BOWIE — If you had a nickel for every time Buck Showalter talked this spring about the Orioles' organizational pitching depth, you could buy a pretty good seat at Prince George's Stadium to see what he was talking about.
The Bowie Baysox are in the midst of their first home series of the Double-A season, and they entered the weekend leading the Eastern League in strikeouts (84 in 79 1/3 innings). They also were leading the league in walks, but the fact that the whole staff is averaging more than a strikeout per inning is an indication of the kind of live arms the O's have stashed at the second level of their minor league system.
The same goes for the Triple-A Norfolk Tides, who lead the International League in both strikeouts per inning and strikeout/walk ratio.
Sure, it's early, but Showalter has been beating this drum since the first day of pitcher-and-catcher workouts in Sarasota, Fla., and nothing has happened over the past two months to make a liar out of him.
"There's a lot of depth in our system, below us and above us,'' said Baysox manager Gary Kendall. "We have some guys who were a little disappointed they didn't make the Triple-A club, because they thought — based on the year they had last year — they were slated to go there, but that's good for the organization, that there's that much depth that you really have to earn a promotion."
Kendall is at the start of his fifth season managing the Baysox, but he's been in the organization for a long time and he has seen the way the club's player development system has evolved, particularly during the Andy MacPhail and Dan Duquette eras.
"When I first got over here, just to show you the difference, there were times a guy would hit .235 and get promoted to the next level because we had a void at that position,'' Kendall said. "They wouldn't bat an eye. It got to that point, and then when things got better, and we went out and got some free agents and developed some guys through our drafts, that was no longer the case. It kind of was a little shattering to the player, who's thinking 'What do you mean, I didn't get promoted this year after I hit .240?'
"Years ago, you would hear stories of guys like Don Baylor and Bobby Grich. Bobby Grich had a spring training where he hit .400 and went back to Rochester. Guys have to earn it more."
The Orioles still have some work to do to develop the kind of position depth they have achieved on the mound, but that's not exactly counterintuitive. The organizational emphasis on drafting pitchers isn't new, but the club's ability to identify pitching prospects who are in a position to advance quickly through the system clearly has improved.
The top five starters aren't necessarily major-league ready, but nobody is just filling space or pitching above his talent level. There were times during the Orioles' darkest decade that it seemed like everybody was.
"We've got Tim Berry, who was in big league camp, and [Branden] Kline is on the radar and got a chance to go over there this spring to pitch a little bit for Buck,'' Kendall said. "Parker Bridwell is a guy who struggled a little bit [Thursday] night with command of his fastball, but has a good changeup, and then there's [Elih] Villanueva and Dylan Bundy, who has been kind of limited in his innings.
"It's nice being able to run guys out there you can trust and I think will develop, and all five of those guys are guys who can certainly help [Norfolk manager] Ron Johnson at the next level in the future."
Of course, there will be an inordinate amount of attention paid to Bundy, who was considered one of the most dynamic pitching prospects in the game before he underwent Tommy John ligament reconstruction surgery. He's on a tight innings limit, but threw three hitless innings in his 2015 Baysox debut.
Kline busted out with a terrific performance in his first start of the season, striking out 10 in five shutout innings, but got knocked around on Friday night. Bridwell gave up just one run and struck out seven over five innings in Bowie's home opener on Thursday night, but struggled with his control and walked five batters. That's why they call it Double-A.
Showalter will tell you that it's not about any individual statistic or pitching line. It's about making an honest evaluation of a pitcher's potential to perform at the highest level, and he has shown over his time as Orioles manager that he is not afraid to go with a guy whose minor league numbers might be deceptive.
"I really think that Buck has a lot of confidence in the people in the system and he's willing to bring those players up and put them in big league games,'' Kendall said, "which I think is a compliment to Brian Graham and the whole player development system."
Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here," at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog.