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Harvesting too soon, O's find farm not ripe

The Baltimore Sun

A few seconds after Boston Red Sox rookie Clay Buchholz snapped off a curveball to freeze the last batter and complete an improbable no-hitter, former Orioles pitcher Scott McGregor braced for the inevitable. He has heard the refrain before. Only the names change.

"When I saw Buchholz throw his no-hitter, I go, 'Oh no, I know what's going to happen now. What's wrong with Radhames Liz?' Well, how many Buchholzes come along?"

Not enough in the Orioles' system. They're usually the victims, rather than the beneficiaries.

David Stockstill, Orioles director of minor league operations for three seasons, said, "We're still bringing up players from Double-A and Triple-A who are not really ready to go to the big leagues, step on the field and help a championship club."

Fair or unfair, the comparisons between Buchholz and Liz - and thus the organizations - were inevitable. The Red Sox have an opening in their rotation because of an injury and they fill it with Buchholz, who makes history in his second major league start. They need another outfielder and they bring up Jacoby Ellsbury, who hits .353 in 33 games. Their second baseman, Dustin Pedroia, is the front-runner for American League Rookie of the Year.

Another division rival, the New York Yankees, dipped into its system this year and brought up top pitching prospects Joba Chamberlain, Phil Hughes and Ian Kennedy.

When the Orioles' rotation was crumbling, they rushed Liz and Garrett Olson from the minors, gave starts to Brian Burres, Kurt Birkins and Jon Leicester, and purchased Victor Zambrano and Victor Santos from organizations that no longer wanted them. Moves born out of need that reeked of desperation.

Stockstill said: "As we get more time, then you get the Lizes and Olsons and they'll have more time in the minors to where they're more ready when brought up. But now, because of need, we bring up kids with very little experience or free agents who didn't make it somewhere else to fill holes normally filled by major league players."

The results, like comparisons to the Red Sox and Yankees, aren't favorable.

Pitching problems

Olson lacked the confidence to challenge hitters after dominating at Triple-A Norfolk, walked 28 batters in 32 1/3 innings and posted a 7.79 ERA before being shut down with tightness in his left forearm. Liz arrived from Double-A Bowie with serious flaws in his mechanics and walked 23 in 24 2/3 innings while finishing with a 6.93 ERA.

"He made tremendous strides, but he's definitely a work in progress," McGregor said of Liz, the organization's minor league Pitcher of the Year, who had four starts among his nine appearances with the Orioles.

"Most guys come up to the big leagues, and what [the Orioles] have done with Liz is good. They put him in the bullpen, work with him a little bit. ... It's just a process. Unfortunately, right now, our fans don't want to be that patient," said McGregor, Liz's pitching coach at Bowie.

They've waited long enough, but the top prospects in the organization remain below Double-A, with the exception of Bowie outfielder Nolan Reimold, who had two stints on the disabled list with oblique injuries.

A scout from another organization - who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of tampering rules - said the top three affiliates were "barren" in position players, though he didn't see Reimold this year, and places blame on the previous regime.

"The only everyday player I saw was that shortstop at Bowie, Luis Hernandez. And they got him off waivers. Nobody else was an everyday player. And no high-ceiling players like [Nick] Markakis."

Manager Dave Trembley said: "That's been the case here for a while, not a lot of position prospects, but you have to trust your minor league staff and your player development people that they're doing everything they can possible do to get these guys ready."

One Orioles affiliate made the playoffs, Single-A Frederick, which won the Carolina League championship behind pitcher Chorye Spoone (Northeast). The organization's Comeback Player of the Year came from low Single-A Delmarva - Brandon Snyder, the 13th overall pick in the 2005 draft, who underwent surgery on his left shoulder last season and switched from catcher to first base.

"I think we made outstanding progress," Stockstill said. "The prospects that are in our system improved. We've got quite a ways to go in a lot of areas, but from three years ago, I think it's a tremendous leap forward that we've made."

Said the opposing scout: "Let me just say that the Orioles, post-Syd Thrift [former general manager], have made tremendous strides in player development. The teams are much better organized, better disciplined. Before that, it was almost a joke in the industry. They've gotten much better. They're still not in the upper echelon, but they're fine. They're in the middle of the pack. And they're much improved from what they were."

His biggest complaint: "The Orioles don't play the international market. They don't have those high-ceiling Latin players. They don't exist."

A Baseball America survey didn't place the farm system in a flattering light, ranking the Orioles 28th in player development among the 30 major league clubs.

"Development and scouting are things that we have to do well," said Andy MacPhail, president of baseball operations. "We can't just be OK. We just can't be average. We have to really excel. Whether we think we're doing good at it or poorly at it, it's not going to matter. That's something that we're always going to have to put a lot of attention on."

The Orioles made two changes before the season ended, dismissing minor league pitching coordinator Doc Watson and roving infield/base-running instructor Tom Lawless.

"Those were tough decisions in areas we need to get better at," Stockstill said. "We need to get better in our base running and defensively. We've made a lot of progress, but we have to consistently make adjustment to where we get better quicker. There are times in baseball where you have to get your minor leaguers ready to play in the big leagues as quick as possible because free agents are so expensive, and so many of our younger players are a long way from playing in the majors."

Praise for teaching

Orioles reliever Jim Hoey, who progressed from Delmarva to the majors last season, gives the organization high marks for minor league instruction.

"It's nice that our lower farm clubs have a lot more to say than just, 'Let's go out and play,'" he said. "There's meetings, there's pitching coaches trying to help you out in between games. There's definitely more fielding practice at the lower levels. Just a lot more instruction."

And a lot more that needs to be done. The Orioles were disappointed that pitchers such as Hoey, Liz and Olson arrived with deficiencies that made them unreliable. Hoey said after one rough outing that he became nervous - the reason he wasn't auditioned as a closer. Liz kept flying open in his delivery, and Olson didn't trust his stuff.

"It enters your mind why guys aren't more ready, but there could be guys who have trouble adjusting to a major league environment," pitching coach Leo Mazzone said. "A lot of guys, they pitch well in the leagues they were in and then have trouble adjusting because they're trying to do more than they can."

Talent on the way

Joe Jordan, director of scouting, referred to the process as "growing pains." And he said talent is coming that will rival what the Red Sox and Yankees have churned out.

"It takes four or five years to see it all through," he said.

"I can say that Nolan Reimold is a better player now than when we drafted him. Garrett Olson has developed a changeup. I saw better pitching from Radhames Liz this year in Double-A than I saw last year. The speed of the game is quicker here, and he hasn't gotten himself under control. But his stuff will play here."

The Orioles want to get to the point where they can duplicate the Red Sox bringing up Kevin Youkilis and Jonathan Papelbon in 2005 and Jon Lester in 2006, the Yankees summoning Robinson Cano and Chien-Ming Wang in 2005, the Anaheim Angels winning the World Series in 2002 with Francisco Rodriguez, the St. Louis Cardinals doing likewise in 2006 with Adam Wainwright. And right now, they're not close.

"The players who have been picked have done well, but there's a big gap," an Orioles scout said. "We don't have anybody in Double-A and up ready to come to the big leagues. ... You've just got to wait on the Billy Rowells and the Matt Wieterses [both first-round picks], and that takes a lot of patience."

NOTE -- The Orioles released pitchers Jaret Wright and Victor Zambrano and didn't renew the contracts of Bowie manager Bien Figueroa and Delmarva strength and conditioning coach Ken Conner. Wright, acquired from the Yankees in November for reliever Chris Britton, went 0-3 with a 6.97 ERA in three starts before going on the disabled list for the second time April 30 with a strained right shoulder. Zambrano went 0-1 with a 9.49 ERA in five games after being acquired from the Pittsburgh Pirates.

roch.kubatko@baltsun.com

Best and worst prospects

5 WHO FLOURISHED

1. Radhames Liz, pitcher, Double-A Bowie. Organization's minor league Pitcher of the Year threw a no-hitter and won all five decisions after the break before the Orioles rushed him to the majors. Went 11-4 with a 3.22 ERA and 161 strikeouts in 137 innings. Mechanics need work. Future could be in the bullpen.

2. Chorye Spoone, pitcher, Single-A Frederick. Named Most Valuable Player of the Carolina League playoffs. Led league with three complete games during regular season and added two more in playoffs, allowing two runs in 18 innings. Ranked second in league with 133 strikeouts and fifth with 3.26 ERA. On the fast track to the majors. Has impressive arm and necessary intangibles.

3. Garrett Olson, pitcher, Triple-A Norfolk. Ranked second in International League with 3.16 ERA and led Tides with nine wins and 120 strikeouts. Allowed three earned runs or fewer in 18 of 22 starts. Didn't challenge hitters enough at major league level, which elevated walk count, but dominated in minors. Has good makeup.

4. Bob McCrory, pitcher, Double-A Bowie. Reliever underwent ligament-reconstruction surgery in 2005 and returned throwing upper-90s fastballs. Ranked second in organization with 27 saves in 44 combined games at Frederick and Bowie. Posted an overall ERA of 2.60 and struck out 44 in 45 innings. Scout from another organization says McCrory will be in Orioles' bullpen next season.

5. Brandon Snyder, first baseman, Single-A Delmarva. First-round pick in 2005 didn't catch this season because of left shoulder surgery. Batted .312 with 34 runs, 30 extra-base hits and 29 RBIs after the break and was named organization's Comeback Player of the Year. Future no longer behind the plate. Will have to hit his way into majors.

5 WHO DIDN'T

1. Billy Rowell, third baseman, Single-A Delmarva. Year wasn't a total loss for 2006 first-round pick, but oblique injury stalled his progress. Missed spring training and early chunk of the season. Reached base in 27 straight games from July 15 to Aug. 13. Batted .185 against left-handers. Had many promising moments, but needs to stay on field.

2. Nolan Reimold, outfielder, Double-A Bowie. See above. Forced onto disabled list twice with strained oblique and missed most of 2007. A full, healthy season might have ended with a September call-up by Orioles, but didn't get enough at-bats at Bowie. Though he batted .306 with a .565 slugging percentage in 50 games, lost significant developmental time.

3. Brandon Erbe, pitcher, Single-A Frederick. What's a 19-year-old kid doing in the Carolina League? Mostly struggling. A baby compared with the competition, Erbe struck out 111 in 119 1/3 innings but went 1-6 with an 8.73 ERA in his last 10 games. Early reports from instructional league are positive.

4. Hayden Penn, pitcher, Triple-A Norfolk. Allowed to compete for spot in Orioles rotation in spring training, Penn made a bad impression in camp and later underwent surgery to remove bone spur from right elbow. Limited to four starts at Norfolk. Orioles shut him down rather than give him a September look. Patience within organization is wearing thin.

5. Pedro Beato, pitcher, Single-A Delmarva. A supplemental pick in 2006, Beato pitched in the Futures Game, but that was based more on expectations than production. He was 7-8 with a 4.05 ERA in 27 starts with the Shorebirds, walking 59 and striking out 106 in 142 1/3 innings. He threw 12 wild pitches. Better run production would have improved his record. Not a huge step backward, but not much forward progress.

ROCH KUBATKO

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