06/04/2002 7:14 pm ET
O's shelve old philosophy
By Gary Washburn / MLB.com
BALTIMORE -- Early June has become a crucial time for the Baltimore Orioles organization. It's premature to start thinking pennant chase or postseason, so the focus shifts to off the field, where the Orioles hopefully will select the cornerstones of their future.
Those potential standouts will take time to develop in the farm system, and it could be years before some of the players taken in Tuesday's First-Year Player Draft -- such as Canadian pitcher Adam Loewen -- take the field at Camden Yards.
But the organization insists this is the proper way to rebuild: by replenishing the farm system with well-scouted draft picks and shying away from big-name, expensive free agents.
Five years ago, the Orioles were one of the freer spenders in Major League Baseball, constantly bringing in free agents to fill key positions. Roberto Alomar, Joe Carter, Eric Davis, Rafael Palmeiro and Harold Baines are among the veterans the Orioles signed or traded for in the past several years to attempt championship runs.
Signing free agents or nabbing talented players from downtrodden teams has its price, however. Bringing in a free agent means losing a draft pick. A bona fide Major League star is classified as "Type A" free agent, meaning the team loses of a first-round draft pick the year after a team signs a free agent.
For example, the Yankees surrendered their first-round pick to Oakland in this year's draft because of the signing of Jason Giambi.
The Orioles did not have first-round picks in 1992 (sent to the Mets for the signing of Sid Fernandez) and in '94 (to Toronto for the signing of Alomar).
"We put together some teams to make a run at the World Series, and that took giving up some of younger guys," Orioles Director of Minor League Operations Don Buford said. "We thought we had a chance to win, and we did. But in the process we did not have as strong of a farm system."
The Mets used the pick from the Orioles to take Terrence Long, now the starting center fielder for the A's and the runner-up for the 2000 AL Rookie of the Year award. The Blue Jays took shortstop Joe Lawrence with the Orioles' pick in 1996, but he was taken four picks ahead of Eric Milton, now a starter with the Twins.
After advancing to the 1997 American League Championship series, the Orioles' teams were not as successful in the next few years. As the production of those free-agent acquisitions declined, the importance of the Orioles' draft increased.
The organization has attempted to stockpile its once-depleted farm system with picks, although it is taking longer than expected to see the results. Of the Orioles' nine first-round picks in the past five years, one -- outfielder Larry Bigbie -- has logged Major League service time.
Baltimore had the fourth pick Tuesday, a result of its 63-win season in 2001. But an important adjustment in philosophy was made this past offseason. The Orioles brought in only one notable free agent: Cleveland outfielder Marty Cordova, who signed for three years and $9.1 million.
"Sometimes, the draft is a way for teams who don't have the money to spend on free agents to build for the future," A's general manager Billy Beane said. "We have seven of the first 39 picks. I like being in that position."
The 2002 Orioles are filled with youngsters, moderately priced veterans and prospects. The organization has decided to use the draft as a means of building a solid foundation for the Major League team, a recipe for success used by the A's and Chicago White Sox.
"I'm glad the draft is important; it's always important," Orioles Scouting Director Tony DeMacio said. "We think it is important to be the best young talent in here possible. I hope the farm system has improved over the past few years. We have put emphasis on trying to build our organization with young players."
That process appears to be in the beginning stages. When the season began, second baseman Jerry Hairston, the 11th pick in the 1997 draft, was one of three Orioles draft selections on the 25-man roster. The other 22 were signees from other teams, trade acquisitions or non-drafted free agents.
Three additional draftees, however, have made contributions. Rick Bauer, the fifth pick in the 1997 draft, was promoted in April and has cemented himself as a middle reliever. Sean Douglass (second round, 1997) has made four starts this season, while Brian Roberts was promoted May 21 to become the starting second baseman.
Meanwhile, players such as Bigbie and outfielder Darnell McDonald are close to the Major Leagues.
Though the A's, White Sox and Twins are currently reaping the benefits of a rich farm system, it will take time for the Orioles' development to reach fruition. But the new plan is in place. Gone are the days of using free agents and established veterans as short-term solutions. The O's are now attempting to establish young, home-grown players as their cornerstones.
"I think our farm system is in much better shape than it was before," said Vice President of Baseball Operations Syd Thrift. "I think we have done a good job building up our minor-league system. It wasn't in too good of shape a few years ago. But that is changing."
Gary Washburn covers the Orioles for MLB.com. This
story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.