On farm, O's batting crop lean

The Baltimore Sun

FORT LAUDERDALE, FLA. -- There are plenty of former position prospects here, guys like Jason Dubois and J.R. House, who are desperately trying to keep their major league dreams alive as players invited to spring training.

Orioles outfielders Val Majewski and Jeff Fiorentino are here trying to make an impression also, though scouts don't project either as much more than a major league bench player.

If you are looking for an impact position prospect, a player who is close to arriving in the majors and becoming a fixture in the Orioles' lineup for years to come, there is none to be found around the grounds of Fort Lauderdale Stadium this spring.

For all the strides the Orioles' farm system has made and for all the good young arms it boasts, the organization is probably at least two years away from seeing a home-grown position player arrive at the major league level ready to make a difference.

"Their cupboard really is pretty, pretty bare," said Kevin Goldstein, a national writer for Baseball Prospectus. "There is just not a whole lot of that system in terms of guys who can hit."

According to Baseball America rankings, 11 of the Orioles' top 20 prospects are pitchers. Of the nine hitters in the top 20, only four have played above Single-A and none of the four - Fiorentino, Majewski, Adam Stern and Luis Hernandez - is considered a serious prospect.

Nick Markakis, the Orioles' top offensive prospect for the past several years, made the jump to the majors last year and became the first Orioles home-grown player to make a serious impact since second baseman Brian Roberts, a 1999 draft pick who became the club's everyday second baseman in 2004.

The favorites to follow Markakis' path include third baseman Bill Rowell, the club's first-round selection in last year's draft; Nolan Reimold, a 6-foot-4, 210-pound outfielder; and catcher-first baseman Brandon Snyder, the club's first-round selection in 2005.

Rowell, who had a terrific rookie year in the minors and is already considered the organization's top overall prospect, is 18 years old. Reimold, 23, is coming off a disappointing season in Single-A, and Snyder, 20, lost almost a full year to shoulder surgery.

The Orioles also say shortstop Pedro Florimon, second baseman Ryan Adams and outfielder Kieron Pope have major league potential, but all three will start the season in Single-A.

'It's a concern'

"Sure it's a concern. It's absolutely a concern," Orioles vice president Jim Duquette said. "After Markakis, we knew there was going to be a big drop-off. You just have to wait for the Reimolds, the Rowells, the Snyders to develop. You really can't do anything about it."

The wide gap between quality position prospects in the system developed because of several factors, Orioles officials say. Those included poor drafting, subpar player development and in some cases, bad luck.

"It was a situation that the players we drafted did not develop as they were hoped to develop," said David Stockstill, the Orioles' minor league director. "We as the Baltimore Orioles are all responsible for that."

The organization's most glaring folly was in the 1999 draft, when the Orioles had seven of the top 50 picks. Of those seven, Roberts is the only one to become a major league regular.

The Orioles passed seven times on outfielder Carl Crawford, who was selected No. 52 overall by the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and became an All-Star. Also in that draft was outfielder Alex Rios, taken 19th overall by the Toronto Blue Jays, and first baseman Justin Morneau, who was chosen in the third round by the Minnesota Twins and was the American League Most Valuable Player last season.

"It was a chance to set the organization up for a long time coming, and that was not a good draft," Duquette said. "Usually, it takes four, maybe five years to really assess an amateur draft properly and we've had more than enough time to look at that. That year was a glaring hole."

The 1999 draft was Tony DeMacio's first as head of the organization's scouting department. His last was in 2004, when the Orioles selected pitcher Wade Townsend in the first round. They weren't able to sign Townsend, and Fiorentino was the only Orioles pick in that draft who has played above Single-A.

The Orioles selected a pitcher with their top selection in five of the six drafts during DeMacio's tenure, with the lone exception being Markakis, who some clubs coveted as a pitcher rather than an outfielder.

Near misses

Jim Callis, the executive editor of Baseball America, said the Orioles made some poor selections, but he also said the club has been victimized by some bad luck, too, pointing to the 2005 draft, Joe Jordan's first as scouting director. The Orioles coveted high school outfielder Jay Bruce with the No. 13 pick, but the Cincinnati Reds picked him at No. 12 and the Orioles settled for Snyder, whom they also liked.

Bruce has become one of the top prospects in the game, while Snyder, after a solid rookie season in the minors, suffered a torn rotator cuff in his left shoulder. He has rehabilitated the injury, and Stockstill said he expects him to be ready for the start of Single-A Delmarva's season. However, in an effort to ease his recovery, Snyder, who was drafted as a catcher, will move to first base.

"Snyder may still turn out, but if you would have had Bruce following Markakis and then Rowell following Bruce, that would have been pretty good," said Callis, who praised the job Jordan has done. "The baseball draft is so different from the other drafts. ... In baseball, you are projecting guys like two or three years ahead. When it all comes down to it, about 90 percent or more of guys you draft don't even make it to the big leagues. ... Why is it that their pitchers are doing well and not their hitters? I am not sure. I think it is just cyclical."

Reimold, club officials say, is the closest to being big league-ready, but he struggled with injuries last year and hit just .255 with 19 home runs and 75 RBIs at Single-A Frederick. Orioles officials said they are still pleased with his progress, though he'll start this season at Double-A Bowie and the consensus is that he won't be ready to be an everyday major leaguer until 2009.

Preaching patience

"We're not going to move them up too fast just to make them get here quicker," Stockstill said. "That's when you do more damage than good. So we have to do it through free agency, through the waiver wire, things like that to beef up until those younger kids are ready."

There is also the draft, and the Orioles will have the fifth overall selection this year. Jordan said it might be tempting to draft a college offensive player, rather than a high school prospect whose development may take longer.

"I'd really like an older guy that can get right in our system and get going," he said. "But at this point, I am still going to take the best guy available."

jeff.zrebiec@baltsun.com

FUTURE CONSIDERATIONS

The Orioles' farm system is significantly short on impact position prospects, specifically at the upper levels. Here's a look at some of the top minor league position players with their position, level they are expected to play at this year, a prediction on when they'll be ready for the big leagues and a comment.

Player Pos. Level Big league arrival Comment

Ryan Adams 2B Low Single-A 2010 Has a lot of tools, but he's 20 and has history of hamstring problems.

Pedro Florimon SS Low Single-A 2010 Slick shortstop made tremendous strides offensively last season.

Kieron Pope OF Low Single-A 2011 May have the most power in the organization, though still extremely raw.

Nolan Reimold OF Double-A 2009 Is the closest to the majors among O's field prospects, but poor 2006 season casts doubts.

Bill Rowell 3B Low Single-A 2009 First-round pick last year could move quickly through system, but he's 18 years old.

Brandon Snyder C-1B Low Single-A 2010 Lost a year of development with shoulder surgery and will move from catcher to 1B.

Jeff Zrebiec

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