In March, the Orioles hired former major leaguer Nelson Norman to serve as their director of baseball operations in the Dominican Republic. Norman oversees all aspects of the organization's Dominican program and managed one of their two teams this year in the Dominican Summer League.
A former major league infielder born in San Pedro de Macoris, Norman, 54, has over two decades of experience in player development with Montreal, Atlanta, Boston, Minnesota, St. Louis and Washington, both in the United States and the Dominican Republic. He has worked for Orioles executive vice president Dan Duquette in Montreal and Boston before joining him with the O's.
With his first summer in the organization now behind him, Norman provided an update on some of the promising young players in the O's Dominican program.
Right-handed pitcher Cristian Alvarado from Venezuela turned 19 in September and this was his second season with the Orioles. In 2012 in the DSL, he went 2-3 with a 3.68 ERA over 13 starts.
This season, Alvarado was 1-7 with a 4.10 ERA. In 13 starts, he pitched 59 1/3 innings, allowing 47 hits with 12 walks to 69 strikeouts and a .206 average against.
"He is real polished for 18 years old and he also was impressive in instruction league. They like what they saw from him and he threw a few innings there," Norman said.
"He has very good mechanics with a nice, loose arm. He stays within himself. He threw 88 to 90 (mph), but it was a sneaky 90. He lets the ball go real smooth and the ball gets on top of the hitter. Also has a good changeup and slider."
Daniel Fajardo is a catcher from Maracay, Venezuela, who is in his second year. He hit .175 in 33 games last season in the DSL. In 2013, Fajardo hit .310 with no homers and 14 RBIs over 43 games. He hit .400 in 11 games in August. But he impressed Norman with his defensive skills.
"He handles himself like he's older behind the plate in calling games and taking charge of the game. You don't expect to see someone to be that mature at 18 years old," Norman said.
Right-hander Francisco Jimenez is from San Cristobal, Dominican Republic, and turned 19 on Oct. 4. He went 3-0 with a 1.52 ERA in 11 games during his first season in the organization in the DSL in 2012.
This summer, Jimenez was 4-4 with a 1.60 ERA in 14 games with 13 starts. Over 67 2/3 innings, he gave up 52 hits with 19 walks and 63 strikeouts.
"He has a decent arm, throwing 89 to 92 (mph) with a decent slider," Norman said. "He was impressive and dominated at that level. He went to instructional league.
"He has a good loose arm and pretty decent delivery. He showed some poise on the mound and was good at taking our coaching to the field and made some good adjustments on the mound as well."
Outfielder Daniel Franco just concluded his first season in the organization and the native of Bani, Dominican Republic, is 18.
Franco has one tool that stands out and that is his speed. He sounds like a very raw prospect and needs to add some pop to his bat. In 57 games, he hit .264 with no homers and two RBIs. Of his 60 hits, 57 were singles and three were doubles. But his speed is intriguing and something to work with. It is a top-of-the-scale tool.
"He is probably the fastest guy in the program right now," Norman said. "I won't say in our whole organization, but it would be close if anyone else is faster than he is.
"He runs a 3.8 or 3.75 (seconds) to first base (from the left side). I don't know if there is anyone in the majors under 3.8 right now. He just started switch-hitting this past season and that came from Dan (Duquette), he wanted him to switch hit.
"His first 25 hits were infield singles. It got to the point this year that every club, even with no one on base, in the infield they were playing halfway. He would slap the ball and just run. He's learning and getting better and starting to hit the ball harder. He is starting to hit the ball in the gaps."
Franco stole 21 of 35 bases and had the green light to run to learn more about stealing. He stole 10 of 14 in the season's last month.
Ronald Soto is a 19-year-old catcher and native of the Dominican that batted .241 with one homer and 18 RBIs over 45 games.
"He caught a little bit on the No. 2 team and we moved him over to the No. 1 club since we had him and Fajardo on the same club," Norman said. "He has good size, 6-foot-3 with a good body, and has some power. He improved a lot."
Alexander Mercedes had a big season for the O's DSL No. 1 team. The 21-year-old from La Romana, Dominican Republic, is a DSL vet as this was his fourth season in that league.
Mercedes was among the league leaders in several categories, including batting (sixth at .336), triples (first with 10) and hits (first with 84). Mercedes has good speed and was 19-for-25 stealing bases. He also had an impressive 31-to-20 walk to strikeouts ratio.
"He had a very good year. He was a little older. He had an outstanding year and was the top guy on that No. 1 club playing center field and can also play second base," Norman said.
The Orioles are sending Mercedes to the Australian Winter League that begins next month to play for the Perth Heat.
The Orioles' DSL No. 1 team went 37-33 this season and their No. 2 team went 33-38. The O's are planning to field two DSL teams again next season. They will hold an instructional league for about 65 players in the Dominican that will run from Oct. 21 to Dec. 6 and two teams will play games during that time as well.
Coming soon, I'll have more from this interview with Norman as he talks about his first year running the O's Dominican program and the outlook for the future with the program.
O's add two: The Orioles have re-signed two of their minor league free agents for the 2014 season in right-handed pitcher Matt Bischoff and catcher Chase Weems.
The 26-year-old Bischoff completed his second season in the organization in 2013. He went 1-0 with a 1.20 ERA over six games for Single-A Frederick. In 15 innings, he walked one and fanned 22. For Double-A Bowie, Bischoff was 6-2 with a 4.41 ERA in 25 games. In 51 innings, he walked 22 and fanned 50.
The 24-year-old Weems also completed his second season with the Orioles. The lefty batter hit .253 with no homers and eight RBIs in 22 games for Single-A Delmarva. Weems was originally drafted in round six by the Yankees in 2007.