It is an organizational obsession, but not yet a specialty. The Orioles want to create the best player development system in baseball, but they have a long way to go and a lot of strong franchises to overtake.
Or the Montreal Expos, who have churned out dozens of top prospects in the past decade, even if it has not been enough to raise that organization to elite status.
Or the Atlanta Braves, who have struck a successful balance between player acquisition and player development, stocking their roster with top-name players from outside the organization and good prospects from within.
The Orioles, meanwhile, have had only marginal success achieving such a balance, prompting general manager Pat Gillick and assistant GM Kevin Malone to reaffirm the club's once-revered commitment to a solid minor-league foundation and set to work to rebuild it from the ground up.
There's a long way to go. Baseball America this month ranked the talent in the Orioles' minor-league system 28th and last in baseball.
"There has been a little bit of progress," Gillick said, "but it has probably been like this the last 12 or 13 years. This club didn't have a first-round draft choice in 1994 or 1996. You can't lose first-round choices and expect to build a system."
The most telling illustration of the franchise's recent lack of success in player development is that only one position player in the everyday lineup was signed by the Orioles as an amateur. That guy, of course, is Cal Ripken, who was signed when the club was a player-development powerhouse in the late 1970s.
It's not that the Orioles have failed to develop any good players recently. Outfielder Steve Finley was an Orioles prospect. So was pitcher Pete Harnisch. They left in the ill-fated deal for first baseman Glenn Davis. New York Mets outfielder Alex Ochoa may go from the Orioles' minor-league system to greatness, but he was traded for Bobby Bonilla in 1995. There just hasn't been the sustained commitment to develop more of those players and keep them.
Malone, one of the many architects of the Montreal prospect machine, says it takes a lot more than good intentions.
"They [the Expos] have a philosophy," Malone said. "They are committed to it. They don't waver. They don't compromise. Their philosophy is, go out and sign athletes sign impact players. Then stick with it."
The Expos have never played in the World Series, but their player development system is the envy of all baseball. Every year, it seems, they trade away a handful of the top players in the game. Every year, it seems, they have more. They cannot afford to be a perennial playoff participant -- they do not have money to keep veteran players -- but they have remained surprisingly competitive with a team that's almost entirely home-grown.
"We don't brag about it, said Expos manager Felipe Alou, "but given the circumstances, you'd have to say we're pretty good at scouting and development."
The Dodgers and Braves get more respect, but they are not working with major economic restraints. The Expos are forced by low budgets to make each year's team out of whole cloth.
"Montreal is better than the Braves as far as what they have accomplished," Malone said. "You have to remember, the Braves have spent a lot of money. What the Expos have done is much harder."
So, if you're the Orioles, whom do you emulate?
Gillick has his own model, of course. He completed one of the greatest from-the-ground-up projects in baseball history when he took the expansion Blue Jays and turned them into a power in less than a decade, but he may not have that kind of time.
What does it take?
Orioles player development director Syd Thrift knows what it takes. He just doesn't know how long it will take. The Orioles have enough money. The question is whether they have enough patience.
"Stage 1 is recruiting," he said. "Stage 2 is training. Any team that has a good system didn't develop it overnight. The Expos developed their system over 15 years."
Thrift credits their success to a philosophy handed down through the organization from general manager to general manager -- a line that includes respected executives John McHale, Bob Gebhard, Dave Dombrowski, Dan Duquette and Malone.
"They did the right stuff from the very beginning," Thrift said. "The Dodgers also represent what I'm talking about. You don't have three, four, five Rookies of the Year in succession without continuity. Continuity is absolutely essential."
No team in history has had more Rookie of the Year winners than the Dodgers (16). It is not a coincidence.
"The one thing you have to start with is scouting," said Los Angeles general manager Fred Claire. "You can't do it without the players. That's where it all starts. I think as far as the structure of the system, it comes down to having a very disciplined system in terms of both organization and instruction."
The Dodgers have maintained continuity by developing not only great players, but also great scouts and instructors, then creating an environment so stable that they are able to keep a high percentage of their top people.
That is the model that most clubs aspire to, but even the best of the rest had to play catch-up at some point.
"I know that in the late '80s, we made a conscious decision to take a lot of money away from signing free agents and put it into adding teams, instructors and scouts," said Braves president Stan Kasten. "It meant three years of tough times in Atlanta, but we decided to do it and we stuck with it."
The Orioles are working to create the same kind of foundation, but the direction of the organization has changed so many times in 15 years that Gillick and Malone were almost starting from scratch when they took over last year.
"It's getting better," Malone said, "but Rome wasn't built in a day. The importance of scouting in the minor leagues wasn't emphasized here for a lot of years. I think that emphasis is back. We'll see a lot of strides in the next three to five years. As far as being the best, that will take a little longer."
It all starts with the draft. The bulk of the young players who come into each organization are signed out of the June free-agent draft. The Orioles have had a number of high picks during the past 15 years, but only 1988 first-round choice Gregg Olson and 1990 first-rounder Mike Mussina developed into impact players.
"Drafting is everything," Malone said, "especially now with the lack of [overall] talent. The quantity of quality is severely lacking, so you have to make the right decisions. Unfortunately, the Orioles have lost some first-round choices."
Also wasted some. The club never got the most out of the time and money invested in 1989 No. 1 choice Ben McDonald. The same goes for 1992 top pick Jeffrey Hammonds, though he was this season's Opening Day center fielder. The Orioles also have little to show for the top picks used on Mark Smith (1991) and Jay Powell (1993).
(The Orioles didn't have a first-round choice in either 1994 or 1996 because they were lost as compensation when the club signed free agents Sid Fernandez and Roberto Alomar.)
Malone watched the Dodgers working out at Vero Beach, Fla., this spring and pointed out something that should have been obvious. The Dodgers have a lot of great young American players, but it has been their ability to go beyond the usual player development perimeter that has separated them from the rest of baseball for 50 years.
It was the Dodgers who broke the color barrier with Jackie Robinson a half-century ago. It was the Dodgers who first made a concentrated effort to mine the talent of the Caribbean and Latin America. It was the Dodgers who recently hit it big with Japanese pitcher Hideo Nomo and may do the same this year with Korean pitcher Chan Ho Park.
The Orioles are lagging behind. They ignored Latin America so long that they are having trouble getting a foothold there now. The Dodgers and Blue Jays have built up so much goodwill in the Dominican Republic that it is nearly impossible for less committed clubs to compete there.
There are some good Latin players in the Orioles' organization, but not enough have reached prominence in the majors to create momentum for future development.
The team recently petitioned the Treasury Department for permission to make a goodwill trip to Cuba, hoping to gain influence there in anticipation of that country's eventually opening its baseball talent pool to the outside world. It was denied, but the request alone was another indication that the front office recognizes that it needs to be aggressive on the international front.
Though the Orioles have shown interest in Japanese pitcher Hideki Irabu, they continue to be hurt everywhere by their low profile outside the United States. There have been sketchy attempts to move into Australia and other countries, but usually after some other team has gotten there first.
On the cheap?
Owner Peter Angelos said when he bought the Orioles that the club would re-establish its emphasis on player development, and Gillick seems committed to carrying out that promise. But the financial commitment to improving the team's ability to compete for and develop the best athletes at home and abroad has not been so apparent.
The Orioles have no year-round minor-league facility. They still have not settled on a permanent spring training home.
Still, things are looking up. Manager Davey Johnson is impressed with the progress of minor-league pitching prospects Sidney Ponson, Nerio Rodriguez and Julio Moreno, and the Orioles could be sitting on the best relief pitcher ever to come out of the Dominican Republic -- Armando Benitez -- but the overall minor-league depth still is wanting.
"When I look at [Wady] Almonte, Ponson, Alvie Shepherd and Moreno, I can see the progress that has been made in one year," Thrift said, "but you've got to do the same thing every year. It's like compound interest. You have to do it again, and then you will have [a new class] along with these guys, who will have a year more experience.
"The last couple of years, we have signed an unusual number of six-year minor-league free agents. Next year will be the first year we won't have to do that."
Rating the farms
Baseball America's rating of minor-league talent:
2. Los Angeles Dodgers
3. Florida Marlins
5. Cleveland Indians
24. Seattle Mariners
26. Anaheim Angels
27. Cincinnati Reds
Opponent: Kansas City Royals
Site: Kauffman Stadium, Kansas City, Mo.
Time: 8: 05
TV/Radio: HTS/WBAL (1090 AM)
Starters: Orioles' Scott Kamieniecki (0-0, 7.71) vs. Royals' Jose Rosado (0-0, 1.50)
Here's a position-by-position look at the top prospects in the Orioles' organization and where each is playing. This is a listing, based on information from club and major-league sources, of the most promising players, not necessarily in the order they are expected to reach the major leagues:
Calvin Pickering, Delmarva; Franky Figueroa, Bluefield; Tommy Davis, Rochester.
Carlos Casimiro, Delmarva; Jesse Garcia, Bowie.
Ivan Coffie, Delmarva; Augie Ojeda, Bowie; Juan Bautista, Bowie.
Ryan Minor, Delmarva; Willis Otanez, Rochester.
Mel Rosario, Bowie; B. J. Waszgis, Rochester; Leroy McKinnis, Frederick.
Eugene Kingsale, Bowie; Wady Almonte, Bowie; Danny Clyburn, Rochester; Darrell Dent, Delmarva; Johnny Isom, Bowie; Roberto Rivera, Delmarva.
Sidney Ponson, RHP, Bowie; Nerio Rodriguez, RHP, Rochester; Julio Moreno, RHP, Bowie; Chris Fussell, RHP, Bowie; Alvie Shepherd, RHP, Bowie.
Matt Snyder, RHP, Bowie; Esteban Yan, RHP, Rochester; Francisco Hernandez, RHP, Frederick; Ryan Kohlmeier, RHP, Delmarva; John Parrish, LHP, Bluefield.
Key: Rochester (Triple-A); Bowie (Double-A); Frederick (Single-A), Delmarva (Single-A); Bluefield (Rookie level).
Pub Date: 4/09/97