Russell Promotion Continues Cubs’ Roster Transformation
Sure, they haven’t won anything yet. But if you are looking at the most impressive rebuilding job of the past five years, what the Cubs have done deserves praise, and it […]
Top Ten Prospects: Baltimore Orioles
Complete Index of Top 10s
By Will Lingo
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, 2005.
Background: Markakis was drafted in the 23rd round by the Reds in 2002, then went seventh overall to the Orioles a year later after turning down a $1.5 million draft-and-follow offer from Cincinnati. He was Baseball America's Junior College Player of the Year in both seasons, and signed with Baltimore for $1.8 million. Markakis was an outstanding two-way player at Young Harris (Ga.) JC, leading national juco players in victories (12) and strikeouts (160) as a pitcher and RBIs as a DH (92) in 2003. Scouts within and outside the organization were divided about where he should play professionally. Hitting won out, and it has looked like the right decision so far. Markakis was batting just .239 through May at low Class A Delmarva, but his swing started coming together and he got red-hot. He batted .345 and hit 18 doubles in the next two months before departing for the Olympics to play for the Greek team assembled with a great deal of assistance from Baltimore owner Peter Angelos. Most Orioles officials regarded the trip as a great opportunity, though they were chagrined when Markakis was also asked to pitch when the Greek staff was hit by injuries. He made two relief appearances in the Olympics--touching 94 mph, it should be noted--and he was one of the event's best hitters, going 9-for-26 (.346) with a home run. Because it was his first full pro season, Baltimore shut him down when he returned.
Strengths: While his arm strength is undeniable, Markakis' hands and athletic body give him a higher ceiling as an outfielder. Never a full-time hitter before 2004, he made the adjustments that could make him an ideal No. 3 hitter. As one scout said, "He gets better every second." The speed and strength in his hands make him a pure hitter, and the natural snap in his bat gives him good power that should increase as he matures. Markakis established a solid foundation for his swing by getting his lower half more stable as the year went on, giving him better torque on his swing. He already shows good control of the strike zone. He's athletic, with a strong, sinewy body that earns him comparisons to Shawn Green and Johnny Damon. His athleticism allows him to play center field in a pinch, but his speed and arm make him perfectly suited for right field.
Weaknesses: Markakis is inexperienced at the plate, so he's still trying to figure out his swing as well as understanding how to attack in hitter's counts. He came in with what the Orioles called "aluminum bat drift," meaning his body would get ahead of his hands. He's learning to keep his body back so it stays out of the way of his beautiful swing. He also needs to refine his outfield defense, improving his jumps and routes to balls.
The Future: As Markakis has slowly but surely put pitching behind him, he has started to emerge as a potential premium bat and standout defender. His lack of experience as a hitter and his Olympic sojourn have slowed down his progress a bit, but the way he came on in the second half of 2004 opened eyes. He'll begin 2005 at high Class A Frederick and could start to move faster through the system, arriving in the big leagues by the second half of 2006.
Background: Penn's baseball experience and success were limited in high school because he also spent a lot of time on the basketball court. He was the eastern San Diego area player of the year after averaging 24 points and 11 rebounds a game as a senior. He broke out in 2004, jumping all the way to Double-A and being named Baltimore's minor league pitcher of the year.
Strengths: Penn has the stuff to pitch at the front end of a rotation. His plus changeup is his best pitch now, and he also has an 89-92 mph fastball that touches 94 and a curveball that's above average when it's on. What the Orioles really like, though, is his pitching savvy. He pitches above his age and experience, working inside, pitching to weak contact and showing a knack for reading hitters' weaknesses.
Weaknesses: Penn mainly needs innings. He didn't make his pro debut until 2003, was shut down halfway through the season, and opened 2004 in the Delmarva bullpen to reduce his workload. His curveball still requires work.
The Future: It's early, but Penn's fast progress got the Orioles excited. He'll go back to Double-A Bowie to open 2005.
Background: The highest-drafted Canadian ever, Loewen went fourth overall in 2002 and signed for a $3.2 million bonus (a record for an Oriole and for a draft-and-follow) as part of a $4.02 million big league deal. But Loewen was too ineffective to be considered for Canada's 2004 Olympic team, and at the end of the year was diagnosed with a torn labrum.
Strengths: When he's healthy and on his game, Loewen has dominant stuff. He's effectively wild in the strike zone with a 90-92 mph fastball that reaches 95, and a curveball that's a knockout pitch. He's a good athlete with fluid mechanics that give him good deception.
Weaknesses: The major concern is Loewen's shoulder, though he didn't require surgery and completed a throwing program in October with no problems. His first full season was marred by inconsistent mechanics, a loss of command and the loss of faith in his stuff. The Orioles consider all of those things correctable. His changeup lags behind his fastball and curve.
The Future: Loewen's major league contract guaranteed him a spot in big league spring training in 2004, and he never seemed to recover after getting knocked around. He'll seek a fresh start in high Class A in 2005.
Background: Steady in his first 1 1/2 pro seasons, Majewski was Baltimore's minor league player of the year and a Double-A Eastern League all-star in 2004. He made his big league debut in August, but the year ended on a down note when doctors found a small labrum tear in his throwing shoulder.
Strengths: Majewski's makeup is off the charts, and he's so focused on what he can control that he often won't be aware of what's going on around him. He goes to the plate with a plan and shows good pitch selection. He makes hard contact and his home run power is starting to emerge. He has the tools for right field and also has seen time in center.
Weaknesses: Majewski's swing has more holes than Markakis', and lefthanders still give him trouble at times. He also tries to be perfect with every swing, which sometimes makes him too rigid at the plate. He doesn't draw many walks.
The Future: Assuming his shoulder is healthy--and the Orioles say it is--Majewski should be able to help in Baltimore soon. Scouts say he'll be a more physical version of Larry Bigbie. First, though, Majewski needs to get at-bats at Triple-A Ottawa.
Background: The Orioles botched their first-round pick and lost their second-round pick for signing Miguel Tejada, so Fiorentino will have to carry the flag for their 2004 draft class. He looked up to the task in his pro debut, though the Orioles played him in the outfield after the scouting department viewed him as a potential catcher.
Strengths: Fiorentino is athletic enough to play anywhere on the field, which is why he was able to catch at Florida Atlantic and why some in the organization wanted to try him there. He also has the bat to play just about anywhere, with a smooth line-drive swing and the ability to drive inside pitches and center the ball on the bat.
Weaknesses: While Fiorentino is athletic and versatile, he doesn't have overwhelming defensive tools for any position. His build and arm worked against him as a catcher. He should be an average left fielder down the road. He needs to cut down on his strikeouts.
The Future: Fiorentino moved quickly after signing, and the Orioles won't try to slow him down. He'll open 2005 in high Class A.
Background: The Orioles moved Maine aggressively in 2004, jumping him to Triple-A after just five Double-A starts. He struggled in his first two months at Ottawa (4.99 ERA) but started to come around afterward (2.89 ERA). The Twins shelled him when he made his major league debut in an emergency start in July.
Strengths: Maine succeeds more with command than pure stuff. He added a slider to give him four legitimate pitches, along with his fastball, curveball and changeup. He throws 90-91 mph with natural deception, and adds and subtracts from his fastball nicely. He's not afraid to work inside.
Weaknesses: None of Maine's pitches is overwhelming, which explains why he struggles when he moves up to a new level. He has a long-arm delivery and must work to stay on top of the ball. He also needs to refine his command and throw quality strikes after learning that advanced hitters lay off balls out of the zone.
The Future: Maine has a ceiling of a No. 3 starter, and probably a No. 4 or 5 guy on a first-division club. But he's a pitcher's pitcher and should get the most out of his ability.
Background: Fontenot got off to his traditional slow start in 2004, carrying a .230 average in the middle of June. He heated up after that and played his way back to the top of the Ottawa lineup, though he still faces a crowded second-base picture in Baltimore.
Strengths: Fontenot has a lot of pop for a little guy, but he finally has started to realize that power is not his game. He better understands his swing and how pitchers attack him, and he has become more aggressive with bunts and steals to take advantage of his plus speed. He has closed holes in his swing and has made progress on defense.
Weaknesses: Fontenot is a streaky hitter, and team officials almost dread seeing him hit homers because it could cause him to lapse into a power approach again. His plate discipline still is lacking, and he still needs more repetitions to shore up his defense.
The Future: While Fontenot is probably ready for a big league look, the Orioles are well stocked at second base with Brian Roberts, Jerry Hairston and David Newhan. It may take a trade to get Fontenot out of Triple-A.
Background: Ray starred as a closer in the Cape Cod League in 2002 before moving to the rotation at William & Mary and struggling in 2003. He still went in the third round and has shown more success in that role as a pro.
Strengths: Ray's fastball sits at 93-95 mph, peaks at 97 and has heavy life. He has enough power to get hitters out with heat up in the zone. He complements his fastball with a hard slider and a good splitter, allowing him to work all four quadrants of the strike zone.
Weaknesses: Ray has a maximum-effort delivery and hasn't developed his changeup much, so he probably faces an eventual return to the bullpen. He throw strikes but needs better command within the zone because he gets hit more than he should with his stuff.
The Future: One scout compared Ray to Goose Gossage. He has not only the arsenal but also the mentality to close out games. When he moves to that role will be up to the next farm director.
Background: After a steady progression through the organization, Johnson had a disappointing 2003 that earned him a return to high Class A. He regrouped and was the Carolina League's all-star third baseman after hitting more homers (21) than he had in 1,247 career at-bats coming into the year (20).
Strengths: Johnson finally figured out he could produce power to all fields by taking balls where they're pitched rather than trying to pull everything. He handles the bat well and showed a good two-strike approach. His defense at third base also has improved significantly. He has an average arm and moves well laterally.
Weaknesses: Johnson answered the Orioles' two main concerns in 2004 by hitting to the opposite field with authority and improving his focus on defense. His swing can get a little long, and he still hasn't proven himself above Class A.
The Future: While some teams tend to rush players, the Orioles may have moved Johnson too slowly, having him repeat Rookie ball as well as high Class A. If he can put up numbers in Double-A, he could reach Baltimore in short order.
Background: Crouthers was a two-way standout who earned more notoriety for his outfield play at Southern Illinois-Edwardsville, a solid NCAA Division II program that also produced Baltimore reliever Aaron Rakers. He earned a spot in the Arizona Fall League but was excused by the Orioles after one rough outing to attend to personal matters.
Strengths: Crouthers' pure stuff is as good as any Baltimore farmhand's. He holds his 93-94 mph fastball through the middle innings of starts and touches 96, and his sharp slider is also a plus pitch. He has developed his changeup into an average pitch.
Weaknesses: If Crouthers doesn't reach the big leagues, it will be because he can't make the mental adjustments. He has worked with a sports psychologist to keep his emotions in check, but he still tends to put too much pressure on himself. On the mound, he elevated the ball too much in 2004. He needs to use his changeup more often.
The Future: The Orioles now think Crouthers might be better off relieving, so he can come to the ballpark ready to pitch every day and won't have so much time to obsess over every start. He'll go back to Double-A to start 2005.