With the Orioles completing their fifth consecutive losing season and with a farm system in disarray, it's doesn't take a rocket scientist to know there is a problem. It's easy to sit back and say wipe out everything and everyone, but that is not realistic, and simplifies the true problems. Over the last four years, I've had access to the minor league players, coaches, scouts, and personnel people within the Orioles system, and over the last year, access to the major league side as well. After spending so much time within the organization, the true problems of this organization stand out like a sore thumb, and unfortunately, without serious change, this organization will never regain its position as one of the classiest and well-run organizations in baseball.
Starting at the Top
The problems start in the owner's box. Although Peter Angelos has his faults like everyone else, being stupid is not one of them. Although some talk show callers and message board conspiracies have decided that Angelos doesn't want to win, that he's in it to just make money, I don't buy it. Angelos wants to win if for no other reason than to feed his ego.
But that ego is where the problems start. Early in his tenure as owner, Angelos rejected several trades that former General Manager Pat Gillick had concocted in July of 1996 that would have in effect given up any chance of the playoffs. Forced to go the other route and add players, the 1996 Orioles came back and won the wildcard and advanced to the American League championship playoff, where they lost to the dreaded Yankees. To most observers, that was the turning point--where Angelos decided he was smarter than the baseball guys.
Despite watching his club go to the playoffs in both years under Davey Johnson, Angelos allowed his ego to force Johnson to resign. Although Johnson's ego was also partly to blame, Angelos should have found a way to keep the Orioles' most successful manager since Earl Weaver. Instead, Angelos promoted one of his own favorites, Ray Miller, from within the organization. Miller, a competent pitching coach, wound up over his head and floundered as manager.
Tired of having an owner meddling in his business, Gillick left after three years and the search for his replacement brought out more concerns. Angelos brought together a team that included his sons, Joe Foss, and himself in order to find Gillick's replacement. Several highly regarded candidates turned down the Orioles after it was apparent that the owner was going to be involved in the day-in and day-out business of the team. Finally, after reportedly promising him full authority to run things, Angelos hired Florida Marlins assistant GM Frank Wren, a known up-and-comer in the baseball business.
Unfortunately, an ominous sign for Frank Wren could be seen in the Orioles press guide where he received five paragraphs compared to the eight paragraphs allotted to Director of Player Personnel Syd Thrift. Thrift, an Angelos insider, was supposedly not interested in becoming the general manager, or Vice President of Baseball Operations as Angelos now calls that position. Events would eventually transpire that would contradict that notion.
During his one-year tenure, Wren did some good things (traded for Conine and Jason Johnson for minor leaguers that never amounted to anything), and some bad things (signing Delino DeShields and Mike Timlin to inflated contracts); but the one thing that was clear was that he was not totally in control. After Rafael Palmeiro and Roberto Alomar left, Angelos made a knee-jerk reaction and signed the talented, but longtime malcontent Albert Belle. Wren really didn't have much of say, and things would start to go downhill from there.
Wren had a manager he couldn't fire, a superstar who was not well liked, a club icon who was bigger than the team, a decrepit farm system, an aging ballclub, an Angelos insider on his staff, and a heavy-handed owner who was becoming more and more involved. Needless to say, Wren didn't last long. His fate was sealed after he attempted to assert his control of the team by ordering the Orioles charter to leave without Cal Ripken, who was late. After the 1999 season, Angelos fired Wren and quickly named Syd Thrift his successor to the newly named position, Vice President of Baseball Operations.
The question now is, has Mr. Angelos learned his lesson?
From One Ego Problem to Another
The hiring of Syd Thrift came as no surprise to anyone following the situation. After watching Angelos run off two GMs in two years, there was little doubt he needed an insider; and from my perspective at the time, Thrift was the lesser of the available evils because he had a baseball background.
Over the last three seasons, several things have become evident under Syd's leadership. First of all, no one should doubt his eye for talent. Syd acquired Chris Richard, Jorge Julio, Gary Mathews and Geronimo Gil in trades giving up just two overpaid middle relievers. Additionally, he acquired Batista and Gibbons for $100,000, and signed Rodrigo Lopez, Willis Roberts, and Travis Driskill when nobody else wanted them. Although not every one of his moves have paid off, his ability to scout and understand talent is as solid as it gets.
If that was all there was to being a General Manager, (We'll call him that despite the ridiculous Angelos-forced VP of Baseball Operations job title) Syd would be top-notch. Unfortunately, the GM of a ball club must also interact with other GMs, have vision, create a philosophy for (as well as foster good communication within) the entire organization, and hire competent people to run the rest of the operations, including major and minor league scouting and the farm system. In most of these other areas, Syd falls far short--and at his age, he's not about to change.
The scariest part of all of this is trying to figure Syd out. Most people respect a guy who has been around as long as he has, but Syd's ego makes him hard to work with, or work for. Whispers around the organization speak of an organization led from the top down, but without any sort of cohesion. It's not uncommon for moves to be made within the system without the knowledge of Don Buford, Director of Minor League Operations. Players have been signed or released without Buford's knowledge, and almost always Thrift is behind the moves. It's known if you are one of Syd's guys, you may have a voice in things, but if not, your opinion most likely does not matter.
Also, there is a concern over Thrift's mental state. At times, Thrift can be affable and on the ball about everything around him; at other times, he appears to be in a confused state. This inconsistency can explain some of his odd comments on the radio as well as why some of his colleagues find it hard to work with him.
According to Peter Gammons, back in 2000, Syd rejected his own trade offer. Thrift apparently called the Mets in pursuit of Jorge Toca. He gave them a list of pitchers, including Jason Johnson. The Mets accepted the deal. Then Thrift rejected the deal he'd offered. There was also the Gary Dellabante fiasco, where a caller asked Syd on a local radio program about a hot young prospect named Gary Deallabante, who happens to be Howard Stern's producer. Syd reportedly asked who, then mumbled something about him looking good, before the caller was cut off by the host. Although Syd did not go into a detailed description of the player, as was reported in the national media, it did show Syd's inability to handle an obscure question.
Syd always finds a way to deflect blame. He's the first person to stand up and take credit, even when that credit may not be his to enjoy. Thrift is usually credited for acquiring Jorge Julio from the Expos for Ryan Minor, and ultimately, with the final say, he was responsible; but several sources have indicated the Special Assistant Ed Kenney actually selected Julio from a list of players given to the Orioles from the Expos. Has anyone ever heard Syd stand up and say that it was good piece of work from his scouts and his assistants?
Above all, Syd has created an atmosphere within the organization of watching your own back. Although club officials respectfully would never condemn their leader, there is little doubt his leadership has made many feel uneasy. As a result, a lack of communication within the organization has become legendary. There is a lack of communication between management and coaches, coaches and players, the major league side with the minor league side and the minor league side with the scouts. Instead of developing a one-team philosophy, each part of the organization has little communication with the other parts, and with that comes the mistrust.
A good leader and a good GM would not allow that. Whether it's because of Syd's insecurities, or because he has relied on undermining people in the past to get to his positions, Syd keeps everyone in the dark until they need to know--or rather, when he feels they need to know.
The Minor League System
Much has been said lately about the long-suffering minor league system. The Orioles' prolonged failure in player development has been documented in many mediums (including right here on this site). But the real question is, what are the main problems? Is it the scouting or is it the development?
In the last four years I have seen over 200 Orioles minor league games and spent hundreds of hours talking with managers, hitting coaches, pitching coaches and player personnel people, as well as scouts inside and outside of the organization. Despite what some people like to think, there are some real quality baseball men in this organization, and I've been lucky enough to have them share their baseball knowledge with a sponge like me.
However, there are also some very real problems in this system, and again, it all starts with leadership. Although Don Buford is named the Director of Minor League Operations, sources indicate that most, if not all, major decisions, including coaching staff makeup and top prospect promotions, are made by Syd Thrift. Thrift has been known to watch a minor league game and transfer players the next day due to his observations. It's pretty tough to lead when you are not sure if someone above you will change your decisions without consulting you.
No matter who's calling the shots, the system is in need of a strong leader who not only knows instruction, but who can ensure that the same instruction is being taught at every level. Don Buford is a former Orioles great, fan favorite, and a true gentleman in every respect. He's often found in uniform before games, throwing BP or instructing one of the players. However, as the current Director of Minor League Operations, he too has to take some blame when it comes to the failures, even if his hands are tied by Thrift on a lot of decisions.
Orioles coaching and the philosophy delivered varies from affiliate to affiliate. To solve this problem, the Orioles came up with the Director of Instruction/Field Coordinator position, first manned by Tom Treblehorn and later by Dave Stockstill. But the problem still exists and by most accounts, it's not going to get better under the current Thrift/Buford leadership, which has allowed the system to deteriorate for years.
At Bluefield, Bien Figueroa and new roving hitting couch Julio Vinas preach patience and selective aggressiveness. They want the batters to look for the first pitch in a certain zone and only swing at it if it's in that zone. They want the batter to have an idea of where the pitcher is trying to pitch them and then to cut down their swing a bit with two strikes, in order to make contact. Bluefield ended the year first in the Eastern Division, leading the league with a .363 team OBP.
Denny Walling, the former Oakland A's hitting coach who resigned after plate discipline fanatic Billy Beane took over as GM, is the current Orioles roving hitting instructor. With Walling as hitting instructor, the A's hitting stats (AVG/OBP/SLG) were .265/.340/.452 in 1996, .260/.336/.423 in 1997, and .257/.336/.397. Since current A's hitting coach Dave Hudgens took over, the A's have done better .259/.350/.446 in 1999, .270/.360/.458 in 2000, and .264/.345/.439 in 2001. In fact, his 1999 team set team records for walks (773) and runs scored (893). Hudgen's philosophy is to develop and motivate the complete, team player with his hitting for excellence program. A complete player is one who is fundamentally sound, motivated and disciplined in all techniques, and has a winning attitude. Watching the Orioles prospects over the last four years, I'm not sure you can say that about them. Most of the Orioles hitters have a glaring weakness that continues from level to level. Few if any go deep into counts and even fewer look fundamentally sound at the plate.
How much does plate discipline contribute to success at the plate? Just ask Jason Giambi. ''It was pounded on me from the day I signed into the A's organization,'' Giambi told the Boston Globe in a July interview. ''Then I got to the big leagues, and there was Mark McGwire as my example. But, really, this is all nothing new. What everyone is now focusing on is what Ted Williams preached his entire life. `Get a good pitch to hit,' he always said, hitting in its simplest form. You want to teach hitting right? Buy every kid in this country a copy of Ted Williams's book.''
This spring, when Ben Cherrington and Theo Epstein took over the baseball development operation for the Red Sox, their first act was to pass out Williams' book, ''The Science of Hitting'' to every player in the system. ''He defines everything that we hope our organizational philosophy will follow,'' said Epstein in the same Boston Globe interview.
Maybe it's about time the Orioles adopted this philosophy. Luckily, Figueroa and Vinas have planted the right seeds at Bluefield last year. But it appears this philosophy is not being taught at the higher levels.
Pitching-wise, the Orioles' philosophy differed at just about every level. At Bowie, Tom Burgmeier, who was fired at midseason and replaced with pitching coordinator Dave Schmidt, preached pitching on the outside part of the plate. At Rochester, Grant Jackson, who was let go after the season, was credited by one pitcher for "turning his season around," but another pitcher who spent time with both the Red Wings and Baltimore this year said Jackson's philosophy differed from that of Baltimore pitching coach Mark Wiley.
The best pitching coach in the system resides at Delmarva where Dave Schuler shares his knowledge with the O's young pitchers. Schuler uses visual aids which are taped to his office wall to help his impressionable students with the art of pitching. His philosophy revolves around pitching inside first, but also using all of the pitcher's pitches to both sides of the plate. He also stresses proper preparation between starts for his starters, and getting relievers into games often so they don't waste away on the bench. He had three starters pitch over 129 innings with ERAs under 3.52. The best point is that pitchers under his tutelage seem to do much better under him than when they move on. When Cory Morris was sent to Delmarva with a 0-7 record and a 7.64 ERA, he was a mechanical mess. Among his problems was the fact he was rushing his delivery and not loading, the term used when a pitcher drops his trailing shoulder during his delivery in order to increase velocity. Schuler worked with him and within two starts, Morris was back on track, posting a 3-1 record with a 2.88 ERA in 10 starts, earning himself another promotion back to Frederick. Under the tutelage of Frederick pitching coach Larry Jaster, Morris again was a mechanical mess shortly after his return. When asked what Jaster had him working on, Morris explained, "Staying back." Unfortunately, Jaster has apparently not found the same staying-back method that worked for Morris under Schuler.
Is there a Lack of Effort by the Coaching Staffs?
Baltimore Sun columnist Roch Kubatko ran a story last week that brought to light some serious allegations from a major league scout who claimed to be familiar with the Orioles organization. He said that the system is "brutal, brutal, brutal," and that he never saw players working on things before games. He also said the players were undisciplined and fundamentally poor.
Although I'm skeptical of anyone who makes general statements, especially when it's almost impossible to see teams throughout a system, he's not that far off in some cases. However, to say that no one does early work is just not true.
At Frederick, manager Jack Voigt, a former Oriole and Orioles farm hand, had a schedule up in his office that clearly stated all the early work sessions planned for the week. Every homestand, at least four days a week, the Keys had some type of early work going on. Batters were consistently seen taking extra BP in the cage with Voigt or his coach Mike Felder. Despite being given a team that would have struggled in Low-A, Voigt's team never seemed to give up, despite their horrible record.
In Rochester though, there was definitely a problem. "Just to get someone to give me some soft toss was like pulling teeth," one player who spent most of the season at Rochester said. "(Ryan) McGuire said he's never seen anything like (the Orioles system) in all of his years in the minors." This assessment, along with the Red Wings' poor record, suggests there were some serious problems at Rochester. Manager Andy Etchebarren, known previously for his feisty demeanor and no-nonsense approach, may have run out of steam after years of constant losing. "It appeared that Etch was just going through the motions," said a player who spent most of his season at Rochester.
Back at Bowie, late in the season players were still swinging at the same pitches that fooled them earlier in the year. "Top" prospects Keith Reed, Tim Raines, and Ed Rogers made limited progress, although Reed showed better plate discipline in the second half of the season after Dave Stockstill, a former Orioles roving hitting instructor, took over. Although Bowie players were observed taking extra hitting work with Stockstill late in the year, that wasn't always the case before Stockstill took over. Early work like taking fungos in the outfield, working on blocking balls or footwork by the catchers, and various other drills not associated with common warmups were never observed at Bowie.
One of the most disturbing aspects of the Bowie team this year surfaced when Keith Reed was observed throwing 250-foot curveballs to home plate during his pre-game outfield warm up drills, much to the laughter of his fellow teammates who marveled at the huge break. Instead of telling his young outfielder to cut it out and work on proper mechanics, Cash just smiled and hit another fungo to Reed, who repeated the same thing. A week later Reed missed games due to a sore arm, which may have been associated with his shenanigans the week before.
At Delmarva, things were a bit better. Manager Joe Ferguson and his staff were giving top prospect Bryan Bass over a hundred fungos a day in order to help him overcome some of his fielding woes, and Ferguson was observed giving hitting tips to players during BP, even those players not considered prospects.
At Aberdeen, manager Joe Almaraz and coach Gary Kendell were observed working with their players on various skills before games and during warm ups.
One of the major problems that has plagued the organization has been the player promotion process. At times, there seems to be no rhyme or reason for a player's promotion or non-promotion. All too frequently, prospects have not had to earn promotions, but were given them due to prospect status and were just plain rushed. The Orioles have used the excuse that some prospects were rushed because of injuries, but a good organization doesn't rush their prospects due to injuries. Rather it has enough depth to ensure the prospects stay at the level where they belong. Prospects such as Larry Bigbie and Brian Roberts lost their rookie status before ever playing a full season in the minors, and players like Matt Riley, Luis Matos and Tim Raines made major league debuts long before they were ready.
It may come as a surprise to some, but the Orioles do allow winning to affect development at some levels. Delmarva Shorebird manager Joe Ferguson is known as one of Syd's guys; and with that comes the ability to get whatever players he wants, as well as to get rid of whatever players he doesn't, regardless of the development process. On numerous occasions, Ferguson has gone directly to Syd to have players moved to and from his team.
The main problem occurs when players stay in roles or remain at levels that are not best for their development. This season, 19-year-old left-hander Rommie Lewis was placed in Ferguson's bullpen in order for him to get some innings in before the short season started up. Once the short season started, he was scheduled to pitch in the rotation at either Bluefield or Aberdeen. However, Lewis pitched so well that he eventually became Delmarva's closer and was named to the Sally League All-Star team. Ferguson decided that Lewis was too valuable to his team and he was not moved to a rotation. Lewis ended up with 25 saves a 2.15 ERA, but only tossed 71 innings. Not only did he lose about 50 or more innings of development, but by pitching one or maybe two innings an appearance, he didn't always have to use all of his pitches, which means he lost a year of developing that skill.
Can anyone explain why 23-year-old pitcher Jaymie Sperring (1.73 ERA) stayed with Delmarva despite dominating South Atlantic League hitters all season when he had already spent an entire year at Delmarva the year before? Some scouts believe Sperring could be used as a starter, and as a sixth-round pick, you would think he would be given more of a chance than being kept as a middle reliever in Low-A ball. Why was 25-year-old Rodney Ormond (2.25) never given a chance at Bowie when their bullpen was in shambles for part of the year? Also, why did Pete Shier start the year in Aberdeen, while Nick Garcia played everyday at Frederick, and guys like Wes Rachels (.201) stayed at Double-A?
Another problem in this organization is how players are used. Again, philosophies vary at each level. The common rule of thumb in the minor leagues is that your best pitching prospects are placed as starters, regardless of their expected role in the major leagues, in order for them to build up the experience needed for future success. This is why most closers in the major leagues were usually starters in their minor league careers. Another rule of thumb in most organizations calls for a potential major league reliever to be moved to the bullpen around Double-A, so they can train their arms to pitch every day instead of every five days.
The Orioles didn't do that with Rick Bauer, so he has had to learn to do that at the major league level, which is exactly why he has struggled at times this year. At Bowie, no one will argue that Mike Paradis has major league stuff, but few will also argue that his future in the major leagues, if he has any, will be as a reliever. That doesn't stop the Orioles from throwing him out there for 27 starts this year, and watching him post a 8-13 record with a 5.64 ERA.
It's also hard to understand why Eric DuBose never got a start when organizational types like Ken Sims and Juan Rosario were given shots in Bowie's rotation. Sure, DuBose was coming off missing a season due to injury, but that didn't stop the organization from putting Riley into the rotation. DuBose will probably be a reliever in the major leagues, but with two plus pitches and another average one, it may be worth seeing if he can be the left-handed starter the Orioles are missing.
At Frederick, manager Jack Voigt and pitching coach Larry Jaster follow the philosophy of using the pitchers in the roles they would most likely have in the major leagues. Therefore, Eddy Rodriguez, Rodney Ormond and Bryan Forystek remained in the bullpen while Darryl Roque and Matt Schwager received starts, though you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone who believes those two are better prospects then the three I mentioned in the bullpen.
Also, using a pitcher in the role of closer in the minors, especially the low minors, may not be in the best interest of his development either. Since Frederick rarely entered the late innings with a lead, Rodriguez (2.23) pitched just 48.1 innings in 38 games for Frederick--hardly the amount of innings you want to see a kid get in order to develop.
With regard to position players, the organization has long resisted moving players to new positions, even if it may increase their value. The organization traded catcher Jayson Werth away instead of trying him in the outfield, where he now plays in Toronto's organization. At Bowie, Napolean Calzado continues to play third base despite showing the quickness and arm strength that suggests a try at shortstop or second base could up his value tremendously.
Another concern is the amount of injuries to top pitching prospects, and the way in which injuries are handled. Although no one in the organization wants to admit it, pitching injuries have occurred at an alarming rate. The Orioles have lost most of their highest- ceiling pitching prospects to some type of injury, and how they handle these players may have something to do with it.
Since 1999, the Orioles have lost Luis Rivera, Matt Riley, Richard Stahl, Josh Cenate, Chris Smith and Erik Bedard to major pitching injuries. Although the Orioles' excuse is that all organizations have pitching injuries, the question remains whether or not the Orioles' handling of these injuries has contributed to the longevity of the pitchers being out and the related ineffectiveness of the pitchers once they return.
One of the worst cases has to be the mishandling of Matt Riley. Riley was a 19-year old left-hander who had made his way to Double-A thanks to a mid-90s fastball and a knee-buckling breaking ball. However, Riley was also a kid who had some very real maturity issues that required special handling. During one start in late June, Riley threw a pitch and then fell off the mound holding his elbow. The Orioles called it a strained elbow and put him on the seven-day disabled list. Riley missed two starts and was activated, but he was never the same pitcher again. After being activated, Riley posted a 5.20 ERA (26ER/45IP) in his last eight starts, including an 0-3 record with a 5.96 ERA (15ER/22.2IP) in his last four starts. His velocity had dropped off noticeably and by mid-August, he was topping out at only 89MPH. Despite the obvious signs of something wrong, it didn't stop the Orioles from rushing the first true left-handed pitching prospect that organization had seen since Arthur Rhodes to the major leagues. After meeting with Riley and his agent, Frank Wren decided to promote Riley to the major league for a September look. The results were predictable: Riley made three starts, posting a 7.36 ERA with 13 walks and just six strikeouts in 11 innings, before the Orioles mercifully shut him down.
The Orioles didn't really monitor Riley that offseason, and he showed up in the major league camp out of shape, but with an attitude that could be summed up by his vanity license plate, "24kt arm." His frequent lateness and attitude rubbed the Orioles' established players the wrong way, and Riley was soon ostracized from the rest of the team. That didn't stop the Orioles from keeping him in the major league camp, where he saw one inning's work over three weeks of the exhibition season. Riley was eventually sent to the minor league camp across the state in Sarasota, from where he was later assigned to Rochester despite still being out of shape. With no legs under him, Riley was rocked at Rochester and eventually put on the DL with arm soreness. When he returned from the DL he was sent to Bowie where he was put into the bullpen until he regained his strength. He pitched poorly for most of the 2000 season before feeling a sharp pain in his elbow after throwing a pitch in a game at the end of August. Riley had torn a tendon in his left elbow and underwent Tommy John Surgery. He would miss the entire 2001 season.
Despite missing that entire season, Riley wasn't brought back slowly the way the Cardinals handled Matt Morris, another young pitcher who missed a year with Tommy John surgery. No, Riley was placed into the Baysox rotation where he compiled 109 innings in 22 starts, posting a 4-10 record and a 6.34 ERA.
The handling of another top arm, Richard Stahl, can also be questioned. The former number-one pick complained of soreness in the top of his left shoulder after his 12th start of the year in early June. The Orioles' doctors diagnosed a bone spur but suggested strengthening instead of an operation. Stahl tried to rehabilitate in Sarasota and even pitched two scoreless innings for the GCL O's on July 10th. But the soreness still did not go away and Stahl underwent surgery on July 19th. putting the start of his 2002 season in doubt. Sure enough, he was not ready to start the year and instead, stayed in Sarasota to do more of that infamous Orioles strengthening program. Finally, on June 1st, Stahl was added to the Delmarva Shorebirds roster and pitched in his first action in almost a year. After allowing one run over five and two-third innings, Stahl was not allowed to pitch for another nine days due to some soreness, which was supposed to be because it was the first time he had pitched competitively in awhile. Stahl pitched nine days later and was lit up for five runs in four innings. Stahl was shut back down with the shoulder soreness, but was expected to pitch again later in the season. He did not pitch again in 2002.
Please see part 2 for continuation.