Ken Rosenthal is one of the best baseball writers in the business, and I love the attention he takes in talking about each of the major league clubs like an expert. In his latest column he points out one of the more obvious weaknesses the Orioles organizations when he talks about the “thin” farm system, and his premise isn’t off. Outside of Zach Britton and Manny Machado, there aren’t too many players who are truly exemplary prospects, no matter which service you look at. While the Orioles have invested heavily in the draft in 2009 and 2010 (a fact acknowledged by Rosenthal), he points out that it is too early to see the dividends of such activity. Moreover, he rails on the Baltimore front office for not investing heavily in international scouting, which might be true to a certain extent but does not capture a holistic view of the situation. Numerous articles have been written about the strength of the O’s farm system, but an important question remains. How valid is the criticism, and how much does it matter?
After Andy MacPhail was hired, the Orioles reversed course to a large degree. They traded the likes of Erik Bedard and Miguel Tejada for a bevy of prospects to bolster the lineup and rotation for the present and future. In fact, of the players moved in these transactions, only Tony Butler hasn’t reached the Majors with the O’s (since released). In retrospect, these trades were not about improving the Orioles for 2011, 2012, or 2013, they were designed to fill immediate needs on a team that had no long term answers anywhere on the roster. The organization followed up by drafting Matt Wieters and Brian Matusz as their first-round picks, both of which are with the major league club and have great potential for the future. Neither, however, is considered a prospect anymore.
The reason I point out the Bedard and Tejada trades is because most trades of high-profile players include 2 or 3 prospects who are unlikely to see the majors for a few years, players who need time in the system. It is players like these who replenished the Blue Jays system and have made the Royals into a minor league powerhouse. The Orioles didn’t pursue that track, giving them a host of young-ish players who couldn’t add to the strength of the farm system for very long. What was left behind is a group of late-round picks, some of whom are left over from the previous regime and others the product of subpar scouting by Joe Jordan.
The problem with a farm system is that it takes years to develop, and needs to be constantly nurtured. Baltimore essentially started from scratch in 2007, and then acquired prospects that went immediately to the majors. The Rays had a decade with a solid scouting group and astute management that were content to fill the minor leagues at the expense of having anyone close to competent with the major league club. That patience has paid off with a system that is among the best in the major leagues. The Royals have been through “the process” for so long that their AAA team might be better than their major league club at this point.
Baltimore has been going through the process since 2007, and while they don’t have a great farm system they still have a young roster. Remember, the 2006 Orioles (year prior to MacPhail’s arrival) had one member of the starting lineup under the age of 26 (Markakis, 22), and relied on veterans like Kevin Millar (34), Jeff Conine (40), Javy Lopez (35), and Melvin Mora (34) throughout the lineup. The lone young pitchers consisted of Daniel Cabrera, and Adam Leowen. The 2011 edition did take a flier on Vlad Guerrero (36) at DH and Derrek Lee (35) at 1B, who are veterans but definite upgrades over the 2006 veterans. The roster also sports Matt Wieters (24), Adam Jones (25), Felix Pie (26), Nick Markakis (27), and Mark Reynolds (27), with J.J. Hardy and Luke Scott still in the primes of their careers. The pitching staff’s young talent consists of Jake Arrieta (24), Brian Matusz (24), Brad Bergesen (25), and perhaps Chris Tillman (22) or Zach Britton (23)- not just wild Daniel Cabrera or now-batting Adam Leowen.
The farm system is just one sign that points to the long-term health of the franchise. With such a young core already in the majors, Baltimore has more time than most do to turn things around. They can start by adding more scouts to match their AL East competition and increase their international scouting (which takes more time than most realize to create those inroads), and continuing to build on their recent facilities investments in the Dominican Republic. They have a long way to go from an infrastructure standpoint, but they are going in the right direction. The O’s have used their farm system to improve the major league club (which is what it’s there for), and now find what small progress they had made to improve Bowie and Norfolk sucked up by the needs of the Baltimore team. Now they just need to start over again, and with a young generation in Baltimore they will have more than a couple years to try to build it up this time.
Look, I am not going to sugar coat that the farm system needs to be replenished, and that it is a very big source of concern. Ken Rosenthal is absolutely right when he says that if the Orioles are going to be a perennial contender then they need to have a farm system on par with the Royals, Rays, Red Sox, and others. But that will take time, and early returns have shown the major league roster getting significantly younger as a product of trades and early success by certain players. The farm system is indicative of the fact that most of the Orioles’ talent has been needed in the major leagues and have done well enough in the majors to stay there. This isn’t Jeff Fiorentino being thrust up from AA before he is ready all over again. This is not a crisis just yet, nor is the situation as dire as Rosenthal makes it out to be.