FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - While the Orioles are cruising down Alligator Alley tomorrow morning, headed to Fort Myers and the spring training home of the Minnesota Twins, a few of their scouts will be gathering in Florida's panhandle to chart the progress of last year's top draft pick.
Pitcher Adam Loewen, the fourth overall selection, will be making another start for Chipola Junior College in Marianna, Fla. The Orioles are sending Shawn Pender, their national crosschecker, and Mickey White, their East Coast supervisor, to evaluate him and keep open the lines of communication that remain somewhat tangled for the next two months.
Because Loewen enrolled in a junior college rather than signing a professional contract, negotiations are limited to a one-week window that slams shut at midnight on May 27. If the club reaches the "close period," it loses his rights and he re-enters the draft.
In the meantime, they'll follow his every move at Chipola, where he hasn't allowed a run in seven innings.
"We've had somebody there every day," said scouting director Tony DeMacio, who will miss tomorrow's game, along with executives Jim Beattie and Mike Flanagan, while attending the memorial service for pitcher Steve Bechler in Medford, Ore.
"I'll probably catch him the following week, but we'll have the right people there this weekend. We're hoping he'll go at least four or five innings, maybe a whole game."
In his most recent start, on Saturday, Loewen struck out six while defeating Meridian Community College. He allowed one hit. Batting fourth in the lineup, Loewen went 2-for-5.
That was the Orioles' most extensive look at Loewen, who missed almost two weeks with a mild case of biceps tendinitis after pitching in cold weather in Chipola's second game. The coaching staff felt obligated to use him after being informed that roughly 70 scouts would attend, but Loewen lasted only one inning and was shut down as a precaution.
"The coaches have done a great job with him, making sure that things are right, not overextending him," DeMacio said. "They just decided it was in his best interest - which a lot of guys don't do anymore - to take him out, and that was it. He pitched two weeks later, and he was fine. He pitched last week, and he was very good, the same guy we saw last year."
Baseball America rated Loewen, a left-hander from British Columbia, the No. 4 prep prospect in last year's draft. His school, Fraser Valley Christian, didn't have a baseball program, but he pitched for Canada's national junior team for three years. In 2001, he threw a no-hitter against the Pittsburgh Pirates' Dominican summer league team, striking out 16.
Loewen was the fourth Canadian ever taken in the first round and the highest Canadian selection. The Orioles offered him a $2 million signing bonus, and his agent, Michael Moye, countered on Aug. 19 with $4.8 million, a figure that exceeded the $4.2 million pitcher Gavin Floyd (Mount St. Joseph) received from the Philadelphia Phillies as the fourth overall pick in 2001. Ball State pitcher Bryan Bullington, last year's No. 1 pick, signed for $4 million.
The Orioles gave pitcher Chris Smith $2.175 million after choosing him seventh in 2001, an indication of how much the market has changed.
Moye apparently was willing to lower the price to $3.9 million, while the Orioles indicated they would go as high as $2.5 million. The gap was too large, and Loewen enrolled at Chipola. If he had attended classes at a four-year school, the Orioles would have lost their rights to him. At Chipola, he became a draft-and-follow.
"I talked to him before his first game. His agent was there, and I spoke to him, too," DeMacio said. "Everything was just as cordial as it was when we left it last year. The boy indicated he still would like to be an Oriole."
Moye declined to comment yesterday on Loewen's interest in the Orioles and the pending negotiations.
Beattie and Flanagan will become more familiar with Loewen in the coming weeks. Flanagan's role is more of a talent evaluator, while Beattie brings experience in the draft department and negotiations. They'll work closely with DeMacio, and recommendations will be made to majority owner Peter Angelos, who must decide whether to improve last year's modified offer.
The Orioles' moves may be dictated by a market that has dragged down salaries, but Loewen's value increases with each successful college outing.
Some early projections put Loewen, who has a polished delivery and brings a fastball that reaches 96 mph, atop this year's draft board if he isn't signed.
If the Orioles lost his rights, they would receive a supplemental pick between the first two rounds of this June's amateur draft as compensation. They can't begin negotiations until after Chipola's season ends, and it could seep into the one-week window because the school could be playing in the state tournament and junior college World Series.
"Sometimes it doesn't take a whole lot of time to negotiate," DeMacio said. "Sometimes they last for months, sometimes they last for a couple hours. I don't foresee that being a detriment."
"It will shorten the window for talking," Beattie said, "but we don't need a lot of time to talk. What you really need is a deadline, so that will be fine."
Asked about the importance of signing Loewen, Beattie said: "It depends where we think he fits into this year's draft. For instance, if you thought he had a pretty good year but maybe isn't a No. 1 this year, then if you don't sign him, you get a supplemental pick anyway."