Birds In The Desert

Arizona Fall League rosters have been announced this week. The Orioles contingent will be made up of pitchers Brian Finch, Ryan Keefer, Nick McCurdy and Cory Morris. The position players selected include third baseman Brian Bass and outfielders Jeff Fiorentino and Nolan Reimold.

The inclusion of Reimold and Fiorentino should not come as a surprise to O's fans. Fio is on the 40 man roster and, after his up and down 2006 season; a bit more playing time cannot hurt. Although he has come on stronger lately, the AFL season might be just the tonic to re-energize his career path back to Baltimore. He will be out of options after the upcoming season, thanks to his promotion from Frederick to Baltimore last season, so decision time on Fiorentino is drawing nearer than many realize.

Reimold is, perhaps, the Oriole's top position prospect. After suffering through some injuries and a mid-season slump, the Orioles may be trying to catch lightning in a bottle for a second straight AFL season. Last year Nick Markakis went to the AFL, excelled, and the rest, as they say, is history. It will be interesting to see if Reimold can build on his prospect status and progress in the desert. Given the Orioles current opening next year in left field, a big AFL season may force him into contention. Even if the Orioles pursue a free agent, a strong off-season could make a September call-up more likely.

Bryan Bass' selection is a bit more of a surprise. Given the less than spectacular performance he has put up over the course of his career, this may be his last shot in the Orioles organization. He will be 24 years old next year with six professional seasons under his belt, only part of which is above Single A, and he has yet to hit above .241 at any level other than his first year at Bluefield. Last season, he smacked twelve home runs at Frederick, but his strikeout to walk ratio was nearly 3:1. The former number one pick (31st overall in the 2001 draft) has not lived up to expectations.

Brian Finch's selection makes sense for the player and the organization. A seemingly marginal prospect for the suddenly pitching-rich Orioles, Finch is 24 years old and playing at AA. He currently has a WHIP of 1.46, which is just a tick below his minor league total average. He is striking out 5.23 batters per nine innings and is carrying a win-loss record of 5-11. Although he may yet get back into the organization's plans, he will need a big AFL season to keep progressing in the Orioles system. Finch was drafted out of Texas A&M in the second round of the 2003 draft and signed for $750,000. Eighteen picks later, Andre Ethier was drafted by the Oakland Athletics and signed for $580,000.>

After rising through the system to pitch at Bowie last year, where he put up respectable numbers, Ryan Keefer was back in the New York- Penn League this season before a recent promotion back to Bowie. He's been recuperating from an early season surgery which removed bone spurs from his pitching elbow. The AFL will largely be an opportunity for him to make up lost time.

Right-hander Cory Morris is a 27 year old pitching in AAA Ottawa. Last year, he was originally slated to attend the AFL, but was pulled back and replaced by Andy Mitchell. He has been solid, if unspectacular, for the Lynx this season. He came close to touching the mound in Baltimore for a brief moment, when he was recalled from Ottawa early in April, only to be sent back three days later. Like Bass, he will have six minor league seasons under his belt after the 2007 season, so the Orioles will use this experience to help gauge his role in the organization. He has had injuries and has been inconsistent throughout his Orioles minor league career. Morris' current WHIP is a rough 1.68 at Ottawa. He has, however, fanned 8.07 hitters per nine innings at AAA but he's also walked 6.6 per nine.

Nick McCurdy has pitched solidly over the 2006 season. Pitching out of the bullpen at Bowie and Ottawa, he has struck out a respectable 6.82 hitters per nine innings. Unfortunately, he is right handed and 26 years old, so he'll have to be more than just respectable to get back in the organization's plans.

Garrett Olson, Radhames Liz, James Hoey, Beau Hale and James Johnson were a few of the more interesting omissions. The organization likely feels they have thrown enough innings this year and don't need the additional work in a league known for tough pitching conditions.

Last year's Orioles contingent to the AFL was, without a doubt, the best ever sent. For the first time that I have been attending, the group was better known for its potential than its failure to reach expectations. That delegation included Adam Loewen, Nick Markakis and Brandon Fahey. All three excelled in the desert last year and all three have made it to Baltimore this season. Fahey went to Arizona with something to prove and impressed everyone in attendance, forcing the Orioles to add him to the 40 man roster after being exposed to so many scouts. In fact, during one stretch, I felt he outplayed the more heralded Stephen Drew and Brandon Wood. More than just O's fans noticed that Fahey came to work early and left with a dirty uniform.

Loewen's All Star performance encouraged the Oriole faithful and served as a springboard for his emergence into this year's major league rotation. Markakis was an AFL All Star as well and rightfully so. He forced his way onto the Orioles Opening Day roster and has impressed after a slow start. Markakis and Loewen were the first Orioles to make the All Star squad since Brad Pennington in 1992. Other prospects who played in Arizona last fall are Andy Mitchell, Tripper Johnson, Val Majewski and Ryan Hubele.

It felt good to sit in the stands with my Orioles cap on last season and I'm looking forward to doing the same this fall.

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