Jerry Hairston knows the pipeline.
He entered in 1997 as a third-generation professional player selected by the Orioles in the amateur draft. In less than two seasons, he was playing at Camden Yards as the popular replacement for injured second baseman Delino DeShields. Hairston made it back to the top again this year, but not so easily that he has forgotten the perspective of being trapped on the farm.
"The feeling throughout the minor-league system was that with this organization you really didn't have a shot. Your best bet was to maybe get traded or play someplace else," Hairston said.
But just as the Orioles second baseman voices the concerns of some he has left behind, he also represents a fresh wave of talent no longer blocked by a mountain of multi-year contracts, no-trade clauses and reluctance to promote from within.
Barely six weeks after conceding the 2000 season was lost, the Orioles have provided a showcase for many of their own prospects as well as several acquired for veterans in a flurry of five trades immediately before the July 31 waiver deadline.
Hairston's arrival, coupled with the extended auditions given center fielder Luis Matos, first baseman Chris Richard, closer Ryan Kohlmeier and starting pitchers John Parrish and Jay Spurgeon, signals something more than a wasted season.
At the same time, a minor-league system consistently ranked among the game's worst by Baseball America and industry rivals appears to be regaining some of its former luster. The team awaits the promise of power pitching arms and outfield depth resulting from several solid drafts.
"It's much better now than it was two years ago, and it was better two years ago than two years before then," said director of minor-league instruction Tom Trebelhorn. "I think you can see a pipeline developing now. It's exciting to me."
"They have more talent than in the past," said one National League scout who asked to remain anonymous. "What they do with it is the big question."
Trebelhorn's formula for successful player development is succinct: readiness equals opportunity.
"Sometimes, when the opportunity is there, the readiness lags. And there are times when someone may be ready but the opportunity isn't available. The perfect situation is when the two come together."
The combination has eluded the Orioles for a generation. Cal Ripken, chosen in the 1978 amateur draft, remains the last position player selected, developed and deployed long enough by the Orioles to receive 500 at-bats in a season. Morale hovered somewhere between indifference and downright bitterness, say past and present player development personnel. While the franchise became increasingly dependent on free agency to fill Camden Yards, many on the farm lost hope.
"You remind the players there are 29 other clubs out there and you want those 29 to want you as much as the Orioles want you. That becomes the window of opportunity," said Don Buford, director of minor-league operations, acknowledging the period when the Orioles developed players like Jeffrey Hammonds and traded them.
Hairston, 24, recalls the departure of Hammonds, David Segui, and David Dellucci as hurting morale in the farm system.
"It can get to guys. It really can," said Hairston, who is likely to follow Ripken as the Orioles' next homegrown position player. "There were times it got to me."
Hairston felt the sensation as recently as this spring. Blocked by DeShields at second base and considered a less-attractive alternative to fellow prospect Jesus Garcia and veteran Mark Lewis as a part-time player, Hairston was optioned to Rochester on April 9. He then underwent arthroscopic shoulder surgery May 19 and spent much of the next two months rehabilitating at the team's minor-league complex in Sarasota, Fla.
Trebelhorn, the Orioles' director of player development during the regime of former general manager Frank Wren, concedes Hairston "was probably ready before the opportunity."
In 1999, the Orioles failed to contend, yet elevated only five position prospects from Rochester - Hairston, Garcia, Calvin Pickering, Ryan Minor and Tommy Davis - for a combined 10 home runs, 34 RBIs and 374 at-bats. Davis, used as a catcher, received only six plate appearances before he was quickly returned to Rochester. Three pitchers were promoted in 1999 - Matt Riley, Gabe Molina, and Brian Falkenborg - and only Molina appeared before rosters expanded Sept. 1.
"I don't think you can repair anything that's happened in the past. But I do feel like where we are now is very positive," Buford said. "You look at the contracts we had at the major-league level, and there wasn't much of a window of opportunity It's a matter of dollars and cents."
The Orioles summoned eight position players and six pitchers with less than a year of major-league service before the Sept. 1 roster expansion. Long criticized for failing to promote from within, the Orioles can now be applauded for opening the gates. Homegrown talent could serve as next season's closer, center fielder, second baseman and three-fifths of the starting rotation.
Much of the talent arrived from Double-A Bowie, part of an industry-wide trend in which teams are willing to advance their most gifted players at a younger age. Three of this season's four most visible prospects spent a portion of their minor-league season at Bowie rather than entirely at Rochester, the Orioles Triple-A club.
Kohlmeier, 23, was selected in the 14th round of the 1996 draft and immediately projected as a closer. After making more than 50 appearances in his first three professional seasons, Kohlmeier moved up from Rochester when Scott Erickson was placed on the disabled list July 28. A fastball-slider pitcher, Kohlmeier converted his first nine save chances.
Spurgeon, 24, a former college outfielder, needed three seasons to clear Single-A after the Orioles took him in the eighth round of the 1997 draft. The right-hander made 16 starts this season at Frederick, six at Bowie and two at Rochester, winning a combined 13 times before being added to the major-league roster Aug. 14.
Parrish, 22, after beginning the year at Bowie, became the first Orioles' lefty to win a start since Doug Johns in 1999. The Orioles exposed Parrish to last December's Rule 5 draft after a trying season in which he once slipped into the Delmarva bullpen. Control and mechanical problems follow him, but Parrish's slider is considered major-league quality.
Luis Matos, 21, lasted only 11 games at Rochester before being dropped to Bowie early this season. There, he persuaded the Orioles to promote him on June 18. The 10th-round selection of the 1996 draft hit 28 home runs in 1,763 minor-league at-bats, but many within the organization believe the outfielder projects 20-homer power with experience and physical maturity. "Defensively, he can play here right now," Buford said.
Club officials also boast of young outfielders Ntema "Papy" Ndungidi, who could be the first Congo native to reach the major leagues; Tim Raines Jr., son of the former All-Star outfielder, who stole 72 bases in his first 112 games at Frederick this season; and Keith Reed and Larry Bigbie, twin first-round picks of the 1999 draft. Many in the organization rate Reed the system's most talented player. None of the group is older than 22.
"I think there may have been a time when it [the farm system] was thin. But I think anyone paying attention sees a situation that has improved and will continue to improve given the talent of people in the system," said Bowie manager Andy Etchebarren.
During scouting director Tony DeMacio's highly rated two-year term, the Orioles have committed themselves to acquiring young power arms, preferably left-handed ones. Etchebarren insists his Double-A rotation of Juan Guzman, Riley, Sean Douglass, Spurgeon and Parrish could one day lead a major-league staff.
Meanwhile, the Orioles point to 19-year-old left-hander and former first-round pick Richard Stahl, former Clemson right-hander Mike Paradis and another 19-year-old left-hander, Josh Cenate, as the next wave.
"I think the trickle-down effect we have going is outstanding. I think he have future major-league players at every level," Buford said.
Injuries slowed Stahl, Cenate and Paradis this season, and Guzman missed time at Bowie with shoulder tendinitis. Prized left-handed prospect Riley underwent ligament replacement surgery on his pitching elbow last week and likely will miss next season. Rick Elder, a power-hitting high school outfielder from Atlanta who became the Orioles' first-round choice in 1998, also is recovering from ligament replacement surgery in his throwing arm and now projects as a first baseman.
Long reliant on minor-league free agents for depth, the Orioles believe they may be a solid draft away from self-sufficiency. Etchebarren points to the youth at various levels as a positive. After the flurry of waiver deadline trades and the subsequent shuffling of minor-league rosters, Bowie featured 15 players 22 or younger.
"You never get where you want to be, because you're always trying to improve," said Syd Thrift, the Orioles' vice president of baseball operations. "But you're close when you have enough depth at certain positions within your system to go out and trade, when necessary, to fill needs at the major-league level as they arise."
Greater confidence in recent drafts combined with a greater opportunity afforded by this summer's clubhouse turnover have created a virtually unprecedented climate within a farm system too long known as a dark, cramped place. The remaining variables are patience, interdepartmental cooperation and the confidence necessary to endure short-term frustrations.
Comparing the recent past to the present, Hairston said: "It puts a little extra bounce in your step. It allows you to see the light at the end of the tunnel. It tells you if you work hard, you can do it."
Said Thrift: "People can become conditioned to think in a certain way. And that includes thinking negatively. I think anyone willing to open their eyes will see a lot of positives here ... a lot."
Prospects by position
The following list of prospects, ranked at each position, was compiled by staff writer Joe Strauss based on interviews with club and industry scouts and executives. Name, age, how and when obtained, date of projected or actual arrival in the majors.
1. Richard Stahl, 19, Newton Co. (Ga.) H.S.; 18th overall pick, 1999 (2002)
2. Luis Rivera, 23, trade Atlanta Braves, 2000 (2001)
3. Mike Paradis, 22, Clemson; 13th overall pick, 1999 (2002)
4. Beau Hale, 21, Texas; 14th overall pick, 2000 (2003)
5. Josh Towers, 23, Oxnard (Cal.) J.C.; 15th round, 1996 (2001)
6. John Parrish, 22, J.P. McCaskey (Pa.) H.S.; 25th round, 1995 (2000)
7. B.J. Ryan, 24, trade Cincinnati Reds, 1999 (1999)
8. Ryan Kohlmeier, 23, Butler. C.C.; 14th round, 1996 (2000)
9. Matt Riley, 21, Sacramento J.C.; 3rd round, 1997 (1999)
10. Josh Cenate, 19, Jefferson (W.Va.) H.S.; 34th overall pick, 1999 (2004)
11. Juan Guzman, 22, Dominican Republic; non-drafted free agent, 1994 (2002)
12. Jay Spurgeon, 24, Yosemite (Cal.) H.S.; 8th round, 1997 (2000)
13. Erik Bedard, 21, Norwalk (Conn.) J.C.; 6th round, 1999 (2003)
14. John Stephens, 20, Australia; non-drafted free agent, 1996 (2003)
1. Fernando Lunar, 23, trade Atlanta Braves, 2000 (2000)
2. Jayson Werth, 21, Glenwood (Ill.) H.S.; 22nd overall pick, 1997 (2002)
3. Octavio Martinez, 21, Bakersfield (Cal.) J.C.; 10th round, 1999 (2003)
1. Chris Richard, 26, trade St. Louis Cardinals, 2000 (2000)
2. Calvin Pickering, 23, Virgin Islands; 35th round, 1995 (1998, 1999)
3. Rick Elder, 20, Sprayberry (Ga.) H.S.; 26th overall pick, 1998 (2003)
1. Willie Harris, 22, Kennesaw (Ga.) State; 24th round, 1999 (2003)
2. Eddy Garabito, 21, Dominican Republic; non-drafted free agent, 1996 (2003)
1. Tripper Johnson, 18, 32nd overall pick, 2000 (2004)
2. Mike Kinkade, 26, trade New York Mets, 2000 (2001)
3. Jose Leon, 23, trade St. Louis Cardinals, 2000 (2002)
4. Ivanon Coffie, 23, Curacao; non-drafted free agent, 1995 (2002)
1. Ed Rogers, 19, Dominican Republic; non-drafted free agent, 1997 (2003)
2. Brian Roberts, 22, North Carolina; 50th overall pick, 1999 (2002)
1. Keith Reed, 21, Providence; 23rd overall pick, 1999 (2002)
2. Larry Bigbie, 22, Ball State; 21st overall pick, 1999 (2002)
3. Luis Matos, 21, Disciple of Christ (P.R.) H.S.; 10th round, 1996 (2000)
4. Papy Ndungidi, 21, Edourd Montpetit (Can.) H.S.; 36th overall pick, 1997 (2003)
5. Tim Raines Jr., 20, Seminole (Fla.) H.S.; 6th round, 1998 (2003)
6. Darnell McDonald, 21, Cherry Creek (Col.) H.S.: 26th overall pick, 1997 (2003)
7. Quincy Ascencion, 17, Curacao; non-drafted free agent, 1999 (2004)
The Orioles' top 25 prospects, ranked by staff writer Joe Strauss for potential impact:
1. Richard Stahl, LHP
2. Ed Rogers, SS
3. Luis Rivera, RHP
4. Keith Reed, OF
5. Larry Bigbie, OF
6. Mike Paradis, RHP
7. Luis Matos, OF
8. Papy Ndungidi, OF
9. Brian Roberts, SS
10. Beau Hale, RHP
11. Josh Towers, RHP
12. John Parrish, LHP
13. Tim Raines Jr., OF
14. Ryan Kohlmeier, RHP
15. Darnell McDonald, OF
16. Tripper Johnson, 3B
17. Chris Richard, 1B
18. Matt Riley, LHP
19. Josh Cenate, LHP
20. Juan Guzman, RHP
21. Fernando Lunar, C
22. Jay Spurgeon, RHP
23. Jayson Werth, C
24. Erik Bedard, LHP
25. Quincy Ascencion, OF
Note: Players did not appear in majors before Sept. 1, 1999.