O's minor league skippers talk about building the farm into a powerhouse

The 2016 season was a good year for the Orioles. They won 89 games and they made the playoffs before one swing in the American League wild-card game ended their season in Toronto. But the calendar year began with the Baseball America release of its top 100 prospects list. There were no Orioles among the top 100. Zero.

The year before, only two were ranked, with Dylan Bundy at No. 48 and Hunter Harvey at No. 68. The year after, 2017, the O’s had just Chance Sisco on the list at No. 57.

So maybe now, looking back, that was insight into the mounting losses that were ahead for the club. But now things are vastly different on the Baltimore farm. The Orioles led all clubs, with eight players on the new Baseball America top 100 prospects list this week. Evaluators see others who could be on the list.

Three players in three years and eight in one year. The Orioles never before had more than five on this offseason Baseball America listing of the best young talent in the sport. Now they show the way.

What happened to make this so?

Two long-time O’s staffers, Triple-A Norfolk manager Buck Britton and Double-A Bowie manager Kyle Moore shared some thoughts with me yesterday.

Both have been players on the O’s farm (Britton for seven seasons, Moore for three) in addition to serving as coaches and managers. Both are heading into their 14th seasons overall with the Orioles. And both began their praise of the organization getting to this point with the player acquisition side – the drafting of such good talent.

“What Mike (Elias) and the scouts have been able to do bringing in this talent, I don’t think that gets talked about enough, to be honest,” said Britton. “The work that our scouts have done. I know we’ve had high picks, but you still have to hit on these guys. And they’ve brought in high-character guys as well as really good athletes.

“The scouts do all the legwork, they’re in the trenches. And they’ve done a great job of bringing in really good talent that fits our system.”

Added Moore: “The kids are really good players and it is always good to work with such players. That is what you dream of as a staff. I’ve been here a while and seen us not be so hot and have seen us struggle in the minors. I think (long-term O’s staff) people like myself and Buck Britton and Kent Qualls (director, minor league operations) and Dave Schmidt (complex pitching and rehab coordinator) can really appreciate it.

“I think player acquisition has a lot to do with it. Mike Elias is a very good player evaluator, obviously. We are picking a different type of athlete than we had in the past. Some of that is higher picks, but some of it is the model that the front office has created with what we like in an amateur player. We are getting players that are good clay, as they call it, and can be molded.

“I think this is the best I’ve seen it across the board, including the acquisition of talent and depth of talent in the minor leagues, I’ve never seen anything like this.”

Britton said also that this is clearly the best crop of talent he's seen in his time with the Orioles.

“I haven’t seen this much talent in the minor leagues, anywhere I’ve been," he said. "Especially when you look throughout, there are guys not on this list now that are really good players. They’ve talked about that pipeline, and our Latin American program is off to a great start. Koby (Perez) has done a heckuva job getting guys. You’re going to start seeing elite players popping out of this system.”

After the players are drafted comes the development part, the process of making players better and teaching them about the game. A process of having players become great friends and support each other but also push each other while they compete for the same thing: a shot on the big league roster.

“I think it’s the system that has been put in place,” Britton said about the O’s player development operation. “From Mike down to Matt (Blood, director of player development), they are on the same page with what expectations are. Here in the minors, we are getting to the point where people have been here for a couple of years now and we’re all learning how people work and pulling on the same rope. I think once you get an organization driving together with really good players, you start to see special things happen.”

The Orioles have also done a good job in the acquisition process of the draft in terms of makeup, identifying driven players who seem to check egos at the door and have a relaxed way about them. Players like Colton Cowser, Grayson Rodriguez and Jordan Westburg are similar in this way but go about it differently.

“No. 1 competitors,” Britton said. “We try to really challenge these guys in our practices, and you really have to be a competitor to stick around and be willing to go through some of this stuff. You know failure happens a lot, even in our practices, and it takes high-character guys to battle through that and see it not as negative but as opportunities to grow. Then they find they are capable of doing things they may have thought not possible, which drives them even more. And they are all friends, which is good to see the banter that goes on. It’s a really good, united group.”

Moore said it is also about the managers and staffs creating the best environments for players to learn and realize it’s their careers at stake.

“We create a super pro environment,” he said. “You know in pro baseball where we do draft a lot of college players, I love that. I don’t want to hold kids hands and teach them things they should have learned earlier. So, we create an environment that holds the player to the utmost accountability and kind of puts the ball in their court. I think a player like Colton Cowser thrives off that, Gunnar (Henderson) did and so many others.

“We let these guys like Gunnar know, ‘We’re not going to hold your hand. We are not going to make you come out for early D (defense work) if you don’t want to, but who was there for every day? Gunnar was there and last to leave. Same thing with Joey Ortiz. Same thing with Cowser, Westy (Jordan Westburg) and (Connor) Norby. We let them do their thing, they are a pro and work for themselves first. But with that the accountability comes. The last few teams we’ve had environments that were very professional but also I’m going to let you know when you need to pick it up in a certain area.”

And then a driven player is ready to do the skill work to hone his craft in the hours before game time.

“Right now in baseball everyone is into skill development, and it’s important for pitching and hitting coaches,” Moore said. “They want to see results on the TrackMan and OPS+ in hitters. Skill development in those areas translates into value, and that can be measured so much easier than like a manager’s job. You can’t measure my presence before I speak to the team before a big week.”

And again the staff can push the players, but when they support and push each other you get a farm that can crank out such a large volume of talent.

“One of our sayings and slogans is, ‘Iron sharpens iron,’ " Britton said. "I think you build that competitive edge with each other, but you are still friends and you push each other. That is when you see guys getting better. There is a responsibility, even for that guy that is the last guy on the roster that people don’t see as a big leaguer to come out and push guys along, these top prospects, Gunnar and these guys. And because of the high character and respect that even the top prospects have for the guys that are just hanging on has been incredible.”

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