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O's also-ran status developed slowly

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The trivia question remains as embarrassing as it is telling: Name the last player drafted, developed and deployed by the Orioles long enough to receive 500 at-bats in a major-league season.

Hint: The player wears No. 8 and just turned 40.

A generation has passed since Cal Ripken Jr. won the 1982 AL Rookie of the Year award. The most dramatic midseason turnover in club history has focused attention on the way in which the Orioles acquire and cultivate talent, a crucial function overshadowed by a long-standing reliance on free agency. The task is little understood by many of those fans who fill Camden Yards.

What is well known is that the Orioles' legacy of self-sufficiency during the 1960s and 1970s eroded dramatically after the advent of free agency and under owners Edward Bennett Williams and Eli Jacobs - Williams mesmerized by star power and Jacobs plagued by financial troubles.

Less known is the damage done by mediocre drafts, frequent front-office turnover and mistrust between the departments responsible for procuring and developing talent. A well-financed organization's inability or unwillingness to promote from within contributed to its tumble into the second tier of its division. When the season ends Sunday, the Orioles will finish in fourth place for the third year in a row.

But the team's July purge, coupled with a greater appreciation for drafting and signing amateur players, sent a message. From Bluefield to Bowie, from Sarasota to Frederick, from the Dominican to the Delmarva, from Rochester to Baltimore, it was heard: instead of devouring their young, the Orioles are now willing to play them.

"With all that's been done, all of our responsibilities become greater," says vice president of baseball operations Syd Thrift. "We have to improve the quality of our scouts. We need to broaden our international reach. We need to have specific plans for every player to achieve their goals."

Thrift's goal will be accomplished through scouting and player development, the underpinning of any consistent organization. "Many times player development got too much credit. But it's who's signed first. That's where it begins," says Thrift.

A scouting department is responsible for pinpointing those players selected during each season's first-year player draft and for signing raw talent in places such as the Caribbean where the draft does not extend. Often the players are no more than 16, such as promising shortstop Ed Rogers, a Dominican infielder signed in 1997.

"The most important thing is to have the right prospects. You can spend the money on the wrong players and it's been in vain," Thrift says.

It next becomes the responsibility of player development to hone the newcomer's skills at a level that is challenging but not overwhelming. The process is described as everything from a crap shoot to science. Injuries and bad luck can be as devastating as poor choices and too little funding.

Under the stewardship of Orioles majority owner Peter Angelos, a once nickel-rubbing organization has more than doubled its commitment to player development, amateur scouting and amateur signing bonuses. The funding went from $8.5 million in 1993, the year preceding Angelos' purchase of the club, to $19.5 million in 1999.

Last year's figure includes about $10 million in signing bonuses that secured an unprecedented seven selections within the first 54 overall picks in the draft.

"There's an appreciation for the draft here," says Tony DeMacio, director of scouting since November 1998. "Nothing has been asked of Mr. Angelos that hasn't been provided. A lot of organizations wouldn't have had the commitment to signing all the picks [in 1999]. This one did, and there will be a benefit."

Angelos' deep pockets have allowed his front office to sign all but 11 players selected in the first 10 rounds since 1993. The franchise set a record in August by awarding a $2.25 million bonus to its 2000 first pick, Texas right-handed pitcher Beau Hale.

Big bucks, little success

By contrast, a series of unproductive drafts immediately before and early into the Angelos regime still forces the club to pay for past sins. Since 1990, the only first-round selection to make a significant impact in Baltimore has been All-Star pitcher Mike Mussina.

Ownership's prior reluctance to rebuild led to a string of free-agent acquisitions that undermined the Orioles drafts. Teams that sign top free agents surrender picks the next year. While the instant gratification of a free-agent signing can propel a team into the postseason, a consistent loss of premium picks can sap its minor-league system.

The effect became corrosive within a farm system long ranked in baseball's bottom tier.

Six times since 1979 - and twice since 1994 - the Orioles relinquished their top draft pick after signing a free agent. The signing of pitcher Steve Stone helped propel the Orioles to the 1979 World Series but the team got little benefit by signing outfielders Fred Lynn and Juan Beniquez during the mid-1980s.

Most recently, the Orioles sacrificed their 1994 first-round choice after signing pitcher Sid Fernandez and their 1996 pick after obtaining second baseman Roberto Alomar. The Fernandez signing illustrates the risks and the Alomar acquisition, the rewards.

Because of weight and injury problems, Fernandez flamed out with the Orioles, going a combined 6-10 in two years with ERAs of 5.15 and 7.39. Meanwhile the New York Mets were able to use the draft picks gained as compensation on Terrence Long, a high school outfielder from Alabama, and Georgia Tech outfielder Jay Payton. Long, since traded to the Oakland Athletics, is an exciting Rookie of the Year contender this season. Payton has become a productive center fielder for the Mets.

The Alomar deal brought the Orioles one of the game's most gifted players at a cost of two players who have yet to emerge from the minors. With him, the Orioles won their first division championship since 1983 and reached the American League Championship Series in 1996 and 1997.

Front office changes have meant alternating philosophies concerning the draft. Pat Gillick's arrival in 1995 followed by the addition of Kevin Malone as assistant general manager helped elevate the draft's importance. Gillick replaced a conservative, college-based philosophy with a more aggressive plan emphasizing high school talent.

The strategy carries greater risk, as the club has learned, but offers a higher ceiling, or potential, with its younger players. The team has also had to pay more lucrative signing bonuses to counter the leverage of college scholarships.

Bumps in the road

The transition has not been seamless. The Orioles enjoyed multiple first-round picks for the first time in 1997 and selected catcher Jayson Werth and outfielder Darnell McDonald.

The 6-foot-5 Werth, once likened to two-time National League Most Valuable Player Dale Murphy, was sent from Double-A Bowie to Single-A Frederick late this summer. Like Murphy, he may switch positions, to outfield or first base. McDonald, considered the best high school athlete of the '97 draft, has made halting progress since receiving a then-franchise-record $1.95 million signing bonus to reject a two-sport career at Texas.

In 1998, the Orioles chose Atlanta prep outfielder Rick Elder. A big-swinging power hitter who projects as a first baseman, Elder has been productive when healthy but has been hampered by back and arm injuries.

The directional shift under Gillick also was largely responsible for the drafting of outfielder Luis Matos, African-born outfielder Papy Ndungidi and Tim Raines Jr., son of the former major-league All-Star - a group some scouts believe could one day comprise the Orioles' outfield.

Gillick "educated Mr. Angelos and allowed us to pursue players we couldn't go after before," says Dodgers assistant director of scouting and player development Matt Slater, who directed Orioles scouting until leaving in 1998. Slater calls the change in outlook "philosophical." Not only does it require more resources, it also places more trust in scouts' evaluations.

"You were able to project a player based more upon his potential than what he had done in college," said Slater.

Gillick's intention was to introduce two organizational players to the big-league roster each season, a goal sometimes achieved through necessity but rarely by design.

Frank Wren, who succeeded Gillick as general manager in 1998, shared the goal and saw an upgrade of the minor-league system as a large component.

Wren concedes the owner's important role in the talent search, speaking despite his often rancorous 11-month relationship with Angelos and the bitterly fought arbitration process he pursued to gain about $400,000 in severance.

Likewise, "It's the one thing Peter might say I did well," says Wren, now the Atlanta Braves' assistant general manager.

Angelos declined to be interviewed for this article.

"I think player development is essential no matter what size market you're in," says Wren, who earlier in his career was a player development executive with the Montreal Expos and Florida Marlins. "If you're a small-market team, it's the only way you're going to compete. If you're a large-market team, it's the only way you're going to compete without having high-priced veterans and the highest payroll in the game."

A successful symbiotic relationship between scouting and player development requires communication and trust. But Wren and several former club executives, speaking on condition of anonymity, describe friction that had created a "wall" between the two departments.

The conflict was left over from Gillick's regime when scouting director Gary Nickels and Thrift as director of player development were seen as oil and vinegar. Thrift had the autonomy to sign minor-league free agents and reported directly to Angelos rather than to the general manager.

"There was total lack of trust and cooperation," says one former club official, "Pat and Gary thought Syd was advancing his own agenda with Peter at the expense of the club's overall direction. Peter trusted Syd more than Pat. The issue never got resolved."

Gillick eventually gave up the battle, conceding player development as Thrift's fiefdom while involving himself heavily in scouting, especially the amateur draft, the sources say.

Wren described what he inherited as "a mess" lacking not only communication between departments but accountability for player development. Among Wren's first moves was to exile Thrift to director of player personnel while promoting Tom Trebelhorn to director of player development and hiring DeMacio as director of scouting.

"We were trying to build camaraderie between player development and scouting, which is essential," Wren says. "You don't want the player development side blaming scouting for not getting them players and you don't want scouting blaming player development for messing up the players they give them. I thought Treb and Tony were making that work. But we still had a long way to go. We had a lot of mind-sets to change."

Thrift has referred to his responsibilities under Wren as little more than a scout's and distances himself from anything that happened during Wren's term.

In the current Orioles hierarchy, those most responsible for building talent are Trebelhorn, now called director of organizational instruction, and Don Buford, director of minor league operations. Buford does not have the autonomy and access to Angelos that Thrift enjoyed as farm director, according to club sources.

Thrift's management style does not allow for widespread sharing of information. Terrified of leaks that infuriated Angelos during the Gillick and Wren administrations, Thrift discloses little of his short-term thinking or long-term vision to subordinates. For example, Buford learned of pitcher Jay Spurgeon's promotion from Rochester to Baltimore after arriving that night at Frederick's Harry Grove Stadium.

Mum's the word

"It's demoralizing when you show up for a game and somebody with the other club asks you about a trade you didn't know happened," said an organizational source. "What does that say?"

Even Thrift's critics concede his comfortable relationship with Angelos puts him in a better position than his predecessors to consolidate the front office.

Thrift retained at least one of Wren's ideas, an exhaustive reporting system between minor-league managers, roving instructors and the baseball operations' management.

"There wasn't any rhyme or reason in the way teams were put together," recalls Wren. "That was a common complaint among the player development staff. There needs to be a plan for each player. Once we identified a player's talents, we needed to enhance his areas of weakness and identify his strengths, where he projects and his time of arrival in the major leagues."

An ongoing struggle exists within many organizations between the necessity for developing individual players and the desire to field competitive minor-league teams. The parent club needs fresh talent. Minor-league fans need something to cheer. Compromising to help an affiliate win a championship can retard a player's movement through the system.

An aged, non-competitive team at Rochester in 1999 so strained the affiliate's long-standing relationship with the Orioles that the Triple-A Red Wings rejected the club's offer to extend their working agreement for three years. The Red Wings instead negotiated a one-year extension for 2000. More satisfied with this season's product, the Red Wings in July agreed to a two-year extension through the 2002 season.

"Developing players is the No. 1 priority. It always has been and always will be," says Thrift. "Our primary goal is not to see how many minor-league championships we can win."

The Orioles admittedly have work to do to change a 20-year reputation for mediocrity. Prizes such as Calvin Pickering, Alvie Shepherd, Mark Smith, Rocky Coppinger and Manny Alexander became false hopes. Others, such as 1992 first-round pick Jeffrey Hammonds, were traded only to blossom elsewhere.

Part of the task is to change the mind-set of their own prospects. Players quickly become familiar with Ripken's status as the Orioles' last starting position player to come through the system. At the same time, names such as former Orioles Steve Finley, Garrett Stephenson, David Dellucci and Hammonds symbolize the liberation of being traded. Not until this summer's shakeup did the team alter its habit of sluggish player movement.

"I think a perception exists. But from my experience this season, that may be changing," says Ryan Kohlmeier, a 14th-round pick in the '96 draft who has flourished as Orioles closer since July 31.

Thrift looks out from his third-story office that offers only an obstructed view of center field. He leans back in a chair, pauses and thinks about the Orioles' direction, envisioning a time when the farm system is once again universally judged as a point of pride.

"The fact that the younger players have a greater chance to play here gives them greater hope and greater enthusiasm that they can make it," he says. "That's the feedback I'm getting."

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