Instructional Leagues might not get the press of the Arizona Fall League or the newly reinstituted Hawaiian Winter League, but the impact on its attendees is just as real. For instance, around this time last year, Luis Lebron was a relatively anonymous Dominican right-hander with plus arm strength. Despite 45 strikeouts in 25 innings of work at Bluefield, few would have guessed that the 21 year old with an 11+ ERA would soon emerge as one of the top relief prospects in the organization. People within the organization are quick to point to last year's Instructional League as the difference. Once there, Lebron had ample opportunities to work one-on-one with the coaching staff, where they stressed the importance of commanding his fastball.
Kieron Pope is another player that benefited greatly from some personal attention at Instructs. The organization was already aware that Pope was a phenomenal athelete when they drafted him. They were also aware that he had just finished a season in which he struck out in nearly 30% of his plate appearances in the Appalachian League. After working at the Instructional League on recognizing breaking balls, Pope returned to Bluefield and was on pace to win the league's triple crown before a mid-season promotion.
This year, the Orioles sent 61 players to Florida for Instructs. These days, there is more of an emphasis on sending Dominican, Venezuelan, and other foreign born prospects. Immigration laws have tightened recently and temporary visas are easier to come by, so the Instructional League serves the secondary purpose of allowing front office personnel a chance to catch a glimpse of their Latin talent. For American-born players, Instructs are generally an opportunity for a prospect to receive some personal attention from coaches and make adjustments that will help prepare them for the upcoming season. Because of the slightly different goals of these two different groups, camp was broken into two different teams; 33 Foreign-born players on one team and 28 American-born players on the other.
Among the participants this year was 2006 first round pick Billy Rowell. Rowell, a 6'5'' powerhouse that only recently turned 18 years old, was largely a shortstop as an amateur. Most draft observers felt he would have to shift to third base as a pro and the Orioles have tried to expedite the process by making the move immediately. Thus far, the results have been underwhelming. Rowell had 18 errors in his first 53 games at the hot corner. His range and arm are both solid enough for the position, but his inexperience shows. Rowell was often frozen on balls hit directly at him and looked less than confident about his footwork and positioning. All of these problems are not uncommon for infielders at his age and are very correctable given enough repetitions. The Orioles hope that their emphasis on Rowell's defense pays dividends when he likely begins 2007 as the third baseman for the Delmarva Shorebirds.
Michael Hollman is the Senior Writer for Inside The Warehouse and can be reached via email at Publisher@InsideTheWarehouse.com