Drought on O's farm, too

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The optimists within the Orioles organization point to the two playoff teams in their farm system and the number of draft picks under contract as proof the minor-league season wasn't a complete bust.

The pessimists total all the losses, the injuries and the prospects who disappointed, and call for sweeping changes.

But it's not clear who could be wielding the broom.

The contracts of Syd Thrift, vice president for baseball operations, director of minor-league operations Don Buford and scouting director Tony DeMacio expire after the season. Owner Peter Angelos hasn't confirmed that Thrift will return, though he has publicly supported the moves Thrift made during the winter to improve the team.

Should he remain in his present role, Thrift said he'll be involved in a process of "re-evaluating everything" in player development after a season when the top three affiliates, Triple-A Rochester (55-89), Double-A Bowie (55-85) and Single-A Frederick (47-92), combined to finish 109 games below .500.

"We've got to do what's best for the organization," Thrift said. Asked about the possibility that Buford or DeMacio might not return, Thrift said: "In baseball, anything's possible. I don't know what we're going to do right now. We haven't gotten to that stage yet. ...

"All of us are accountable for what we do in our performance. I know what it's like to be criticized. But the most important thing is, what can you do to improve? I don't think it helps any to say, 'This guy didn't do this, this guy didn't do that.' We have to figure out, 'What did we do right? What did we do wrong?' You build on your strengths and try to eliminate your weaknesses."

The Rochester Red Wings filed for free agency in August and could break their 41-year tie to the Orioles -- the longest for a Triple-A franchise -- after posting the worst record among teams in its classification for the second straight season.

The Orioles reassigned Bowie Baysox manager Dave Cash and pitching coach Tom Burgmeier during the All-Star break, replacing them with Dave Stock- still and Dave Schmidt. The Eastern League's Baysox went 26-26 in the second half.

"I don't think anyone who saw that Bowie team could say there aren't legitimate prospects there," said Ed Kenney, a special assistant to Thrift.

"Bowie got off to such a bad start," Buford said, "that I think complacency set in with that ballclub and it shouldn't have."

"The records indicate some things," Thrift said. "I'm always disappointed when I don't win. ... A lot of times things happen that don't really indicate the true story. In the case of Bowie, when the changes were made, the players' performance changed because we had top prospects there who weren't doing anything. Frederick had a better second half and the players got better. Delmarva had a marvelous second-half finish. Bluefield had a great year."

When the Red Wings were mentioned, Thrift said: "Rochester had a dismal year. Some of the players we signed, we expected a better performance from and didn't get it. We spent a lot of money."

Looking beyond the records doesn't bring much comfort. One high-ranking club official said: "It's hard to say you're satisfied when we didn't develop a single player for the big leagues. Guys like [Rick] Bauer, [Jorge] Julio and [Jerry] Hairston developed here [in the majors]."

Some of the issues are easier to explain away. The Orioles were busiest over the winter signing minor-league free agents to provide depth at the upper levels of the farm system, but Thrift needed them in the majors when injuries tore into the Orioles' roster. Pitchers Rodrigo Lopez and Travis Driskill, who figured to spend much of the season at Rochester, became valuable members of the Orioles' rotation. And Thrift wanted to keep his Double-A prospects at Bowie instead of rushing them to Triple-A to replace the call-ups.

But other criticisms, both from within the organization and outside it, warrant greater attention.

A major-league scout familiar with the Orioles organization offered a harsh assessment.

"If I was to point my finger, I think the player development system is brutal, brutal, brutal," said the scout, who, in keeping with the practice in his profession, spoke on the condition of anonymity. "I've seen their teams, and you never see their players working on things before games. They don't take infield, you don't see catchers working on blocking balls. I see the guys making the same mistakes year after year, and I don't see anyone developing. I think it's really a mess. They don't have a lot there.

"I haven't seen any one specific player who is going to step up and make a difference. You've got a disjointed system. I think the environment has been really poor. Those teams don't have discipline. They're fundamentally poor. Kids get away with stuff they wouldn't get away with in any other organization."

Rochester's players have been observed "going through the motions" and not taking early hitting. One former Red Wing said the weather often disrupted their routine. Because soccer and lacrosse teams shared Frontier Field, the Red Wings often had to stay inside because green paint applied to the field hadn't completely dried.

"I thought there could have been more instruction," said one player who spent most of the season at Rochester. "There was no early hitting or work with the position players. It's bad when free agents come in from other teams and say they've never seen anything like it."

Thrift placed the blame for the Red Wings' lack of pre-game drills on a field "so bad you couldn't do any work because of the soccer and lacrosse."

Thrift said he was satisfied with the level of instruction in Rochester. "We know how to teach," he said. "We know what has to be done."

Another rap on the organization centers on inconsistent instruction in the minors. While one coach preaches an aggressive approach from hitters, another tells them to be patient. Not only are the affiliates using different stadiums, but they're not even on the same page.

"There will be some staff changes at the lower levels," Buford said.

Tom Trebelhorn, the Orioles' third base coach, who served as farm director for one year and coordinator of minor-league instruction for three, laid partial blame this year to Stockstill's move from minor-league field coordinator to Bowie manager.

"There was nobody who was traveling on a regular basis, making sure things were being done the correct way," Trebelhorn said.

"We lacked a person who was going from Delmarva to Frederick to Bowie to Rochester, and back to early camp in Florida and Bluefield, and somebody calling on a regular basis. ... Somebody's got to hold each place accountable and say, 'Hey, we're not doing this right.' "

Pitchers weren't staying healthy, either. Former No. 1 picks Richard Stahl, Chris Smith and Beau Hale were shut down, and top prospect Erik Bedard needs ligament-transplant surgery on his left elbow.

"We have seven [minor- league] teams, so we've got over 100 pitchers, and we spend all our time talking about four or five," Thrift said. "So we kind of magnify the few and pay no attention to the others who are making tremendous progress."

Said Trebelhorn: "We try to be careful with them. We try to condition them. We go through all kinds of programs."

The prospects who did complete the season in the minors, including Bowie shortstop Ed Rogers and outfielders Tim Raines Jr. and Keith Reed, were mediocre at best.

The same scout noted players like Larry Bigbie and Luis Matos improved only after working with Orioles hitting coach Terry Crowley. "They don't get the instruction down there," he said. "There isn't anyone position-wise I've seen at Bowie or Rochester that the Orioles should be excited about."

Said Thrift: "Some of our prospects did not develop to the rate they should have. And it's always easy to blame somebody else. But I think we have to make sure that we do better. We need to have enthusiastic leadership. I'm talking about on the field. We need to have an improved systematic program of fundamentals that we know are essential for winning."

Sun staff writer Joe Christensen contributed to this article.

Problems in the minors

The Orioles' minor-league affiliates experienced little success this season. A look at their records:

Team....Class....W-L....Pct.

Rochester....AAA....55-89.... .382

Bowie....AA....55-85.... .393

Frederick....A....47-92.... .338

Delmarva....A....76-64.... .543

Aberdeen....A....31-45.... .408

Bluefield....R....45-23.... .662

Gulf Coast....R....24-36.... .400

ORIOLES

Today @ YANKS (DH) 1:05/7:05 CSN/CSN

Wed. @ YANKEES 7:05 CSN

Thu. @ YANKEES 7:05 CSN

Fri. @ RED SOX 7:05 Ch. 13

Sat. @ RED SOX 1:15 Chs. 45, 5

Sun. @ RED SOX 1:05 Chs. 54, 50

Mon. BLUE JAYS 7:05 CSN

Radio: All games on WBAL (1090 AM)

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
46°