Spring Training Dish: Orioles Camp

SARASOTA, Fla.–A year ago, it was Jeff Fiorentino and not No. 1 prospect Nick Markakis who got the call to the big leagues for three weeks when Sammy Sosa went down with an injury.

How times have changed during this year’s big league camp.

Markakis is making a lasting impression on the O’s brass, hitting .346/.444/.519 in 52 at-bats. But if Markakis returns to the minors, he will be headed back to Double-A Bowie–a level he tore up during the second half of 2005.

After splitting time between right field and left field at high Class A Frederick, the Orioles played Markakis exclusively in center with the Bay Sox and were pleasantly surprised with his versatility in playing all three outfield spots.

“He proved he could play anywhere, which makes him even more valuable for that big league spot,” farm director David Stockstill said. “The problem comes in where do we want him to break in as a fourth outfielder in the big leagues or continue to play every day.”

That decision is out of Stockstill’s hands at this point, but if Markakis doesn’t make the club, he’ll join a prospect-laden club in Bowie whose strong points include the outfield as well as one of the best starting rotations the Eastern League has to offer.

Markakis and Fiorentino will anchor the outfield. The organization wrestled over which one to call up when Sosa went on the disabled list in May. Fiorentino eventually won out, based on his versatility and that he was considered the more polished player coming out of a four-year university.

Fiorentino showed surprising pop at Frederick last season, hitting .286-22-66 in 413 at-bats.

“We all liked him as a hitter, but we didn’t expect to see this many home runs this quick,” Stockstill said. “He has a quick bat and really strong wrists. But that’s a lot of home runs when you consider he missed three weeks when he was in the big leagues and it took about another month to get his swing back.”

It appears the two will be reunited in Double-A this season with the majority of the same team that won the Carolina League title last season.

And last year’s Frederick team started and ended with the pitching staff. Bowie’s rotation will feature at least four integral parts of last year’s championship club in righthander Brian Finch and J.J. Johnson, as well as two of the best pitching prospects in the organization in lefthanders Adam Loewen and Garrett Olson.

Loewen is the highest-profile of the bunch, coming off his Team Canada win over Team USA in the World Baseball Classic, but his success really started to take hold last May and continued through a brilliant Arizona Fall League performance, where he finished 2-1, 1.67 in 27 innings.

“I think mostly it was a matter of getting to a point where he was playing against players that could embarrass him if he didn’t get better,” Stockstill said. “Early in the year he faced some situations where he couldn’t get by with just throwing the ball. Working with (Frederick pitching coach) Scott McGregor helped him a lot where they were able to get channel his focus and make him understand that no matter how good his arm was, he needed to be better than whoever was in the box.”

The organization was often criticized for its handling of Olson last season after taking him in the supplemental round of the 2005 draft out of Cal Poly. Between Cal Poly and his three stops for the Orioles, he threw more than 200 innings, though the number of pro innings is somewhat skewed considering the stuff Olson was bringing against lesser hitters at short-season Aberdeen, low Class A Delmarva and finally Frederick.

“He doesn’t waste pitches and a lot of people don’t realize how many seven and eight-pitch innings he had,” Stockstill said. “He didn’t really wear his arm out and he felt he actually gained 3-4 miles an hour from the time he signed with us until the last playoff game, which is unheard of.

“(Scouting director) Joe Jordan said this guy was 87 to 89 and he’s a master at pitching. Well, by the last playoff game he was hitting 93. That puts him in a whole different category. His makeup and his work ethic–he’s very special. Everything about him says he’s a gamer.”

Lefthander Richard Stahl is the frontrunner to win the No. 5 spot, giving the Bay Sox three lefties in the starting rotation. Hampered by injuries over much of his career, the 24-year-old first-round pick in 1999 is completely healthy after splitting last season between Frederick and Bowie.

“Even though he’s not on the (40-man) roster, he’s still an outstanding talent,” Stockstill said. “He throws 93 miles an hour, has a very good slider, and he’s 6-foot-7. It’s taken some time with the injuries he’s had, but in his last outing our coaches said it was the best they’ve ever seen him throw. So we’re pretty excited about Richard too.”

BIRD SEED

• When you get sent down from Orioles big league camp, it’s like being sent into exile. The club’s major league site is located outside Miami in Fort Lauderdale and players have to make the 170-mile trek northwest to Sarasota when they are sent down. “What we need to do is make the other 29 teams do this and make it a level playing field,” Stockstill said. “I just got back from Fort Lauderdale late last night. It’s not been the ideal situation.”

• Speaking of ideal situations, it’s no secret the Orioles want to move their Triple-A affiliate out of Ottawa, with likely landing spots reaching into all parts of southeastern Pennsylvania. “There’s always a lot of talk every year about Harrisburg and now the talk is about Allentown,” Stockstill said. “First it was us going there, now it’s that the Phillies are going to go there and we might end up in Scranton, but the fact of the matter is we are with Ottawa.

“And we’re very happy with the front office in Ottawa. But let’s face it, it is very difficult crossing that border all the time. Sometimes you have the bus stopped anywhere from one to three hours crossing through immigration–there are some frustrating things. Ottawa is a wonderful town, the ballpark itself is very nice and we’re very happy with all of that. The travel and just the difference in countries are the two negatives.

•  Catcher is obviously a weak spot in the organization with Eli Whiteside unable to make the jump from Triple-A and no potential candidate to surpass him on the depth chart. That weakness is why scouting director Joe Jordan drafted Brandon Snyder in the first round last year and why the former shortstop and third baseman continues to hone his skills behind the dish.

“This might be the best pure hitter we’ve signed since I’ve been here,” Stockstill, who has been in the organization for 13 years, said. “He’s in the middle of a position change and is just starting to catch. We’re still working with his arm slot and his throwing motion, simply because it’s considerably different than shortstop. He’s coming along OK, but it does take time. He wants to make the throw quicker and sometimes he takes short cuts where he doesn’t get the strength and accuracy. He wants to come out with it as opposed to staying short and straight with his arm motion.”

• Outfielder Val Majewski didn’t make his 2005 debut until the AFL because of labrum surgery, but he made a strong impression in big league camp. Before the surgery, Majewski was an outfielder with classic right field tools, but it’s taken him time to regain strength in his shoulder–both in the field and at the plate. He is likely to play mostly center and left this season and is expected to get some game experience at first base as the season progresses.

“We’re looking at hopefully getting him some games at first during the second half of the year,” Stockstill said. “We really don’t have the younger lefthanded first baseman prospect, so it’s a very good situation we’re looking at with him there.”

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