Assessing the O's minor leagues: Andy MacPhail's take

When it comes to how the Orioles are doing in the minor leagues these days, the general consensus seems to be good - not great, but better than in some past years.

The O's farm system has sent several players to the Majors over the past few years, including some like Brian Matusz and Matt Wieters, who were high draft picks that are projected to be All-Star caliber Major Leaguers during their careers.

Today, we begin a series of stories here looking at the Orioles and how they are doing at the minor league level.

Today, we'll take a look at how the club views itself on this matter: How are the Orioles doing at the minor league level?

"We're making progress," O's president Andy MacPhail said. "Unfortunately, in our sport, it doesn't come overnight. But we've probably introduced more players to the big leagues over the years I've been here than maybe I would have expected.

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"We've got Matusz, Bergesen, Berken, Hernandez, Wieters, I'm just talking strictly through the system, not trades. Numerically, we have introduced a lot of guys through our system that have worked their way to Baltimore. The number is probably well above average."

There's one thing most can agree on: Producing homegrown talent is vital to any big league organization.

"The most essential thing is scouting at the amateur level. You are never going to be better than that loop because that's the talent level coming in. If you are not productive there, you are not giving development anything to work with.

"The first step is bringing the talent in. The second step is developing the talent. The third step is, you know, being able to compete. A certain mental toughness that is required over 162 games and six months. Those types of things," MacPhail said.

There are a lot of ways to get players for the Major League club, but producing your own is one of the best ways to do it.

"If you were to pie chart it, it's probably the biggest part. It is the biggest part. The largest percentage of importance is drafting and developing your own players. I really think that applies to all 30 teams. It's something the Yankees have to do well. You can see the results when still some of their best players, the Jeters and Riveras, are homegrown."

The Orioles have between 275 and 300 players in their minor league system. There are 24-man rosters at full-season clubs in Norfolk (Triple-A) and Bowie (Double-A). The squads at Frederick and Delmarva have 25-man rosters.

Short-season Aberdeen has a 30-man roster of which 25 can be active for the game. Bluefield and the Gulf Coast League O's sport 35-man rosters and there are 35-man rosters on the O's two clubs in the Dominican Summer League.

Is graduating, or "introducing" players to the Majors, as MacPhail called it, the biggest determining factor in how a club is doing with its player development?

"There is always a ying and yang of how you draft, where you draft, and how you develop what you draft. If you go high school, you are putting it on a longer timetable than college.

"One of the philosophic changes is we have not been afraid to take the high schoolers like Avery, Hoes, Hobgood, Machado and Givens. There are times you have to take a chance on a high school player if you really want to develop a player that is potentially going to play in All-Star games once you get past that first round or so. In some drafts you have to reach for that guy that may have star-type potential or pitch in the front of the rotation, that sort of thing."

MacPhail said clubs that are good at producing homegrown talent have several things in common.

"Well, their instruction is good and they provide the environment for the repetitions that are necessary for players to hone their skills.

"Part of it is instruction, the facilities, the culture to help a player become as good as he can be. There are a series of adjustments they have to make as they progress. Sometimes that curve gets steeper the higher they progress as they run into better and better competition."

Soon, the Orioles could have a pitching rotation that consists almost solely of Oriole-drafted and developed players. Some feel the O's are better at producing pitchers than hitters on the farm.

"We've made no secret of our focus on pitching. It's going to be the essential place you get pitchers. Free agent pitching is expensive, it's fragile; and it tends to shy away from the American League East unless they are overwhelmed economically. It's essential that you develop pitching and have a group of arms you feel have the chance to progress to the big leagues."

The Orioles have had one of the poorest clubs on offense in the Majors this year and have been poor at working counts and situational hitting.

MacPhail said there is an emphasis on the farm to produce hitters that are better in these areas.

"Every day, we get an accounting of pitches per plate appearances. It is clearly something I believe is valuable. Different players have different approaches and one is not the same for everyone. The 250-pound, 6'4" first baseman is not the same as the five-foot eight, fleet-footed shortstop. You have to recognize that.

"It is something we understand the value of. We track which teams are good at it and which are not around baseball as well as ourselves. Just the fact that the hitting coach has to put pitches per plate appearances for each guy is one of those indicators that it is something they are looking at in Baltimore."

I asked MacPhail about his role in dealing with the minors.

"The general manager has to be aware of what's going on. I get the daily game reports and it's pretty elaborate in what it tells you. It's not just the stats. It's what work was done early and a summation at the end. You get that on a daily basis.

"Then we get a monthly report that is larger and will tell us things like, what is the percentage of first-pitch strikes and what is the percentage of fastball strikes. Who is getting their curve over and how often are they throwing their change-up.

"So there is no shortage of information and you are kind of a check and balance. You are not in there every day, you know, micromanaging the lineup at Bowie, but you should have an awareness of how your system is progressing.

"This year, while we've had some nice progressions, we've also had, just like at the Major League level, too many guys hurt. Right now you've got Erbe, Mickolio, Snyder, Lebron and Givens on the DL. That's a load of guys that you have some expectations for that are sitting dormant. And this year, we probably have more than our share."

Is there a common theme with all the injuries on the farm?

"Lebron had Tommy John; Givens was sliding in with his thumb; and Snyder's a back. I think you try to look at individually and determine what was an unavoidable act and is there a pattern of things that we're doing. For instance, if there was a steady diet of hamstrings, then you have to look and see if you are doing something wrong."

So I asked MacPhail to sum it up for me and rank his club's farm system from when he took over until now, on a scale of 1 to 10 with one being awful and ten fantastic.

"I think it's better because we have made a greater investment. We've spent more in signing bonuses and we've improved facilities. I think we are focusing on it. Our reporting is better. We require more of our people in terms of what they do.

"You can't have a system without any checks and balances or reporting. You have to require the organization (with its reports) to monitor and track the development of players. Then people are a little more accountable than 'I know he'd never hit.'

"That's about creating an organization. When people know that you will have to write something down and do the daily game reports, you, just as human nature, give it more attention. 'It's something I have to do.'

"As a consequence there are certain things you are keyed on during the game and you give it more attention. I have to get the times on the catcher throwing runners out and I have to track how many times he blocks the ball and how many he doesn't."

So does that make the O's a solid seven or eight?

"I don't want to put a number on it. All I can tell you is it's something we focus on and concentrate on. I don't know exactly what went on here before, I just can tell you what we do now."

Coming later today: Andy MacPhail's take on the Baseball America Directory listing of scouts for each AL East team.

Tomorrow: Baseball America's take on the O's farm system.

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