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Big club finds little fault with its pipeline


This may be remembered as the summer the Orioles' farm system turned the corner.

"We didn't conclude with as many wins as we'd like," said Tom Trebelhorn, the director of organizational instruction, "but the young players we think are our future had solid developmental years. I think things look pretty good over the next three to five years to have some interesting players."

As the focus of the parent team shifted toward home-grown talent, more and more members of the organization were promoted to the major-league club. Some - like Ryan Kohlmeier, Luis Matos, Jerry Hairston and John Parrish - stayed. Others filled a vacancy, then returned to the minors for additional seasoning.

"We've always tried to equate readiness with opportunities, and there were more opportunities," said Trebelhorn. "We probably pushed a couple up there, but they'll respond better next year."

The highlight of the system came from a familiar source, Delmarva. Ahead eight games in the South Atlantic League wild-card race with two weeks to play, the Shorebirds promptly lost 10 of 11, including eight in a row at home, to nearly squander their playoff spot.

But Hickory lost on the final day and a scheduled Shorebirds doubleheader at Piedmont was then canceled because the race had been decided. Delmarva returned home to open the playoffs, losing to Piedmont, 8-3, then never flinched again.

Sonny Garcia, Erik Bedard and Randy Perez started the next three postseason games - all shutout victories. That knocked out Piedmont and gave the Shorebirds a 2-0 lead in a best-of-five series against Columbus for the championship. They won the next night, 7-6, with the winning run crossing on a passed ball.

Since their inauguration in 1996, the Shorebirds have missed the playoffs only once, have won two league titles and have played in three championship series.

"Joe Ferguson and his staff did a great job of keeping that club together," said Trebelhorn. "They were the most consistent team all year despite losing some key performers [Keith Reed, Ed Rogers and Mike Paradis]. The team wasn't as talented as some others, but it hung in there."

At the higher Single-A level, Frederick also made postseason play, winning the first half in the Carolina League's Northern Division. Despite call-ups that deprived them of much of their offense and several major starting pitchers, the Keys played well in the divisional playoffs before falling to Lynchburg.

"They might have been a little more competitive had they not lost Jay Spurgeon, Juan Guzman and John Stephens [the latter to injury] from their rotation," said Trebelhorn.

The disappointments were at the top of the system, where Triple-A Rochester and Double-A Bowie were never threats in their pennant races.

Constant personnel changes and key injuries affected both teams.

"There were some good individual efforts, but collectively, they couldn't maintain continuity," said Trebelhorn. "Advancement was all a part of it and a lot of little things piled up. Bowie was never the same after playing well on one trip up north and Rochester couldn't seem to convert hits into runs."

The disappointing performance by, and later injury to, Calvin Pickering also hurt the Red Wings and both teams lacked the power necessary to compete today.

"It's more like slow-pitch softball now," said Trebelhorn. "But, again, the young guys did well, even though the teams didn't."

For up-and-comers from rookie ball, the Orioles chain offered Bluefield catcher Octavio Martinez, who was the co-player of the year in the Appalachian League after batting .387 with 46 RBIs in 49 games, and outfielder Alex Gordon, another league All-Star who slugged 13 homers in 60 games.

And, at Gulf Coast, third baseman Tripper Johnson hit .306 with 33 RBIs and pitcher Eddy Rodriguez showed promise with a 2.00 ERA and six saves.

"We finally have a supply line going," said Trebelhorn. "We've got more players getting ready and are getting younger."

Perhaps most importantly, the players who signed with the Orioles have greater belief in the chances of playing for the Orioles.

"What is happening now may be opening doors for a lot of us," said the Shorebirds' Willie Harris.

"Players see good guys who were popular on their teams going to Baltimore," said Trebelhorn. "Opportunity and readiness weren't necessarily correlated before. What is happening now gets players excited."

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