With most eyes fixated on Vladimir Guerrero unpacking nearby, Brandon Snyder sat in front of his locker today and tried on equipment that he hasn't worn regularly in four years. Snyder, the Orioles' first-round pick in 2005, has been asked to give catching another try in order to better his chances of sticking on the big league club.
An hour later, Matt Hobgood, drafted fifth overall in 2009 out of high school, entered the clubhouse to get his ailing shoulder examined by team doctors.
In about 21/2 weeks, they will be joined in Florida by Billy Rowell, the ninth overall pick in 2006, who has played three straight seasons at Single-A Frederick and hit just 27 homers in 1,234 at-bats.
The struggles of the three have renewed criticism about the Orioles' farm system and prompted questions about where the next wave of talent is that will augment the organization's young nucleus at the big league level.
"It's an imbalanced farm system," said Jim Callis, the executive editor of Baseball America, the publication which recently ranked the Orioles' farm system 21st in the major leagues. "They have two of the best prospects in the minor leaguers, and then there's a drop-off. Manny Machado is easily the best shortstop prospect in the minor leagues, and I think Zach Britton is the best left-handed pitching prospect in the minors. After Machado and Britton, you don't see a whole lot of front-line talent, and even the guys with higher ceilings, they still come with a lot of risks."
Baseball America ranked the Orioles' once-maligned farm system ninth and eighth the past two seasons. However, many of the players who led to that ranking have either graduated to the big leagues or no longer carry a prospect designation. That includes Orioles starting catcher Matt Wieters; Brian Matusz and Jake Arrieta, two likely members of the 2011 rotation; and Josh Bell and Chris Tillman, who have gotten extended big league opportunities.
But the system has also been hurt badly by a failure to spend any money on top international talent and the struggles of some of the team's recent top draft picks. While he held his own as a September call-up, Snyder, the 13th overall pick in 2005, has a .279 average and 57 homers over parts of five minor league seasons, numbers hardly befitting a future big league corner infielder.
Manager Buck Showalter approached him at last month's FanFest and asked whether he'd consider doing some catching. The 24-year-old was drafted as a catcher out of Westfield High (Va.).
"I wouldn't say it's an experiment," Showalter said. "I think it just enhances his value to the organization. You're always looking for a guy that could be a third catcher."
Snyder, who was removed from behind the plate in 2007 because he couldn't stay healthy, acknowledged that wherever he plays, this year is extremely important for him.
"I get that question every year, and I always say that it is always my biggest year, but they don't get much bigger [than this one], I guess," he said. "I understand what it's like to play in the major leagues, and I want to get back. It's not just getting there, it's about … staying and solidifying your job."
One year after drafting Snyder, the Orioles tabbed another high school hitter in Rowell, who was picked one spot ahead of future Cy Young Award winner Tim Lincecum of the San Francisco Giants. Rowell has been unable to find a position or hit with consistency. His best season came in 2010, his third season at Frederick, when he batted .275 with 11 homers and 61 RBIs. His time is also running out, with minor league free agency looming after the 2012 season.
"I think we have been patient, and it obviously hasn't gone the way I thought it would go," Orioles director of scouting Joe Jordan said. "I've done what I've done. I like what we're doing in player development now. I think there are quality people to help these guys, but it's up to the players."
Jordan has presided over the Orioles' past six drafts and earned mostly praise from baseball pundits for helping to add talent to a once-barren farm system. Jordan's picks have included Wieters, Matusz, Jason Berken, David Hernandez and Machado, the high school shortstop picked third overall in 2010.
The selection of Hobgood, however, has opened him up to criticism. Hobgood, drafted out of Norco (Calif.) High, was considered late first-round talent by most draft analysts, prompting speculation that the Orioles' selection of him was based on monetary concerns. That talk heightened last year when Hobgood reported to minor league camp way out of shape, then went 3-7 with a 4.40 ERA in 21 starts for Single-A Delmarva.
Jordan reiterated that Hobgood was the guy that he wanted, and he remains confident in the burly right-hander's ability once he gets healthy. Hobgood will have a magnetic resonance imaging taken on his shoulder Thursday, though team officials are optimistic that he'll avoid surgery.
"I had lunch with Matt last week, and I thought he looked great," said Jordan, who is entering the final year of his contract. "I told him, 'It's about getting healthy and showing people that you're the player we said you were going to be.' It's way too early, but I'll answer the questions and deal with the scrutiny. When you make decisions, you think you are going to hit on them. But the reality is, if you do this long enough, you're going to take some lumps."
Orioles president of baseball operations Andy MacPhail, who has said all along that scouting and player development would have to be the backbone of the organization, defended the system, pointing out that the Orioles got a new left side of the infield in J.J. Hardy and Mark Reynolds by trading four young pitchers, three of whom spent most of 2010 in the Orioles' system.
"People tend to look at it as a snapshot in time, what's there at the moment," MacPhail said. "They don't really look at what has either recently went through the system or how you've utilized your system to help what you got in the big leagues. We need to be about as good at this as we can be. It's not lost on me. That's one of the reasons why since the drafts that I've been involved with in terms of the signings, from 2007 through 2010, we've spent the third-most of any team in baseball and we've spent more than any other American League opponent. That's essential."
The club also remains excited about several of its less heralded prospects, including outfielder Xavier Avery, second baseman L.J. Hoes and first baseman Joe Mahoney, but it would be hugely surprising if any of them contributed on the big league level this season. In fact, the Orioles' various free agent additions were essentially an admission by the front office that the club doesn't have a lot of upper-tier minor league talent close to big league ready.
"Snyder, I don't think he was a reach," Callis said. "Everybody had him as middle-of-the-first-round talent. People liked Billy Rowell. They didn't overdraft him. That's where he was supposed to go. On those two guys, it's hard to criticize them too much. Obviously, in that division, the Orioles can't afford to miss too often, but when you're talking about the draft, you are going to have hits and misses."