder, one of the Orioles’ first round picks in 2005, also plays for the Keys. Forced to move from catcher to first base because of a tear in his left rotator cuff and several other injuries, Snyder is on a mission to show the Orioles why the team drafted him so highly. Snyder is off to a slow start this season and is batting just .218, but he is still just 21-years-old and has time to improve.

Another young hitter on the Keys, third baseman Billy Rowell, also has the skills to be a tremendous player but doesn’t appear to be as ready as Wieters. Rowell is only 19, and his strongest attribute is hitting for power.

The Keys’ roster also includes a trio of young starting pitchers -- Brandon Erbe, Jake Arrieta, and Pedro Beato. Erbe, a six foot four, 180 pound 20-year-old, is 3-1 with a 2.73 ERA and 27 strikeouts. Erbe possesses a fastball around the mid-to-upper 90s and a devastating slider. Last season at Frederick, Erbe had a 6.26 ERA but managed to strike out 8.37 batters per nine innings. Arrieta, a fifth round pick in 2007 out of TCU, is only 22. With a 2-0 record, a 2.20 ERA, and 40 strikeouts, he may be the first of the three to be promoted to Bowie. Beato, who is 3-1 with a 3.38 ERA and 10 strikeouts, turns 22 in October. Last year at Delmarva, Beato compiled 106 strikeouts and a 4.05 ERA. He pitches to contact and works both sides of the plate, which seems to suggest that he certainly knows how to pitch efficiently at such a young age.

Double-A: Bowie Baysox

Besides young outfielder Adam Jones, the main piece in the Erik Bedard trade may have been 20-year-old starting pitcher Chris Tillman. The right-hander was a second round pick by Seattle in 2006, and he was the Mariners’ minor league pitcher of the year in 2007. Tillman is currently 2-0 with 20 strikeouts and a 2.91 ERA with Bowie.

Another member of Bowie’s starting rotation is Chorye Spoone, who will turn 23 in September. Last year at Frederick, Spoone finished with a 10-9 record, a 3.26 ERA, and 133 strikeouts. He seems to be picking up right where he left off last season; so far, he is 2-0 with a 3.00 ERA.

For a couple of years, the most promising outfielder (besides Nick Markakis) in the Orioles’ farm system has been Nolan Reimold. A corner outfielder, Reimold has battled an assortment of injuries in his young career. But Reimold is still young enough at 24-years-old that, if he can stay healthy, he could become the third piece to the O’s outfielder trio, combining with Adam Jones in center and Markakis in right. Reimold undoubtedly has the potential; he batted .306 and hit 11 home runs in 50 games for Bowie last season.

Triple-A: Norfolk Tides

The Tides have two young and very skilled starting pitchers: Radhames Liz and Hayden Penn. An undrafted pitcher, Liz has rapidly moved through the O’s system. Last year at Bowie, Liz was 11-4 with a 3.22 ERA, 161 strikeouts, and he averaged an impressive 10.58 strikeouts per nine innings. Liz is off to a bit of a rough start so far this season -- 0-2, 4.55 ERA, 29 strikeouts -- but he’s only 24 and throws in the mid-to-upper 90s. If needed, the O’s may convert Liz to a reliever some time down the road. Penn, a 23-year-old starter, was thought to be the best pitcher in the O’s system. Unfortunately, he has battled plenty of injuries, and in two stints with the Orioles, Penn has struggled immensely. He can still turn things around, but he certainly has plenty of competition now from the other top pitching prospects in the organization.

Three corner infielders -- Scott Moore, Mike Costanzo, and Oscar Salazar -- may also become bench players for the Orioles in the near future.

The Orioles have struggled with the ability to assemble homegrown talent on the team’s main roster; the only players with the team this year who have moved their way up through the O’s system are Markakis, Brandon Fahey, Brian Roberts, Garrett Olson, Jim Johnson, Adam Loewen, Daniel Cabrera, and Bob McCrory.

But with the Miguel Tejada and Erik Bedard trades bringing in prospects and major league ready talent players like Matt Albers and Dennis Sarfate and a better plan of action in the MLB Draft, the Orioles have plenty of promise for the near future. The majority of the talent seems to be in young pitching, and the focus for next year’s draft may be on young position players, primarily infielders. By focusing on rebuilding the organization from the ground up instead of looking for a quick fix, the Orioles have given their fans something to look forward to.

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