Six storylines to follow in the minors this year

While fans ponder if the Orioles can make a run for .500 or better this year, there are plenty of reasons to follow the O's in the minors this season as well.

Some delight in pointing out negatives surrounding the club and, after 12 straight losing seasons, there are plenty of issues to overcome and problems in the O's past.

But the Orioles are on the move in the minors and now considered by most to have one of the ten best farm systems in the game. A lot of that talent found its way to Baltimore last year and that should continue in 2010.

Fans may have more fun at Camden Yards this year, but also may spend some time tracking progress in places like Norfolk, Bowie, Frederick and Salisbury as well.

Here are six key questions to follow in the Orioles minor leagues this season.

*Who is next among the cavalry?

Brad Bergesen, Chris Tillman and Brian Matusz have made their debuts, along with David Hernandez and Jason Berken. Who will be next to make it to the big league level among the young guns?

Many are nominating Jake Arrieta for that spot. He's got the size and power arm and could make a great impression in March in Sarasota.

Brandon Erbe and Troy Patton could be among the next in line while Zach Britton could take another huge step forward with a big year at Double-A.

*Will Josh Bell and/or Brandon Snyder make the Majors this year?

At the very least both, now on the 40-man roster, should be in line for a September call, if not sooner. Their fates are linked to Garrett Atkins and Miguel Tejada. Should either of that duo falter at the big league level, Bell or Snyder could emerge sooner. On the other hand, Andy MacPhail has indicated that Bell could play the entire season in Triple-A and Snyder has yet to put up good numbers at Norfolk.

*Is Luis Lebron for real?

His manager last year at Bowie, Brad Komminsk, told me Lebron has Major League closer ability right now. He had a dominant 2009, fanning 90 in 60 1/3 innings between Frederick and Bowie. He went 1-0, 1.98 with 9 saves at Double-A.

Is he ready for the Majors? The guess is not quite yet, but he has a big time arm, one that touched 97 and 98 last year.

The quiet Dominican native could start back at Bowie, but more likely will pitch in the late innings at Norfolk this year, where he will be just a phone call away. He should see the Majors at some point this season.

*Will Matt Hobgood take a step forward this year?

The first good sign will be if Hobgood, at just 19, makes Delmarva's starting rotation out of camp. While he is still a long way from the Majors, last year's top pick could quiet some of his critics with a solid first full season.

Some fans are convinced he was a signability pick and taken higher than his talent called for. Some question his weight and conditioning. While it's way too early to make any pronouncements on this young pitcher, a shaky 2010 season will keep the anxious fans questioning the pick.

*What pitchers from the lower levels will emerge as the "next wave" of good young O's pitching?

Several pitchers drafted last June did well in limited innings last summer. That list includes Aaron Wirsch, David Baker, James Brandhorst, Jake Cowan and Ashur Tolliver.

But the pitcher that scouting director Joe Jordan most raved about from the draft class of 2009 is 9th-round pick, righty Ryan Berry out of Rice. He missed some time last year (in college) with a shoulder injury and has yet to pitch for an O's affiliate.

Still, Jordan was quoted in a MASNsports.com article on this very blog in November predicting Berry would be the first player to make the Majors among '09 O's picks. The O's, who gave Berry third-round money, could start him as high as Frederick this year with talk he could even make it to Bowie before the season is out.

Meanwhile guys like Jesse Beal, Robert Bundy and Vito Frabizio did well last year and all could really begin to gain attention with solid seasons this year.

*Is 2010 possibly the beginning of the end for Billy Rowell?

The poor kid, still just 21, has to hear almost daily that he's a first-round bust. Since his first season, though, his play has been in decline. He's struck out too much, struggled in the field and failed to show consistent power. He was taken in round one because of his power potential.

Rather than spend a third year at Frederick, the club appears ready to send him to Double-A despite the fact he hasn't earned his way there.

That somewhat controversial move could get him going on the road back to top prospect status. But it could also lead to more poor stats and criticism and signal that he is nearing the end of his time with the O's.

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