By Will Lingo
January 5, 2004
Baseball America's Top 10 Prospects lists are based on projections of a player's long-term worth after discussions with scouting and player-development personnel. All players who haven't exceeded the major league rookie standards of 130 at-bats or 50 innings pitched (without regard to service time) are eligible. Ages are as of April 1, 2004.
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The Orioles drew national attention with the signings of shortstop Miguel Tejada and Javy Lopez. With Vladimir Guerrero the likely cherry on top of their free-agent sundae, the Orioles are suddenly relevant again after several years in baseball exile.
The reconstruction of the franchise actually started more than a year earlier, with the firing of general manager Syd Thrift after the 2002 season ended. Owner Peter Angelos took the unusual step of hiring Jim Beattie and Mike Flanagan to share the GM duties, but their first year together yielded promising results.
One of their first moves was hiring Doc Rodgers as farm director to bring stability to a system in disarray. After the organization had the game�s worst minor league winning percentage (.434) in 2002, it improved to 20th (.486) last year. More important, Rodgers brought communication and discipline back to player development. Players actually blossomed rather than stagnated in the minors.
Rodgers started by putting new managers at five of the organization�s seven affiliates. On the first day of minor league spring training last year, he emphasized his old-school principles by telling players to show at least four inches of sock. When several didn�t adhere to the rule, Rodgers brought a ruler to a meeting the next day. The Orioles also made a better effort to let players know the organization�s expectations and how they were doing at fulfilling them. Rodgers met individually with every player in minor league camp.
The message was consistent, as was the instruction. Instead of hearing different things from different coaches, players worked under a standardized training regimen for every level in the organization. The Oriole Way returned.
�It was really just a case of getting back to fundamentals,� Rodgers said. �We emphasized work ethic, communication, expectations and accountability, and our players responded.�
While making significant changes in the minor leagues, Beattie and Flanagan made few big moves with the big league team before the 2003 season. Knowing a quick fix wouldn�t work, they spent time assessing their talent.
During the summer, they unloaded Sidney Ponson and Jeff Conine and got five players who should surpass the talent they got in their great purge of 2000. Three years earlier, they dealt six veterans and received only one player of value, Melvin Mora. This time the club got big league righthanders Kurt Ainsworth and Damian Moss (who was nontendered in December) as well as Denny Bautista, Ryan Hannaman and Don Levinski, who rank among the organization�s best pitching prospects.
The next step was replacing manager Mike Hargrove with the younger, more dynamic Lee Mazzilli. Finally came the free agents, adding premium players to a team devoid of impact talent.
The Orioles still have a lot of questions to answer before they can contend in the American League East, especially on the pitching staff. And the minor league system, while dramatically improved, still isn�t close to ranking among the best in the game. But the organization has made significant steps in the right direction on both fronts.
Top Prospect: Adam Loewen, lhp
Age: 19 Ht.: 6-6 Wt.: 220 Bats: L Throws: L
Drafted: Chipola (Fla.) JC, D/F 2002 (1st round)
Signed by: John Gillette/David Jennings
Background: As significant as free agents Miguel Tejada and Javy Lopez were to the major league team, the signing of Loewen was just as important for the farm system. It provided a true impact player to an organization that sorely needed one. It also showed the team�s new administration was willing to move boldly to bring in talent. The Orioles took Loewen fourth overall in 2002, making him the highest-drafted Canadian ever, but tried to lowball him in negotiations. With the Orioles� offer at $2.5 million and Loewen standing on a demand of $4 million, he enrolled at Chipola (Fla.) JC, becoming the earliest pick to take the draft-and-follow route in draft history. The Orioles signed him minutes before they would have lost his rights. He received a major league contract with a $3.2 million bonus and a guaranteed value of $4.02 million. It was clear at an early age that Loewen was special. He led a team from British Columbia to the 1996 Little League World Series, handed Korea its only loss at the 2000 World Junior Championship and no-hit the Pirates� Rookie-level Dominican Summer League team during a Team Canada tour in 2001. The Orioles played it safe with Loewen after he signed, giving him just seven starts, none more than five innings, and shutting him down in August.
Strengths: With two plus pitches and the possibility of two more, Loewen has legitimate No. 1 starter potential. His fastball usually ranges from 90-95 mph, though it was a bit lower at the end of the season as he tired. His curveball, a big 12-to-6 breaker, is his best pitch. He has a good feel for a changeup and has dabbled with a slider as well. He�s athletic with smooth mechanics, effortless arm action and good extension. Loewen would have been drafted early as a power-hitting outfielder if he wasn�t such a promising pitcher. His low-key demeanor on the mound earns comparisons to Tom Glavine. The Orioles praise his makeup and maturity as much as his physical ability.
Weaknesses: Because he needed little other than his fastball and curveball as an amateur, Loewen still needs work on his changeup. His fastball command also can improve, and he�s still learning to command his offspeed stuff. He�ll have to build up his durability and get accustomed to pitching from February through October.
The Future: Though they played it safe with Loewen last year, the Orioles expect him to move quickly to the big leagues. He�s motivated to get there, calling the team in November to see if he could come to the minor league complex in Sarasota, Fla., to work out. The Orioles told him to wait until January, and after spring training they�ll send him to low Class A Delmarva. He�ll probably spend half the season there before moving up to high Class A Frederick.
2. John Maine, rhp
Age: 22. B-T: R-R. Ht.: 6-4. Wt.: 190.
Drafted: UNC Charlotte, 2002 (6th round).
Signed by: Mark Tramuta.
Background: Maine led the minors in strikeouts and opponent average (.177) in 2003. In his second high Class A start, he threw a seven-inning no-hitter against Winston-Salem and came within a hit batter of a perfect game.
Strengths: Maine�s best pitch is a 90-92 mph fastball. He already has major league command of his heater and is able to throw it to both sides of the plate as well as up and down. His fastball also has great life, and the deception in his delivery makes it look even faster.
Weaknesses: Maine can strike hitters out with his fastball alone, and he threw it 75-90 percent of the time before 2003. He employed his curveball and changeup more last year, though he still needs to use and command them better. Maintaining consistent mechanics is a key.
The Future: In his first high Class A start, Maine got knocked around a bit and told Frederick�s staff that he did not want to be paid for his work that day. The no-hitter against Winston-Salem followed. It�s that makeup that makes Maine a special pitcher and could get him to the big leagues as soon as 2004. He�ll open at Double-A Bowie.
3. Nick Markakis, of
Age: 20. B-T: L-L. Ht.: 6-1. Wt.: 175.
Drafted: Young Harris (Ga.) JC, 2003 (1st round).
Signed by: Lamar North.
Background: BA�s 2002 and 2003 Junior College Player of the Year, Markakis led the juco ranks in victories (12) and strikeouts (160) as a pitcher as well as RBIs (92) as a DH last spring. He turned down $1.5 million from the Reds as a draft-and-follow, then went seventh overall to Baltimore and signed for $1.85 million. After playing for Greece at the European Championships in July, he earned top prospect honors in the short-season New York-Penn League.
Strengths: Most teams preferred Markakis as a pitcher, but the Orioles think he can be a special hitter. He�s quiet at the plate, with a smooth, natural stroke that produces good leverage. He�s adept at manipulating the bat head and can drive the ball to all fields. He obviously has a plus arm and is athletic, which should make him a good defender on either corner.
Weaknesses: Markakis doesn�t have much experience against premium competition, particularly as a hitter. He can be overpowered by good fastballs at this point. He needs to add strength to his frame, and he already has added about 10 pounds of muscle since signing.
The Future: Markakis probably will start 2004 in low Class A. If he performs as expected, he�ll move up fast.
4. Val Majewski, of
Age: 22. B-T: L-L. Ht.: 6-2. Wt.: 200.
Drafted: Rutgers, 2002 (3rd round).
Signed by: Jim Howard.
Background: Majewski was on his way to putting up monster numbers in his first full pro season when a stress fracture in his femur knocked him out of action for six weeks. The Orioles aren�t sure what caused it, but he has fully healed.
Strengths: Despite playing at first base in college and in center field in the minors, Majewski is more of a prototype right fielder. He has a quiet, disciplined approach at the plate and takes a direct path to the ball, centering just about every pitch he hits. He uses the whole ballpark and doesn�t have to pull the ball to drive it. The Orioles say his makeup can�t be graded high enough.
Weaknesses: Majewski has a good arm and the potential to be a plus defender in right fielder, but he needs more experience there. He�ll have to hit more home runs to fit the right-field profile.
The Future: Majewski proved enough in 41 games at high Class A to open 2004 in Double-A. He could move quickly through an organization that needs impact bats, especially in the outfield.
5. Denny Bautista, rhp
Age: 21. B-T: R-R. Ht.: 6-5. Wt.: 170.
Signed: Dominican Republic, 2000.
Signed by: Pablo Lantigua/Louie Eljaua (Marlins).
Background: Bautista has the highest ceiling of the players Baltimore acquired in midseason trades. Mentored by Pedro and Ramon Martinez in the Dominican Republic, Bautista pitched in the Futures Game and ranked among the top prospects in the high Class A Florida State and Double-A Southern leagues.
Strengths: Bautista has an electric arm, with an explosive fastball that sits in the mid-90s and can touch 98 mph. In one Double-A start, he was clocked at 96 mph 18 times. His curveball also could be a plus pitch, and he has a projectable body.
Weaknesses: While Bautista�s arm ranks with the best in the minors, his command doesn�t. His mechanics can get out of sync and he throws across his body. His changeup is a potential plus pitch, but he needs to use it more to develop it.
The Future: Bautista has the ability to pitch at the top of a rotation, but he�ll need to hone his command and delivery to make that happen. With his arm, he can pitch in the late innings out of the bullpen if starting doesn�t work out. He could move up to Triple-A Ottawa to start the season and should be ready to contribute in the big leagues by 2005.
6. Matt Riley, lhp
Age: 24. B-T: L-L. Ht.: 6-1. Wt.: 207.
Drafted: Sacramento CC, D/F 1997 (3rd round).
Signed by: Ed Sprague.
Background: After the obligatory year of mediocre performance following Tommy John surgery, Riley showed the form that made him the organization�s top prospect entering 1999 and 2000. He finished the season with two strong starts against the Blue Jays in September.
Strengths: Riley regained his old stuff. His fastball sits in the low 90s and touches 94, and his big curveball is an out pitch. His changeup has improved significantly, as has his command of all three pitches. Immaturity held him back before his injury, but Riley showed more focus and determination after the heat-related death of pitcher and close friend Steve Bechler in spring training.
Weaknesses: Riley had trouble repeating his delivery in the past but seems to have straightened his mechanics out. All that�s left is to polish his command and feel for pitching.
The Future: The organization�s higher expectations on and off the field have helped Riley get ready for the big leagues. He�ll go to spring training with a chance to win a job in Baltimore�s rotation.
7. Erik Bedard, lhp
Age: 25. B-T: L-L. Ht.: 6-1. Wt.: 191.
Drafted: Norwalk (Conn.) CC, 1999 (6th round).
Signed by: Jim Howard.
Background: Bedard was the organization�s best prospect and was tearing up Double-A when the Bowie staff let him exceed his pitch count in a July 2002 game. He promptly blew out his elbow and had Tommy John surgery two months later. He returned to the mound last August and the Orioles say he could have pitched in the majors in September, but they didn�t want to rush his comeback.
Strengths: Surprisingly, Bedard�s fastball velocity was almost all the way back to his customary 92 mph when he first came back. His plus curveball also showed its old snap. The hard work Bedard put into rehab paid off and showed his determination.
Weaknesses: While his stuff looked promising in August, Bedard still has to prove himself over the long haul. The year off cost Bedard time he needed to develop his changeup and his approach.
The Future: The Orioles expect Bedard to be healthy and ready to go in spring training. Still, they may play it cautiously and have him open the season in Double-A.
8. Rommie Lewis, lhp
Age: 21. B-T: L-L. Ht.: 6-6. Wt.: 203.
Drafted: HS�Newport, Wash., 2001 (4th round).
Signed by: John Gillette.
Background: Among the many changes made by the Orioles� new player-development staff was moving Lewis from reliever to starter. Though his numbers weren�t outstanding, they were pleased with the results. He went to the bullpen in August to save wear and tear on his arm.
Strengths: Lewis� feel for pitching stands out more than his stuff, making it that much stranger that he was pitching in relief. His fastball went from 93 mph out of the bullpen to 90-91 in the rotation last year, but that�s still good velocity for a lefty. He spots his fastball well, and he can add and subtract velocity from it. His curveball and changeup were much improved.
Weaknesses: Lewis� savvy actually gets him in trouble sometimes, as he racks up high pitch counts playing cat-and-mouse games with batters. The Orioles want him to be more aggressive early in the count. He also needs to get in better shape to handle the workload of starting.
The Future: With a season of starting under his belt and another year of physical maturity, Lewis should be able to handle more innings and produce better results in 2004. Even if he returns to high Class A to open the season, he�ll spend most of it in Double-A.
9. Mike Fontenot, 2b
Age: 23. B-T: L-R. Ht.: 5-8. Wt.: 160.
Drafted: Louisiana State, 2001 (1st round).
Signed by: Mike Tullier.
Background: After batting .219 in April, Fontenot looked like he might be headed down the same path to oblivion as fellow Orioles 2001 first-rounders Chris Smith and Bryan Bass. Then he got contact lenses in May and got locked in at the plate, batting .360 over the last three months to earn Double-A Eastern League all-star honors.
Strengths: Fontenot is an offensive second baseman. He works counts, gets on base and laces line drives from gap to gap. He has good power for his size and should hit 10-15 homers annually. He also runs well and could steal 20 bases per year.
Weaknesses: Fontenot�s glove lags behind his bat, but he showed enough improvement in 2003 that Baltimore believes he can become an average defender. He cleaned up his footwork and throws, his two biggest problems in the past.
The Future: The Orioles give a lot of credit to Bowie manager Dave Trembley for getting the best out of Fontenot, challenging him every day while helping him improve. Fontenot could be trade bait because of the organization�s depth at second base, but for now he�ll try to continue his run of success in Triple-A.
10. Dave Crouthers, rhp
Age: 24. B-T: R-R. Ht.: 6-3. Wt.: 200.
Drafted: Southern Illinois-Edwardsville, 2001 (3rd round).
Signed by: Tony Hoerner.
Background: Crouthers was an all-conference outfielder for three years running at NCAA Division II Southern Illinois-Edwardsville. He doubled as a starting pitcher in 2001, when he set Cougars season records for RBIs and pitching strikeouts (breaking Orioles farmhand Aaron Rakers� mark). Baltimore saw his frame and pictured him as a workhorse starter.
Strengths: Crouthers� strong build earns comparisons to that of Dave Stieb and Matt Clement, and he has an easy arm action. His fastball sits at 93-94 mph and touches 96. His slider also can be an above-average pitch at times.
Weaknesses: When everything is working Crouthers can be dominant, but that doesn�t happen often enough. His slider and command need more consistency, and he needs to use his changeup more. The Orioles used a pitching script that compelled him to throw the changeup in certain counts, and it has the potential to be a plus pitch.
The Future: Crouthers remains a work in progress, but on the right day he looks ready for the majors. The Orioles will send him back to Double-A to start 2004.
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