The road leading to the top prospects in the Orioles' organization no longer makes a wide detour around Rochester, N.Y., before cutting through the lower levels of the minor-league system. And it no longer is covered with skid marks from all the retreads who traveled to the club's Triple-A affiliate.
Five of the Orioles' 10 leading prospects, as chosen last month by Baseball America, are expected to begin the coming season at Rochester. And a sixth, left-hander Matt Riley, could be there by the second half.
Throw away the old maps.
"This is my fifth year, and it's the first time we've ever had anywhere near this kind of representation at Triple-A," said Syd Thrift, the club's farm director before recently being named a special assistant to new general manager Frank Wren.
"Last year I had to sign 16 six-year free agents for Rochester because we didn't want to rush these guys from [Double-A] Bowie. Every year since I've been here we've had to sign an unusually large number of these free agents because we didn't have prospects at the Triple-A level. Now, we've got prospects at every infield position."
Three of them appeared to have a chance to make the big-league club after last season, but now are more likely to continue their maturation with the Red Wings. Calvin Pickering's path to Baltimore is blocked by the signing of veteran first baseman Will Clark. Jerry Hairston had been considered a possible alternative to departed second baseman Roberto Alomar before Delino DeShields agreed to a three-year deal. And Ryan Minor's struggles at Bowie and in the Arizona Fall League assured that he wouldn't be in Camden Yards in April.
They'll most likely join slick-fielding second baseman Jesse Garcia to form what could be the Orioles' infield of the future, with the possibility of Hairston switching back to shortstop. Also, starter Chris Fussell and closer Gabe Molina -- the organization's Minor League Pitcher of the Year after setting a Baysox record with 24 saves -- probably will be sent to Rochester, though Fussell will vie for a spot in the Orioles' bullpen.
"It's encouraging to see a young, talented Triple-A club with your prospects," said farm director Tom Trebelhorn. "We're not that different than other places. Double-A is where you see most of your prospects. Sometimes you'll see six, seven, eight prospects there, and maybe one or two at Triple-A. But we'd like to get to the point where we have six or seven at Triple-A and six or seven at Double-A. It's hard to do, but we'd kind of like to stay younger and still talented and still win."
Perhaps no one in the Orioles' system is more talented that Riley, named by Baseball America as the club's top prospect despite just one season of professional competition. Riley, 19, a third-round pick in the 1997 draft out of Sacramento City College, blew away hitters in the South Atlantic League while pitching for lower Single-A Delmarva and is expected to continue his climb at Bowie.
Wielding a fastball in the mid-90s and an overhand curve that accounted for most of his 136 strikeouts, Riley went 5-4 with a 1.19 ERA in 16 games (14 starts). He allowed 42 hits and no home runs in 83 innings. Orioles manager Ray Miller joked of finding a coat and tie for Riley and taking him on the road last year. By September, he may be doing just that.
"He's still polishing the nuances of the pitching position -- fielding come-backers, making good throws to start a double play, fielding bunts, holding runners," Trebelhorn said. "But he's one of those guys who has the type of stuff that you don't want to take away from it by trying to get too clever with all the other things.
"Sandy Koufax had no move to first base. Nolan Ryan was slow to the plate. But they usually didn't have many base runners. Are you going to take something away from the stuff that keeps guys off base worrying about guys when they get on base who aren't going to get on base unless you screw the guy up? He's a rare talent. Certainly on the pitching side, there's nobody who approaches him among our prospects, the difficulty opponents had hitting him."
Pickering and pitchers Rocky Coppinger and Sidney Ponson have returned to Duke University's diet and fitness center, and Molina has joined them. Pickering had an abbreviated stay in the Puerto Rican Winter League after batting .162 with no homers or RBIs and 18 strikeouts in 15 games. But club officials focus more on his numbers at Bowie -- the .309 average, 31 homers, 114 RBIs and .566 slugging percentage that made him the Eastern League Player of the Year.
Pickering had been mentioned as a possible replacement for departed first baseman Rafael Palmeiro, but Thrift said, "There was no plan for him to be anywhere else, in my mind and Tom's, than Rochester. Period."
"Rochester in '99 for Pickering -- to me, he's ahead of schedule," Trebelhorn said. "And if he just goes and does what he can do, he'll be fine. When I first saw him I thought, 'Oh my goodness, there's an interesting fellow. What are we going to do with this guy?' And he showed us. You play him."
And you don't fret over his defensive shortcomings. "He's got that little hitch in his giddy-up throwing sometimes," Trebelhorn said. "He starts thinking about it. It's been shared by a lot of those big boys over at first base -- Frank Thomas, Fred McGriff. It's not an uncommon trait. But he's got agility, and he's got durability. He's a better player at the same stage than Cecil Fielder was."
Miller said it was with Pickering in mind that the Orioles offered a two-year contract to Clark, allowing the young first baseman another year to develop in Triple-A, and then perhaps a year of designated hitter to get his feet wet with the Orioles.
"For the first time in a long time, we've got some hungry young talent that will be playing in Triple-A every day and not 30-year-old guys," Miller said. "We signed free agents for just the right amount of time to have our top prospects ready. For all the money Peter [owner Peter Angelos] invests in the system, he should get some rewards and I see them coming."
Minor slipped after a huge season at Delmarva in 1997. He batted .170 (15-for-88) with two homers and four RBIs in his first 24 games at Bowie, then hit .266 with 15 homers and 67 RBIs the rest of the season. Given a September look by the Orioles, he made history by replacing Cal Ripken at third base on Sept. 20. Minor went 6-for-14 in nine games, and showed why Baseball America named him the best defensive third baseman in the Eastern League.
To make the most of his time at Rochester, Minor will need to make better contact. He struck out 152 times at Bowie, and 39 times in 28 games with Grand Canyon of the Arizona Fall League.
"When your expectations are to hit for power, and everybody thinks you're going to hit for power, sometimes you think about that first, which has a tendency to make you think about hitting it over the wall before you pick the ball up. You get anxious and it causes some problems," Trebelhorn said.
"When he hits the ball straight away and lets the power take care of himself, he's a .300 hitter with plus power. When he tries to hit for power and pulls everything, he's a .240 hitter with power frequency less than it should be. These are the things he's learning. But on any given day, he's a pretty good-looking hitter up there."
Not all of the cream in the Orioles' system has risen to the top. Catcher Jason Werth, a first-round pick in 1997, most likely will start at Single-A Frederick after hitting .265 with eight homers and 53 RBIs at Delmarva. He also threw out 39 percent of base stealers and was named the SAL's best defensive catcher by Baseball America.
With plus-speed and a thin, 6-foot-6 frame, Werth doesn't fit the mold of most catchers. But Thrift said "there's no question his future is behind the plate."
"It's foolish to even talk about it," he added. "Every time someone can run a little bit, people say, 'Maybe he should be playing somewhere else.' Well, that doesn't mean he has to be slow to be a catcher. He'll slow down in time anyway."
The club's other first-round selection from 1997, outfielder Darnell McDonald, probably will join Werth at Frederick after batting .261 with six homers, 44 RBIs and 35 stolen bases at Delmarva. And this year's top pick, outfielder Rick Elder, will wind up either at rookie-league Bluefield or Delmarva after appearing in only 29 games with the Gulf Coast Orioles.
Despite a sore elbow, Elder batted .340 with three homers and 26 RBIs while adjusting to full-time duty in left field.
Sun staff writer Kent Baker contributed to this article.
Pub Date: 1/23/99