The Washington Times - August 29, 2008, 05:33PM

By JAY LeBLANC
August 29, 2008

It’s been a while since Baltimore Orioles fans had much to cheer about. Their beloved O’s not only haven’t made the playoffs since 1997 - four years before Cal Ripken retired - but have also failed to so much as post a winning record during that stretch. They’ve endured watching the Iron Man say goodbye, homegrown ace Mike Mussina bolt for the Bronx, free-agent signees Albert Belle and Sammy Sosa flop (to put it mildly), Rafael Palmeiro get busted for steroids and Brady Anderson go from a 50-homer stud to over-the-hill faster than you can say “sideburns.” And to make matters worse, they no longer have the Tampa Bay Rays to kick around. The team formerly known as the Devil Rays had limited the damage by keeping the Birds out of the cellar year after year, but now that they’ve turned the corner, it’s the Orioles who find themselves last in the American League East at 63-70 - 18 1/2 games behind the small-market Rays.

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Needless to say, the O’s won’t be invited to the postseason party this fall, and meaningless September games aren’t that much fun even in a beautiful park like Camden Yards. But don’t despair, Orioles fans: there’s hope - chicken soup for your soul, if you will - just a half-hour drive south of Baltimore. Your double-A affiliate, the Bowie Baysox, just won the Eastern League’s Southern Division, and they did it in style. The Baysox left the competition in the dust by posting an impressive 82-56 mark, including a 45-26 mark at Prince George’s Stadium, which will come in handy when they begin their playoff series on Wednesday against the Cleveland Indians-affiliated Akron Aeros with home-field advantage. Best of all, the Baysox aren’t a collection of career minor leaguers who’ve come together and found success, though they do have some players that fit that bill; they’re literally the future of the Orioles, and they’re learning how to win now.

Any discussion involving the Baysox has to start with 22-year-old phenom Matt Wieters. The Orioles knew they had a potential franchise player on their hands when they selected the 6’ 5”, 230-pound switch hitting catcher from Georgia Tech with the fifth overall pick in the 2007 draft and signed him to a deal that included a $6 million bonus, but he’s exceeded even the loftiest of expectations in his first pro season. Wieters started his season with the advanced Class A Frederick Keys but proved too much for Carolina League pitchers to handle by hitting .345 with 15 home runs and 40 RBI in 69 games, and hasn’t missed a beat since his promotion to double-A. In 57 games with the Baysox, he’s hit .358 with another 11 jacks and 48 RBI, and has drawn raves for his defense behind the dish. Wieters currently sports a .351 average, 26 home runs and 88 RBI as a pro, and, with apologies to Tampa Bay triple-A lefty David Price, may well be the very best prospect in all of baseball.

Wieters isn’t the only hitting prospect in Bowie’s lineup, either. Outfielder Nolan Reimold - Baltimore’s first-round pick in 2005 - has had trouble staying healthy as a pro but hasn’t had any injury issues in 2008 and is having his finest season to date. The 6’ 4”, 207-pound 24-year-old is hitting a respectable .280 and ranks fourth in the Eastern League with 22 home runs and fifth with 78 RBI. He’s also shown outstanding plate discipline by drawing 61 walks to offset his 80 strikeouts in 493 at bats and is a good outfield defender. Reimold is certainly deserving of a September call-up, but will stick around for the Eastern League playoffs and probably get his first taste of the big leagues in 2009. Shortstop Blake Davis usually hits near the bottom of Bowie’s lineup, but with adequate and still-improving offensive skills and top-notch defensive abilities, he looks like a future Oriole as well. Davis is hitting .284 with four home runs and 49 RBI for the season. At 5’ 7” and 170 pounds, 25-year-old Jonanthan Tucker is often overlooked, but has contributed a .283 average, seven home runs and 46 RBI this season and though he’s primarily a third baseman, he can also play second, short and the outfield. He could have a future as a big-league utility man.

The Baysox have also gotten significant offensive contributions from several players who are too old to be considered prospects. First baseman/third baseman Jeff Nettles - who turned 30 last week - is hitting just .252 but ranks third in the Eastern League with 24 home runs and seventh with 77 RBI. 30-year-old Steve Torrealba, who spells Wieters at catcher from time to time and often serves as Bowie’s DH when Wieters is behind the dish, has contributed a solid .295 average, eight home runs and 25 RBI in 110 at bats. He was named Eastern League Player of the Week on Monday after terrorizing the Reading Phillies with consecutive three-hit games on Aug. 19 and 20, the latter of which included a pair of homers, three runs scored and three RBI. Outfielder Sebastien Boucher will turn 27 in October but has chipped in with solid outfield defense and swatted 10 home runs in 73 games, while soon-to-be 28-year-old Mike Rodriguez is hitting just .254 but has done a good job in center field. And of course, we can’t forget about recently crowned Eastern League MVP Lou Montanez, who had a chance at the league’s Triple Crown before moving up to Baltimore. The outfielder hit .335 with 26 homers and 97 RBI, and played a major role in helping the Baysox get to the position they’re in now.

Bowie’s lineup is good, but its pitching staff may be the best in all of Minor League Baseball. It’s led by ace right-hander Brad Bergesen, who was recently honored as Eastern League Pitcher of the Year and leads the circuit with 15 wins and ranks sixth with a 3.11 ERA. Bergesen, who will turn 23 in September, has made great strides since the O’s selected him in the fourth round of the 2004 draft out of a California high school, and he could join Baltimore’s rotation once Bowie’s playoff run is over. He’s a smart pitcher who changes speeds, hits his spots and pitches to contact, as evidenced by the fact that he’s struck out just 72 batters in 142 innings of work this season. Following Bergesen in Bowie’s rotation is 23-year-old fireballer David Hernandez, who has gone 9-4 and leads the league with 161 strikeouts in 136 innings while ranking third with a stingy 2.58 ERA. There’s a decent chance that Hernandez will take his low-90s heat, nasty slider and developing changeup to Baltimore next season.

It says something about Bowie’s rotation that one of the best pitching prospects in all of baseball is the team’s No. 3 starter. 20-year-old righty Chris Tillman was one of the key components of the deal that sent former O’s - and Baysox - ace Erik Bedard to Seattle, and while he entered 2008 as a good prospect, he’ll end the year in the elite category. Tillman, Seattle’s second-round pick in 2006, struggled at times in 2007 while pitching in the hitter-friendly California League but has come into his own this season, posting a 10-4 record and ranking eighth in the Eastern League with a 3.17 ERA and second with 144 strikeouts in 130 2/3 innings. Encouragingly, he hasn’t slowed down at all, even in the dog days of summer; in his last 10 starts, Tillman has posted a 3.24 ERA and fanned 64 batters in 50 innings. The Orioles have repeatedly said they intend to take it slow with Tillman, so don’t expect to see him atop the mound at Camden Yards this year or even at the beginning of the 2009 season. When he gets there, however, he’s likely to be a special pitcher.

Bowie rounds out its rotation with a pair of unheralded but talented right-handers. Bergesen, Hernandez and Tillman have stolen most of the headlines, but No. 4 starter Jason Berken has been quietly outstanding. The 24-year-old right-hander ranks fifth in the Eastern League with 12 victories, ninth with a 3.58 ERA and fourth with 125 strikeouts in 145 2/3 innings. He’s also displayed outstanding control by issuing just 38 free passes all season. 25-year-old righty Zach Clark has pitched at four levels this season, from Class A to triple-A, but has settled in to the No. 5 spot in the Baysox rotation over the past two months and given the team quite a boost. Clark isn’t overpowering - he’s fanned just 23 hitters over 57 1/3 innings in double-A - but he’s effective, as evidenced by his 4-1 record and 2.67 ERA over nine starts.

The Baysox’ star-studded rotation is backed by a bullpen that lacks star power but makes up for it in effectiveness. It’s anchored by 35-year-old right-handed closer Julio Manon, who has pitched in the big leagues for the Expos (2003) and Orioles (2006) and leads the Eastern League with 32 saves. Gerardo Casadiego (3.26 ERA in 69 innings) and Felix Romero (3.01 ERA and eight relief wins in 39 appearances) are reliable righties out of the ‘pen. And while the Baysox starting rotation is completely lacking in left-handers, the team’s bullpen is anything but. 24-year-old Wilfredo Perez has given the Baysox a lift by posting 2.42 ERA and fanning 22 batters in 22 1/3 innings since his promotion from advanced Class A Frederick and looks like a future anchor of the Orioles’ bullpen, while fellow southpaws Rommie Lewis Jr. (3.39 ERA) and Chad Thall (3.10 ERA) give Eastern League Manager of the Year and former big league outfielder Brad Komminsk two more solid options if the need to play the matchups game arises in the late innings.

Just in case anyone with the ability to do this is reading, I have another suggestion: With Frederick out of the playoff hunt, why not promote top prospect and Carolina League Pitcher of the Year Jake Arrieta to bolster the bullpen during the Baysox’ postseason run? The 2007 fifth-rounder has been stellar in his first pro season, going 6-5 with a 2.87 ERA and 120 strikeouts in 113 innings over 20 starts. Arrieta has also proven he can handle the big stage, tossing seven scoreless innings while allowing just two hits and fanning seven in his lone start for Team USA at the Beijing Olympics. And while he’s spent all of 2008 as a starter, Arrieta has shown in the past that he’s capable of pitching effectively out of the ‘pen. The 22-year-old righty was used as a reliever in the Arizona Fall League last season, and, despite having no professional experience at that point, tossed 16 scoreless innings over 14 appearances while fanning 14.

So, Orioles fans, why not lift your spirits by heading down to Bowie for a little playoff excitement? The Baysox kick off their playoff run Wednesday night at Prince George’s Stadium, with Game Two to follow on Thursday. Show up, and you’ll have the chance to watch the Orioles’ future stars play meaningful games, and as a bonus, you’ll get to check out a pretty solid Akron Aeros squad as well. Cleveland’s double-A affiliate finished second to the Baysox in the Eastern League’s Southern Division this season and boasts two of the game’s top prospects in third baseman Wes Hodges and first baseman/outfielder Matt LaPorta, who starred for Team USA at the Beijing Olympics and was the key piece in the deal that sent reigning A.L. Cy Young Award winner CC Sabathia to Milwaukee.

See you there.

Jay LeBlanc is an assistant news editor at The Washington Times and Mayor of the National Pastime web community. His Prospect Q&A column runs every Monday and Thursday throughout the season. He can be reached at jleblanc@washingtontimes.com.

Matt Wieters photo courtesy of the Frederick Keys; Chris Tillman photo courtesy of the Bowie Baysox.