For the better part of a decade, the Orioles have lacked a Plan B. When Luis Matos got injured in 2005, the Orioles resorted to calling up Jeff Fiorentino directly from A-ball. When there was no obvious answer in left field in 2006, Brandon Fahey and his .614 OPS were forced down the defensive spectrum. This off-season, the Orioles are working hard to ensure that doesn't happen again.
Many factors contribute to a team becoming attractive to top minor league free agents. The first, and perhaps the most important, is the perception of major league roster openings. It's also been quite beneficial to the Orioles that they have secured a new AAA affiliate in Norfolk, Virginia. Too often, international players had visa problems trying to get into Canada and others simply preferred to play stateside. In fact, whenever the Lynx came to Richmond in previous seasons, the players were thrilled to death about two things; playing in warmer weather and playing in front of fans. The new stadium, Harbor Park, is also an attraction. Although it will be 14 years old this coming season, it is well maintained and provides fans with a major league experience at a minor league venue. The seats are wide and there is plenty of legroom in the aisles. Access to and from the stadium is easy and parking is plentiful. The surrounding area has plenty of reasons to continue supporting the Norfolk Tides.
With all these factors finally in their favor, the Orioles have signed an onslaught of interesting minor league free agents. Below, we break down the players most likely to impact the major league team (in no particular order):
1B Brandon Sing- Sing comes to the Orioles by way of the Cubs, where he was considered a top prospect as recently as 2005. Sing has light-tower power from the right side and an uncanny batting eye. Sing struggled mightily in his age 25 season, hitting a combined .196 between AA and AAA, although his secondary batting skills remained. Some attribute this to an eye affliction he suffered in spring training that was made worse by allergies. Sing has had trouble with breaking pitches in the past and is pull-conscious, but he represents a serious power upgrade to the upper levels of the Orioles system.
OF Luis Montanez- Montanez also comes to the Orioles by way of the Cubs. He's right-handed, a good athlete, and can play all three outfield positions. Montanez was wooed to Baltimore because the Orioles promised him an invitation to spring training, but he'll most likely have to prove he can carry his success at lower levels forward to AAA before he gets a shot at the big club.
RHP Jon Leicester- Completing the trifecta of promising signings originally from the Cubs organization is Leicester; a 27 year old reliever who has had previous success in a major league bullpen. He has been known to fire his fastball past 95 MPH and works with an effective splitter/slider combo. Leicester has occasional trouble against left-handed batters and occasionally gets into trouble up in the zone. He also missed much of 2006 with a knee injury after he was traded to the Texas Rangers.
1B/DH Josh Phelps- At 28 years old, Phelps is still showing glimpses of what made him a top prospect years ago. He was an International League all-star after batting .308/.370/.532 for Toledo in 2006, but his shaky plate discipline has kept him from capitalizing on his vast potential. Although he had considerable success as a 24 year old with Toronto, putting up a .924 OPS in 265 at bats, Phelps only mounted a .752 OPS in 2005, his last exposure to major league pitching. The Orioles may represent his last chance at becoming more than a minor league slugger.
UTIL Cesar Crespo- Since being drafted in the third round of the 1997 amateur draft, the 27 year old Crespo has capably manned just about every position on the field. He also has good plate discipline and top-flight speed. Unfortunately, Crespo has proven the old axiom that you can't steal first base. He has a career .259/.340/.393 batting line in almost 600 AAA games.
C/1B J.R. House- House has quite the interesting background. The 27 year old was a top-shelf catching prospect for the Pittsburgh Pirates before injuries forced surgeries to his elbow, labrum, rotator cuff, and two hernia operations. The all-time state record holder for passing yards as a West Virginia prep, House took a year off of baseball to serve as the backup quarterback for West Virginia University. After returning to baseball in 2006, he played caddy in the Houston Astros organization to Roger Clemens. Hitting has never been a problem, as House showed by ending his season with a .412/.445/.675 batting line in 114 AAA at bats. His defense has always lagged behind, but he is equipped with a strong arm. House could make a viable offense-oriented backup to Ramon Hernandez in 2007.
3B/1B Terry Tiffee- The 27 year old Tiffee was once a highly touted third base prospect in the Minnesota Twins organization. He has stalled out at the upper levels of the minor leagues due to his indifferent defense and middling walk rate. Tiffee does make contact at an high rate, but his ability to hit bad pitches has too often resulted in him being overanxious at the plate. With the versatility to be useful at the corners and moderate power, Tiffee could see some time in Baltimore as a utility man.
*Michael Hollman and John Kazlo contributed to this article
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