FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- The Orioles, selecting ninth in the 1991 draft, faced the type of decision that defines an organization.
Play it safe with a college star like Mark Smith.
Or gamble on a high school slugger like Manny Ramirez.
The Orioles picked Smith, and the Cleveland Indians, drafting four places later, grabbed Ramirez.
It was a blunder by the Orioles.
But not one likely to happen again soon.
Under current general manager Pat Gillick and assistant GM Kevin Malone, they probably would have chosen the opposite course.
Gillick and Malone come from scouting backgrounds. And as their experiences in Toronto and Montreal attest, they both like to take risks.
Now, they're implementing their philosophy in Baltimore, and it represents a significant departure for an organization that had grown too conservative in the draft.
The club's low-risk strategy during the past decade is one reason that Cal Ripken is the only home-grown position player to make a lasting impact with the Orioles in the past 15 years.
There are others.
The Orioles have lost first-round picks by signing free agents. They've traded away prospects who developed into quality major-leaguers. And they've only recently begun to establish a strong presence in Latin America.
They've overrated their minor-leaguers, from Ken Gerhart to Leo Gomez to Curtis Goodwin. And this spring, they're expected to trade two former can't-miss prospects -- outfielder Jeffrey Hammonds and shortstop Manny Alexander.
Their minor-league pitching is impressive at Double-A and below. But hot position prospects like Montreal's Vladimir Guerrero, Atlanta's Andruw Jones and Boston's Nomar Garciaparra?
The Orioles don't have 'em.
"There was a certain philosophy on the type of player the Orioles wanted," said Malone, the former GM in Montreal. "I'm not sure that philosophy worked. I guess it didn't work. I don't know what it was.
"I know it wasn't the type of player the Expos, Blue Jays and Atlanta had. We were looking for tools. They might be crude. They might need a lot of work. But they were guys with a chance to become impact players, All-Stars."
The downside to such players is that they frequently do not succeed. Every team has its horror stories. The New York Mets made Shawn Abner the first overall pick in 1986. The Philadelphia Phillies took Jeff Jackson before Frank Thomas, Mike Lieberthal before Alex Fernandez.
The Orioles' most glaring first-round mistake was Chris Myers, a high school left-hander they chose with the seventh pick of the 1987 draft. He was such a bust, they haven't taken a high school player in the first round since.
But in that same draft, the Orioles landed Fordham's Pete Harnisch in the second round. They then took three more college pitchers -- Gregg Olson, Ben McDonald and Mike Mussina -- with their next three No. 1 picks.
The college route proved so successful, the Orioles stuck with it. Smith, Hammonds and pitcher Jay Powell -- their next three first-rounders -- also were from high-profile college programs.
Former club president Larry Lucchino, now with San Diego, gave the direction, and it was difficult to argue with his logic. The Orioles' farm system bottomed out in the late 1980s. They needed players to contribute quickly.
"A college kid from a high-profile program, you know pretty much what he can do, what he's going to do," said Gary Nickels, the Orioles' scouting director since 1991. "At the same time, his ceiling might be rather limited.
"He's 3 years older. He's reached, for the most part, what he's going to be. The high school kid is more of an unknown. You're looking for a guy who will develop over the years, a player with more ability."
The Orioles couldn't afford to wait.
And they couldn't afford to miss.
"If you have an owner who is going to back you, give you the resources to take chances, make mistakes, you can take more of the athletes, the tool guys," said San Diego assistant GM Fred Uhlman Jr., the Orioles' former assistant scouting director.
"Under [former owner Eli] Jacobs -- and I'm not blaming him -- it was tough. Larry [Lucchino] was good about giving us the money to sign guys. But there wasn't a lot of room to take risks."
Thus, the pattern became evident -- strong pitching selections in the first round, weaker picks lower in the draft. Only twice in the past decade have the Orioles taken a position player with their No. 1 pick. And to this point, Smith and Hammonds have been disappointments.
You can't have it all -- the Seattle Mariners landed Ken Griffey and Alex Rodriguez with the first overall picks in '87 and '93, and outfielder Jose Cruz Jr. with the third pick in '95. But they've been short on pitching and had to trade for their top two starters, Randy Johnson and Jeff Fassero.
The Orioles' farm system also looks worse because they've traded so many position prospects. David Segui is a solid player in Montreal and Steve Finley a star in San Diego. The two outfielders in the Bobby Bonilla trade, Texas' Damon Buford and the New York Mets' Alex Ochoa, could be Opening Day starters.
Still, when Nickels assembled his scouts in January, he cited four major factors in the Orioles' failure to develop impact players.
1. Mediocre drafts: "I'll take that," Nickels said.
2. Trades: "You can't talk about the Orioles in the long range over the last 10 years without mentioning the effect the %o Schilling-Harnisch-Finley for Glenn Davis trade had on us," Nickels said. "It was as devastating as you can get."
3. Free-agent compensation: The Orioles forfeited a No. 1 pick in '94 when they signed Sid Fernandez, and another in '96 when they signed Roberto Alomar. That's twice in the past three years they've lost a chance to grab a potential star -- no problem when the return is Alomar, but Fernandez? It was a double waste.
4. Unsigned picks: The worst instance came in 1995, when the Orioles lost their fifth-, sixth- and seventh-rounders. That won't happen again with Gillick and Malone in charge. They've helped owner Peter Angelos understand the importance of signing top picks.
The farm system isn't devoid of position players -- Malone loves the speedy Eugene Kingsale, and the major-league staff raves about another outfielder, Wady Almonte. None of the prospects is close to the majors, but the influence of Gillick and Malone is starting to become apparent.
"We're attempting to sign younger players with more potential who are on the riskier side," Nickels said.
Nickels was moving in that direction even before Gillick and Malone were hired -- his top pick in '95, Nebraska pitcher Alvie Shepherd, was a raw, unfinished talent. And his third pick that year, Darrell Dent, was a high school outfielder.
In '96, with no No. 1 pick, the Orioles took high school pitcher Brian Falkenborg in the second round. And, in a classic Gillick gamble, they used a 33rd-round pick on Oklahoma basketball star Ryan Minor, then persuaded him to give baseball a two-year commitment.
This year, the Orioles will make three of the top 36 selections. They've added two scouts in Latin America, where the talent is plentiful and inexpensive. All signs point to a turnaround.
Melvin, though, isn't convinced the Orioles are headed in the right direction. The farm system he inherited in Texas is nearly barren, in large part because his predecessors took so many chances.
"We went for tools. We went for long-range guys. And they failed," Melvin said.
In fact, Melvin contends that the impatience of contending clubs makes it that much more difficult to select high school players in the first round.
"I think in drafting high school players, you almost have to be a team that isn't contending," Melvin said. "Those players in arbitration jump to $1 million or $2 million so quickly. You say, 'I don't want to pay the guy that much money. Do we have any kids ready?' And if you don't, you lose patience."
Nickels, however, said the college talent pool is thinning as major-league clubs become more adept at identifying and HTC signing top high school players. And, as Malone put it, "When you take the quick-fix, short-cut route, you don't get maximum return most of the time."
The risks are greater, but so are the rewards.
The philosophy worked for Gillick in Toronto. It worked for Malone in Montreal. Together, they're going to try to make it work in Baltimore.
"It's going to take time," Malone said. "But in three to five years, there shouldn't be any reason we shouldn't be one of the top organizations in baseball."
Picks and pans
B6 Players the Orioles got and the ones who got away:
Year Orioles' first-round pick ... Position players they bypassed
1987 Chris Myers, No. 7 overall .. Albert Belle, 2nd round
1988 Gregg Olson, No. 4 .......... Robin Ventura, No. 10
1989 Ben McDonald, No. 1 ......... Frank Thomas, No. 7
1990 Mike Mussina, No. 20 ........ Rondell White, No. 24
1991 Mark Smith, No. 9 ........... Manny Ramirez, No. 13
1992 Jeffrey Hammonds, No. 4 ..... Derek Jeter, No. 6
1993 Jay Powell, No. 19 .......... N/A
1994 None ......... .............. N/A
1995 Alvie Shepherd, No. 22 ...... N/A
1996 None ......... .............. N/A
Pub Date: 2/23/97