Kevin Goldstein, who follows the top talent in the minor leagues for Baseball Prospectus, obviously knew all about Matt Wieters, Nolan Reimold and Chris Tillman.
But it still took him a bit by surprise to hear this season from so many scouts who planned to go to a place the Orioles hadn't exactly been stocking with top-notch talent in recent years.
"They all were excited to go to Bowie," Goldstein said, referring to the Bowie Baysox, the Orioles' Double-A affiliate. "Bowie turned into this prospect destination. That was a real nice team there. I think the Orioles' system is way up. Between the Erik Bedard trade and being able to draft and pay Matt Wieters, that system is much better than it was a year ago."
When Andy MacPhail was hired as the Orioles' president in June 2007, he said his focus would be on scouting and player development, areas where the organization has received severely low marks during its now 11-year losing skid. A Baseball America study done last year ranked the Orioles 28th out of 30 major league teams in player development. The report made enough of an impact on MacPhail that he kept a copy in his briefcase.
Fifteen months into MacPhail's tenure, the Orioles' minor league system has made significant improvements, according to prospect analysts. Wieters, a switch-hitting catcher the Orioles drafted fifth overall in 2007 and paid a franchise-record $6 million signing bonus, tore up Single-A and Double-A in 2008, his first professional season, and is considered one of the game's best prospects.
Tillman, a 20-year-old acquired as part of the five-player package from the Seattle Mariners for Bedard, has established himself as the organization's top pitching prospect. Tillman joins Brian Matusz, this year's first-round pick, Jake Arrieta, Brandon Erbe, David Hernandez, Zach Britton and Brad Bergesen, giving the Orioles a group of pitching prospects that Goldstein said is among the best in baseball.
"Tillman looks like a guy with refinement that could be a No. 2 starter, and they have a truckload of guys that also project as big league starters," Goldstein said. "That's a great projection to have. If everything works out, they could have the whole future rotation in the minor league system. Starting pitching-wise, they're up there with the top third of baseball."
That's the good news for the Orioles, who have failed miserably in previous tries at developing a homegrown rotation. The bad news is, most of the pitching prospects are not close to being major league-ready, and Radhames Liz and Garrett Olson, two of the Orioles' older pitching prospects, have been knocked around in extended big league looks, casting their status as future rotation fixtures into serious doubt.
The Orioles' other main challenge is that beyond Wieters and Reimold, a power-hitting outfielder, there isn't much in terms of position-player talent that excites scouts and prospect analysts. First-round picks Brandon Snyder (2005) and Billy Rowell (2006), who both played for the Single-A Frederick Keys this season, have gone through extreme growing pains.
Orioles director of player development David Stockstill acknowledged the gap between the Orioles' pitching and position-player talent. However, he says it's narrowing, citing the strong 2008 seasons from Reimold and Snyder, along with the performances of other fringe prospects, such as shortstop Blake Davis and outfielder Matt Angle.
"There's no doubt for the past many years we've drafted better pitchers than position players," Stockstill said. "But I think we're starting to get some better position prospects. As they develop and get to Double-A, we'll be able to make that statement more strongly."
MacPhail made several trips to watch the Orioles' affiliates during the season. He sat close to the field and took notes during the games, extending his stay in the minor league cities in an effort to see as many of the organization's young starters as possible.
"We probably had more pleasant developments than we had disappointments in terms of individual performances," MacPhail said. "I do think that we've done what we had hoped to do, which is augment the level of talent in the system. We've made progress, but we have more progress to make. We can't be satisfied. There's still considerable work to be done."
This season, the pitching-starved Orioles had several opportunities to call up a young arm from Bowie, whose staff included Tillman, Hernandez, Bergesen and Jason Berken. However, they balked, largely because most of the prospects were on their way to career highs in innings.
"Most of these guys we're talking about, the most advanced ones, are going to help us a lot in 2010, '11 and '12," Stockstill said. "The minor leagues is about slow progress. You get a Matt Wieters once in I don't know how many years. If you rush them, you set your system back and you have to start all over again, which we've been through time and time again."
Jim Callis, executive editor of Baseball America, cited the team's 2005 call-up of then-top pitching prospect Hayden Penn as an example of the organization rushing a prospect. Three seasons later, Penn still isn't in the Orioles' rotation, though injuries are a big reason.
"There's not a lot of incentive for them to rush these guys right now," Callis said. "There are four teams ahead of them [in the American League East], and they're not going to contend next year. Outside of Wieters, you're looking at two, maybe three years down the road with most of these guys."
Baseball America ranked the Orioles' system the 14th best in baseball entering the season. Callis said the Orioles haven't had a top-10 system since 1994, but they have a chance for that heading into next season.
"They have an upper-half system, but the cream of their crop - Wieters, Matusz, Tillman and Arrieta - is definitely one of the most impressive," he said. "That's a real good group there."
Note: The Orioles placed right-hander Jeremy Guthrie on the 15-day disabled list, retroactive to Sept. 6, with a right shoulder impingement. Guthrie, 29, is 10-11 with a 3.57 ERA (186.2 innings, 74 earned runs) in 29 starts this season.
5 who have taken the next step
A fourth-round pick in the 2004 draft, Bergesen, 22, started the season at Single-A Frederick before earning a promotion to Double-A Bowie, where he won a franchise-record 15 games and was named the top pitcher in the Eastern League. Bergesen doesn't have dynamic stuff, but he walked only 33 batters in 165 1/3 innings.
Team officials are very high on the 20-year-old left-hander, who anchored Single-A Delmarva's rotation, going 12-7 with a 3.12 ERA. Since eschewing a curveball for a slider, Britton, a third-round pick in 2006, has increased his strikeout totals and significantly lowered his ERA.
The Baysox right-hander didn't get as much attention as rotation mates Bergesen and Chris Tillman, but he was equally dominant at times with a 10-4 record and a 2.68 ERA. A season after finishing with a 4.95 ERA in Single-A, the 23-year-old struck out 166 batters in 141 innings at Double-A.
Montanez Montanez, the third overall pick in the 2000 draft by the Chicago Cubs, was barely on the Orioles' radar heading into the season. But that changed when the 26-year-old outfielder put together a dominant season for Bowie. He was promoted to the majors in August, and he has held his own offensively.
The organization's top position prospect behind Matt Wieters, Reimold ended his Double-A season by hitting four home runs in four games in the Eastern League playoffs after 25 in the regular season. Though he elicits conflicting views among scouts, the Orioles love the outfielder's baseball tools.
5 who have not taken next step
* PEDRO BEATO: Beato, a 21-year-old right-hander, was selected for the Futures Game last season and ranked as the Orioles' ninth-best prospect by Baseball America. But he went just 4-10 with a 5.85 ERA for Frederick and finished the season in a deep slump. He went 1-8 with a 6.93 ERA in his last 12 starts and gave up four earned runs or more in seven of his last eight starts.
* SCOTT MOORE: It appeared that the 24-year-old corner infielder, a 2002 first-round pick, would finally get a long big league look after he beat out Jay Gibbons for the final Opening Day roster spot. However, after getting just eight at-bats with the Orioles, he was sent to Triple-A Norfolk, where he batted just .247 with seven homers and 44 RBIs and saw his season end in July because of a thumb fracture.
* HAYDEN PENN: It was another lost season for the organization's once-top pitching prospect, who struggled with inconsistency (6-7, 4.79 ERA) at Triple-A Norfolk and then was shut down with a shoulder injury after he started pitching better. The 23-year-old hard-luck right-hander was primed for another late-season call-up before a broken bat cut his leg and his shoulder started acting up.
* BILLY ROWELL: The ninth overall pick in the 2006 draft, the 20-year-old third baseman was the youngest player in the Carolina League for most of the season, and the Orioles expected some growing pains. However, Rowell batted just .248 with seven homers and 50 RBIs and struck out 104 times in 375 at-bats for the Keys. Scouts have persistent questions about his attitude and work ethic.
* CHORYE SPOONE: Spoone, a Pasadena native, never got an opportunity to build off his dominant finish to the 2007 season, though by no fault of his own. He made only nine starts for Bowie - he went 3-3 with a 4.57 ERA - before he was shut down in July with shoulder problems. The 23-year-old, called the Orioles' eighth-best prospect by Baseball America, had surgery to repair a Slap tear in his right shoulder and will miss a good part of next year.