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Mid-December thoughts, part 1

Some of you who have noticed the paucity of recent updates to this site may be wondering, "Has The Orioles Warehouse turned into an abandonblog, like Bambino's Curse and Redbird Nation?" The short answer is no: despite appearances, this is still an active site with plans for new content to be added on a semi-regular basis. On the other hand, it is the offseason, and last month, November, is typically one of the slowest months of the year as far as baseball news goes. (A quiescent period begins roughly after the end of the World Series in late October and ends just before the winter meetings in early December.)

Accordingly, the Warehouse has gone into a semi-hibernatory state for the offseason. I have used the downtime to catch up on other pursuits and conduct some research for future articles. I know I keep saying that such-and-such articles are in the pipeline, and I promise that you'll see most of them before the winter is out. But today's entry and the ones that immediately follow will comprise a quick-hitting, around-the-horn assessment of the past month or so in Birdland.

A new eye in the Birds' sky

The major move that has gone unmentioned here until now is the Orioles' hiring of Joe Jordan as their next director of scouting. Jordan, like new minor-league director Dave Stockstill, is a low-profile hire who promises to bring continuity to the front office through his prior connections to the organization (from 1997-2001 he worked as a scout for Montreal under then-GM Jim Beattie). Because this is Jordan's first job leading a scouting department, he promises to bring new energy, if not fresh ideas, to the club after serving an eight-year apprenticeship as a scout.  A future article will further explore Jordan's background and offer some informed speculation about the  direction of the Orioles' scouting and player development regime.

Oriole fledglings examined and tagged

Speaking of which, Baseball America's Will Lingo appraised Baltimore's minor-league system last month. His top ten prospects:

  1. Nick Markakis, of
  2. Hayden Penn, rhp
  3. Adam Loewen, lhp
  4. Val Majewski, of
  5. Jeff Fiorentino, of
  6. John Maine, rhp
  7. Mike Fontenot, 2b
  8. Chris Ray, rhp
  9. Tripper Johnson, 3b
  10. Dave Crouthers, rhp

No big surprises there. Penn's #2 ranking may be premature—he progressed rapidly at a young age this year, but he could just as easily backslide next year, as pitchers tend to do. (See prospect #3 for recent evidence of this.) BA has been criticized for favoring high-ceiling athletes over less exciting players who put up great stats. This list, though, contains a nice balance of toolsy and performance-rich prospects. The only player whose ranking clearly outstrips his on-field performance is Loewen. There is balance in other respects, too:

  • five pitchers and five position players;
  • five players who ended their 2004 seasons at Double-A or higher (Penn, Majewski, Maine, Fontenot, Crouthers) and five who were at Single-A or lower;
  • five players with at least three years of college experience (Majewski, Fiorentino, Maine, Ray, Crouthers) and five with two years of college or less; and
  • five players who were 22 or older on July 1 of this year (Majewski, Maine, Fontenot, Johnson, Crouthers) and five who were younger than 22.

Balance does not trump quality, of course, but in many ways this is a well-rounded top ten. On the flip side, there is a pronounced lack of diversity in the racial and national classification of these ten players; all are light-skinned North Americans, and Loewen, who is Canadian, is the only player from outside the U.S. on the list. Sure, Markakis has Greek origins, Majewski is close enough to his Eastern European roots to pronounce the two W's in his name like V's ("Val" is short for Walter), and Fontenot is from Cajun country. But it is clear that the Orioles have not been profiting much from their international scouting operation lately.

Lingo laid a few blows on the Orioles in his annual write-up, calling them "an organization in disarray" and putting plenty of the blame on owner Peter Angelos's dysfunctional management style. "The player-development operation continues to be in upheaval," he wrote, citing the recent dismissals of scouting director Tony DeMacio and farm system head Doc Rodgers. Lingo partially absolved DeMacio for the poor output of his top draftees: "Scouts say almost all of his early selections involved compromise of some sort." He went on to recap this year's two big setbacks in player development, the non-signing of top draft pick Wade Townsend and the trade of young gun Denny Bautista for a mediocre reliever. Summing up the missteps, Lingo blamed the club's irresolute decision-making: "The problem extends beyond favoring one particular philosophy. The approach seems to change with the wind." The article was unstintingly negative in tone, but Lingo's main point was essentially right: the Orioles had a rocky year in player development, much of it rooted in the too-frequent turnover of people and philosophies at the top that threatens to undermine whatever progress is being made in the farm system.

Lingo's online chat on November 12 was not terribly enlightening for those who follow the team regularly, but he did offer the following tidbits.

On the quality of the Orioles' young talent relative to other major-league clubs:

It's still toward the bottom. Where the Orioles ultimately rank depends on what we see from other organizations as we do their prospect rankings, and how my esteemed colleagues feel about the talent in the organization. I would say definitely not at the bottom as it was a couple of years ago, but still closer to No. 30 than No. 1.

On Baltimore's use of psychological profiles to discriminate among prospects:

I talked to several people who said the organization will not sign anyone who hasn't taken the particular test they prefer. And as many as one-third of the players the scouting department ranked on its draft board going into this year's draft were deemed undraftable by upper management, based on their psychological profiles.

Lingo—perhaps acting as a mouthpiece for disgruntled scouts—seemed to imply that the reliance on psychological testing is a bad thing. This is not necessarily so. If winnowing players by their psychological profiles increases the club's chances of landing a solid major-leaguer, as it apparently does, then it is the prudent way to go. If an extremely talented player has not taken their preferred test, though, some flexibility is warranted. For example, if the player has taken a similar test, then perhaps equivalencies can be extracted between it and the preferred test. In general, given the number of dollars at stake in the first few rounds of the draft, it would be risky and foolish to select a player without any knowledge of his psychological tendencies.

Minor comings and goings

In other minor-league news, the Orioles won't have Jack Cust to kick around anymore after they allowed him to leave as a free agent and the Oakland A's signed him to a minor-league contract. Cust was once the Orioles' top hitting prospect, but his lack of fielding ability, combined with two unspectacular offensive years in the International League, drove him into the organization's doghouse. If any team appreciates Cust's unique combination of gifts and shortcomings, it's the Athletics, who recognize the value of power and on-base percentage (they liberated Erubiel Durazo, didn't they?) and will stomach his shoddy defense and fistfuls of strikeouts because the price is right. While Cust never has and perhaps never will look like a pro ballplayer, I wouldn't be surprised if he gets some at-bats with the A's next year as a DH and puts up an .800 OPS and a .350 OBP.

Another slightly noteworthy loss was the release of José Morbán to the Oriole diaspora; he too was let go as a minor-league free agent in early November and was subsequently scooped up by the Indians (who apparently thought so little of him that they neglected to report the signing anywhere on their web site). Morbán, a raw, rangy Dominican shortstop, was selected off waivers from Minnesota in March of 2003. Since he was a Rule 5 draft pick, he had to stay on the Orioles' big-league roster all year, and that he did, appearing in 61 games mostly as a pinch-runner or in mop-up duty. This year, he returned to the minors and did nothing but struggle with the bat, hitting .210/.279/.374 at Bowie and .235/.303/.325 in a demotion to Frederick. He was taken off the 40-man roster in July to accommodate the short-lived promotion of John Maine to the majors. Essentially, all Morbán did for the Orioles in two seasons was provide some organizational depth at shortstop, which was and still is the weakest position in the Birds' system. Fortunately, that depth was never tested in 2004, as Miguel Tejada gave nary a sliver of a chance that he would relinquish his job anytime soon. Morbán is unlikely to return to the majors next year. He could eventually resurface as a utility infielder if his bat ever comes around, but he is now in an organization with two excellent shortstop prospects in Jhonny Peralta and Brandon Phillips, so he appears to be destined for more Double-A seasoning.

The Orioles signed four minor-league free agents last month, according to BA: LHP Tim Byrdak, RHPs Tony Fiore and Marino Salas, and 3B Pat Scalabrini. The first three were re-signings; Scalabrini was plucked from the independent Northern League. Byrdak and Fiore are both over 30, making them too old to be prospects, but as organizational soldiers they helped steady Ottawa last season with effective bullpen work, posting solid fundamental stats for the Lynx. Byrdak struck out 43 and walked 12 in 34 1/3 innings while allowing four homers, and Fiore had 32 and 10 in 45 innings while allowing just one homer. (I realize that rates such as K/9, BB/9, HR/9, and K/BB are often called "peripheral" stats, but I believe this is a misnomer. Wins and losses are the real peripheral stats because they depend so heavily on outside factors. A fundamental stat, by definition, should attempt to describe a pitcher's direct contribution to the team. Strikeouts, walks, and homers are about as fundamental as they come, so they get my vote.) Fiore and Byrdak (call them "Firebyrd") were a dependable right-left relief tandem for the Lynx, and they could reprise those same roles next year.

Salas is much younger than the first two; according to one report, he'll be 23 in February. He appeared in 40 games for Delmarva last year, saving thirteen of them and finishing with 46 K's, 17 free passes, and five long balls in 50 1/3 innings. At such a low level of competition those numbers don't mean much, but he could gain more notice if he turns in that kind of performance at Frederick next year.

Scalabrini is a more interesting story. A native Canadian who played at the University of Hawaii, he starred this past summer for the Winnipeg Goldeyes, posting a batting line of .322/.381/.570. But he did that at age 27 in the lowly Northern League, so it's nothing to get too excited about. Clay Davenport gave that performance a .229 Major League Equivalent Average (.260 being major-league average). Although he's unlikely to make a dent in the majors, Scalabrini could fill the bat-for-hire role that another independent-league pickup, Branden Florence, played for the organization in 2004, providing offensive fireworks wherever he is most needed by hitting-starved Oriole affiliates.

Rule 5 losses

In Monday's Rule 5 draft, the Orioles made one selection in the major-league phase, lefty Luke Hagerty from the Cubs, whom they promptly traded to the Marlins for a player to be named. They took no one in the minor-league phase, although they lost three players to other teams: infielder Chris Gómez, left-hander Rich Acosta, and right-hander Juan Pascual.

The loss of Gómez, whom the Orioles had just signed to a minor-league contract before the draft, to the Phillies was an embarrassing gaffe that reflects poorly on club management. Had the Orioles simply waited until after the draft to finalize the signing, they would not have had to sneak him through on their Double-A roster. Gómez hit .282/.337/.346 for Toronto last year and has a career line of .256/.322/.358; that's adequate for a backup infielder who can field shortstop, second, and third capably (not to mention cheaply). There will be alternatives available, but the Orioles will have to redo their homework to nab a similar player.

It's possible, though not probable, that one or more of the other three players could have a career of consequence. Six-foot-seven Hagerty's stuff is well liked by scouts, but he has had trouble staying healthy. His story sounds a little like Richard Stahl's. Acosta and Pascual are young relievers who had success at the rookie and low-A levels in 2004, but they have a long way to go to reach the majors.

Coming up next: more transaction analysis, the Nats, and the free agent/trade market.


This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on December 14, 2004 4:24 PM.

The previous post in this blog was More on Mora.

The next post in this blog is Mid-December thoughts, part 2.

Many more can be found on the main index page or by looking through the archives.

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