- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 14, 2001

BALTIMORE — Each week, the Baltimore Orioles issue a minor league report, a summary of how the farm teams in the organization are faring, and, given the team's sales pitch, a glimpse into the promise the future holds.

As of Aug. 10, not one team in the Orioles minor league system had a winning record. The Class A Frederick Keys were even with a 59-59 mark. The combined record of the Keys, the Class AAA Rochester Red Wings (43-72), the Class AA Bowie Baysox (49-63), the Class A Delmarva Shorebirds (50-67), the Rookie League Bluefield Orioles (22-24) and the Gulf Coast League Orioles (15-22) was 238-307.

Add to that the Orioles' record (47-68) as of that date and you have a combined organization record of 285-375.

Where's a baseball strike when you need one?

This is what Orioles fans have to look forward to? This is the highly touted developmental system that owner Peter Angelos, in the wake of tearing apart a once-respectable and winning franchise, would have us believe will deliver the Orioles from the abyss of a franchise-record fourth straight losing season?

Hold, it, says Syd Thrift, Orioles vice president of baseball operations. Pay no attention to those win-loss records. The major league roster and the farm system are just fine, and the future looks bright, he says.

"It's my belief, and I believe it is the manager's belief and the coaching staff's belief, that the talent here exceeds the record," Thrift said. "The talent is better than the record itself. How can that be? For several reasons. Number one, we have a large number of players in their first full year of the major leagues, which is a learning experience. We've had injuries we really weren't planning on, to veteran people that we signed to stabilize this team. We reconfigured the bullpen in the process… . All the fans that I talk to recognize that the future is very good with the young players that we have… . When I see other general managers calling me and asking for specific players, I know that somebody likes them besides us, which is always a very positive thing.

"The fans seem to know more than most people, including us and writers," Thrift says, laughing. "They pay more attention to what they see. If you were here [Saturday], you saw that it was a very exciting game. It was electric."

This must be like one of those whistles that only dogs can hear.

I can't see it, myself. I see an organization with drops of success surrounded by waves of failure.

But then I guess I'm a nonbeliever, and the only thing the Orioles are selling these days is faith.

You want to see players? You'll have to watch some other team. We've got prospects.

I hate prospects.

Prospects are the snake oil that general managers and their ilk sell to save their jobs. You could have the lousiest team in baseball, but if you have made a so-called commitment to youth and a strong farm system, then winning is always in the future, never in the present. One year away. Two years away. Sometimes never.

I hate to let you in on this Syd, but many of the the 48,000-plus who showed up at Camden Yards for that electric 4-2 Orioles victory Saturday night were there to see players, not prospects. They were there to see Cal Ripken, and they were there to see Nomar Garciaparra and the Boston Red Sox.

I know players are former prospects, but there doesn't seem to be enough prospects around Camden Yards and down on the farm to constitute a team of players or at least a core group that can be identified to carry a team. There are no Scott Rolens or Pat Burrells in the organization.

There are a handful of pitching successes that appear to have the potential to be quality major leaguers, such as Josh Towers and Jason Johnson on the major league roster and John Stephens, Beau Hale and Rick Bauer in the minor league system. Of course, the Orioles will claim a whole long list of other players who have shown promise, but we are not talking about highly rated prospects despite Thrift's claims.

Now, some of them may turn out to be terrific major league players. But they would have to exceed outside expectations for that to happen. And there would have to be a lot of them because the major league club needs help nearly everywhere.

So far this year, the Orioles have just one young player they could honestly say is an everyday player, and that is second baseman Jerry Hairston. According to the publication Baseball America, Hairston is the only Oriole to have a "tool" (you know, the five-tool test) good enough to be among the top three at his position in the American League. That "tool" is Hairston's glove, ranked third. But Hairston, at best, is a good supplemental player and not the kind of stud that can carry a team. You need three of four of those on the field to compete these days. Chris Richard, with 12 home runs, 39 RBI and a .265 average, has proven to be a solid platoon player at best. There is a reason he was in the minor leagues until the age of 26. Jay Gibbons may prove to be a slugger (15 home runs in 225 at-bats before he broke his hand) with a long career, but he could prove to be Larry Sheets, too.

Thrift believes there is at least one future stud on the major league roster that no one knows about. "Let's talk about power," he says. "We probably have a player on this team right now that nobody will forecast this, but he will probably hit 30 to 35 home runs a year four years from now. I'm not going to tell you his name. I know he's going to do this because, think about this, [Luis] Gonzalez had no power. [Rafael] Palmeiro had no power when he was with Chicago [funny, he had power with the Orioles]. Power is a mysterious thing… . Now I'm not going to talk about Barry Bonds because I had him first, and he had power from the very beginning. Branch Rickey said 40 years ago that power was the most difficult thing to judge, and I thought, how could that be so? But it is so."

You can't have a conversation with Syd Thrift without the subjects of his influence on Barry Bonds and Branch Rickey's influence on Thrift coming up. But there are no Barry Bonds down on the farm and no Branch Rickeys in the front office either.

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