These topics are worth watching in the Orioles' minors this year

If Dan Duquette is to make some actual lasting changes for the better for the Orioles' organization, some of it will likely begin to happen at the minor league level this year.

Upgrading the Orioles' player development and farm system is vital as the club tries to finally get better after 14 losing seasons. There are plenty of interesting angles and story lines to follow in the minor leagues this year. Over the next several weeks, I'll look to report on and address a few. Here are some to start the process:

* Is there a chance the Orioles start the dynamic, young double-play combo of 19-year-old Manny Machado and 20-year-old Jonathan Schoop at Double-A Bowie after the duo played at both Single-A Delmarva and Single-A Frederick last year?

Yes, I think the Orioles are open to doing that, but my guess is both begin the 2012 season with Frederick and then end it with Bowie.

In 63 Frederick games last year, Machado hit .245 with a .692 OPS in 237 at-bats. Schoop hit .271/.704 over 77 games and 299 at-bats. While both were tremendous in the Carolina League playoffs last September - with Machado hitting .344 to Schoop's .314 - the numbers seem to say they both could use more time in the Carolina League, where they would certainly be among the league's youngest prospects again this season.

I think the Orioles are looking forward to getting the duo to Bowie at some point to work with hitting coach Denny Hocking, who did such solid work last year with LJ Hoes and several others.

The Machado-Schoop pairing turned into a sensational DP combo in the second half of last season. It sounds like the O's went to get Schoop some games this year at shortstop, but they also have to be excited to see if they take their outstanding defense of late last year to an even higher level come April.

* Can Joe Mahoney and Tyler Townsend both stay healthy and put up some solid numbers as they likely move up to new levels, with Mahoney with Triple-A Norfork and Townsend at Bowie?

In 585 career O's minor league at-bats, Townsend has hit .282 with 54 doubles, 24 homers, 119 RBIs and an .861 OPS. Opposing pitchers haven't stopped him much, but hamstring issues have. Also, can he improve his defense and walk total? The power numbers are there and the Double-A challenge awaits.

Mahoney, in 85 Bowie games in 2011, hit .289 with 24 doubles, 11 homers, 67 RBIs and a .846 OPS. Those were good numbers when he was healthy. A good year with Norfolk could put Mahoney in the picture to at least compete for the first base job in Baltimore in 2013.

* Can catcher Brian Ward continue to impress in 2012? Ward was widely credited for some of the success of the Frederick pitching staff last year. That staff led the Carolina League with an ERA of 3.22 on its way to the league title.

Not only did Ward show fine defensive skills and a strong arm, but his game calling drew raves and a few pitchers like Jake Pettit pitched much better with Frederick than they had in Delmarva and Ward got some credit for that from the Keys' coaching staff.

Also, there is this stat: Ward threw out 52.6 percent of base stealers last season, getting 50 of 95. That is a great percentage in any league. The Keys pitchers gave him a chance and he got it done.

It was announced yesterday that Ward will be among the catchers that got a spring training camp big league invite this year. He'll likely get a chance to handle the staff at Bowie this season.

I wrote about Ward back in September during the playoffs. His background is interesting in that he was with the Atlanta organization (signed in 2006), but got released. He went back to college and then was not eligible to be drafted. The Orioles signed him in June 2009 and now he's headed to big league camp.

* What impact will new Orioles minor league hitting coordinator Mike Boulanger and new director of pitching development Rick Peterson have this year?

Both are new to the organization, hired by Dan Duquette and figure to put their stamp on the club's hitters and pitchers. Boulanger told me he wants the hitters to have productive team plate appearances. Peterson explained in an interview what his biomechanical pitching analysis is all about.

* What changes will Duquette make in player development? How much say will he choose to have in player promotions and how hands-on will he want to be with the club's top prospects like Machado and Dylan Bundy?

We already know Duquette has made staff changes, including the two mentioned above, but will how the Orioles run their minor leagues change dramatically this year?

At FanFest, Duquette told the crowd that "We'll be as thorough and dynamic as any team in the business in player development." Beginning this year, he gets the chance to make the Orioles exactly that.

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