Buck Showalter spent seven seasons in the minor leagues as a player and five as a manger. He helped start the Arizona Diamondbacks franchise from scratch. He knows a little something about player development.
While he has to be most concerned with the players on the Orioles’ 25-man roster, he also spends part of his day checking out reports on the club’s minor leagues.
That is where hopefully, some future Orioles are currently playing and developing talent in the minors is critical to any organization, especially one that is trying to become a winner after a long stretch of losing seasons.
I recently talked at length with Showalter to get his thoughts on the state of the O’s minors and his role in that.
Showalter started our conversation by pointing out that, in his opinion, the talent gulf between the minors and majors is as vast as ever.
“The jump from the minor leagues to the major leagues is bigger than it’s ever been,” Showalter said. “It’s the biggest jump in professional sports. Guy comes out of college football and he’s All-Pro the first year. Guys come out of high school and play in the NBA. I think it is the biggest jump in the level of competition in all of sports.
“I think the one attribute of all good organizations is the ability to evaluate themselves. People that can be honest with themselves.
“In today’s game, with the Internet and all, there are no secrets. A guy has a couple of good games and everyone is clamoring for him, especially at a position we are in need of. You can’t cheat the process.”
I asked him if it’s true that the major league manager sets the tone for any organization and its minor league system. Do the minor league managers need to know what kind of player the big league skipper is looking to bring to the majors?
“As unsafe as the word assume is, I want to be able to assume the people that come through our system - and it’s not just how I perceive it - I want to assume when a guy comes up, he can hold runners,” Showalter said. “We are teaching things at the major league level we have not in the past due to how quickly these guys move these days.
“We talk a lot and I don’t think there is any gray area about what the expectations that people come through our system are. We have a lot of good things in place already. Coming from a player development background and understanding what (Triple-A Norfolk manager) Gary Allenson and all our coaches go through, you have to listen.
“Like for instance, Mike (Sciosia) over in Anaheim. They know that he expects certain things when guys come up. It’s not really the player’s fault if they haven’t been exposed to that, it’s our fault. There should not be any gray area about what expectations are.”
Showalter said more players need to make improving their defense a priority.
“Defense is so important. Every young player that comes up here, I don’t care how good they are, they are going to go through struggles offensively with this jump in the level of play,” he said. “The thing that allows me to keep them in the lineup when they are scuffling somewhat is their ability to play defense. If they are letting one in and not driving one in, that’s a double whammy.
“With all our young players, when I send them out and talk to them, whether it’s (a Ryan) Adams or a (Josh) Bell, or whoever, the conversation revolves a lot around all parts of your game and can you impact our club when you are not hitting. It’s not always about run production, it’s about run reduction.”
So defense is stressed to the minor league guys?
“Without a doubt,” Showalter said. “You have to play on both sides of the ball. You give people extra outs at the major league level, you are going to get burned. You find very few guys that are good enough offensively to be able to overlook the defensive part of it when they first come up here. I could give you a hundred examples of people that could impact the game on defense and that created a lot more patience with the offense. (Matt) Wieters, (Adam) Jones ...
“One of the first things I look at when I see a guy people are talking about is his defense. Can he impact our club when he is not hitting? Everyone talks about the offenses in the American League East. The separator is the pitching that you see night, after night, after night. So you better be able to impact the team in some other way.”
Showalter said the game has changed a bit in how teams handle their Triple-A affiliates. That club, he believes, must be filled with players that have big league experience or are just about major league ready.
“Your Triple-A teams now have almost become a taxi squad in a lot of ways,” he said. “That is where Boston, New York, teams like that ... people talk about their payrolls, but what they do at Triple-A, their what-ifs, so to speak, are proven six-year free agents and they pay for them.
“Their payrolls are higher than most peoples at Triple-A. Everyone talks about competing against them for free agents, try to compete against them for Triple-A, six-year free agent what-if guys. The one thing we can offer is opportunity right now, but they buy that opportunity out of them.
“I laugh when people say, ‘Look the Red Sox just traded away two prospects.’ They just go to Cuba and the Dominican and replace them. Their international signing bonuses, their Triple-A payroll and their out of slot money in the June draft and nobody calls them on it. What do you do? You have to be able to do all the little things.”
I asked Showalter if the Orioles player development system is hurt by the club’s lack of handing out large signing bonuses to young international talent.
“We are not the only one,” Showalter said. “There is a pretty big drop-off between the top two or three clubs and the next closest club. If you look at the return for the dollar, you can make a case for both sides of that.
“I don’t blame them; that is the system and I’d do the same thing if I were them (Red Sox and Yankees). But how do you combat it? You better draft well, develop well, trade well. Your margin for error is not as big as theirs. The Red Sox just released (Mike) Cameron. Could we do that? No.”
But doesn’t the Orioles’ lack of big spending internationally just put more pressure on the minor league system to produce talent?
“It’s not like we are not bidding (internationally), we are bidding what we are supposed to bid on these guys,” Showalter said. “There are a couple of cases when we’ve been the top bidder and they come in and offer him twice as much. They buy him out of opportunity.
“I’m talking about all of it, international too. We’ve got a guy in the Dominican, we offer him $300,000 or $400,000 and they come in and offer $1.3 million. What’s the guy going to do? Tampa for years, they didn’t get involved much at all internationally. For years they stepped on their toe in the draft. They had first-round picks, but they just took the wrong guys.
“Then they took Longoria, they took Price, Shields, Crawford, Upton. So don’t tell me it can’t be done. But you better be good at what you do, know who you are, how you are going to do it and stay true to it.”
Now that he has been the manager for almost a full calender year, has Showalter looked to make any changes or upgrades to the O’s minors?
“I’ve got my hands full here,” he said. “I trust our people there and in the scouting department. I just don’t want to hear any excuses, and we don’t. We have to evaluate and teach well and we can’t miss.”
Coming later today: More from my interview with Buck on the minors.