Sunday, January 2, 2011

Is the Oriole Pitching Prospect Pool Too Shallow?

ESPN's Rob Neyer gives another lesson in the concept of TINSTAAP: "There is no such thing as a pitching prospect."

This time, he took a look at the top prospects as selected by Baseball America over the last 21 years.

I'm going to start with something really simple. Here are the top-rated hitters and pitchers from each year, presented chronologically (in a number of cases, the top-rated guy repeated a year later, and they are noted as such) ...

Hitters: Andujar Cedeno, Chipper Jones (2), Cliff Floyd, Alex Rodriguez, Andruw Jones (2), Ben Grieve, J.D. Drew, Pat Burrell, Josh Hamilton, Hank Blalock, Mark Teixeira, Joe Mauer (2), Delmon Young, Alex Gordon, Jay Bruce, Matt Wieters, Jason Heyward.

Pitchers: Todd Van Poppel, Brien Taylor (2), James Baldwin, Armando Benitez, Paul Wilson, Kerry Wood (2), Rick Ankiel (2), Josh Beckett (2), Jesse Foppert, Edwin Jackson, Felix Hernandez, Francisco Liriano, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Joba Chamberlain, David Price, Stephen Strasburg.

I believe that first list accounts for six MVP Awards, and the second for exactly one Cy Young Award.

I believe the first list includes one absolute bust -- arguably Gordon, so far -- while the second includes two absolute busts (Taylor and Foppert) along with a number of pitchers (Van Poppel, Baldwin, Wilson, Wood) who did hang around for a while but never hit the predicted heights.

Ankiel is in a class of his own. The jury is still out on Dice-K and Joba. You really can't say anything negative about Hernandez or Price (except Price is still young and highly susceptible to the same injury woes that have waylaid so many other young pitchers).

It just highlights how uncertain the path of pitching prospects is when compared to hitting prospects. And since the Orioles' philosophy of late has been to "grow the arms", you have to think hard about the direction of their farm system given that pitching prospects are so volatile a commodity.

You have heard me quote Branch Rickey a thousand times. "From quantity comes quality." I applauded the Orioles when they added a second Dominican Summer League team last year, giving them 7 minor league teams in their system. Now, with the excuse that resources are being spread too thin, the Orioles are dropping down to one DSL team and ending their affiliation with Bluefield in the Appalachian League. This gives them only 5 teams full of players for 2011.

Why is this important? As Neyer's exercise highlights and as is generally accepted, you can't always count on your top picks to provide pitching for your major league club. Many times, depth is provided from the later rounds and the more spots you have for guys to play, the better chance you have to stumble upon a diamond in the rough.

A.J. Burnett was an 8th round pick. James Shields a 16th round pick. Jamie Garcia, John Smoltz and Andy Pettitte were all 22nd rounders. Roy Oswalt and Dallas Braden were 23rd and 24th round picks, respectively. I could go on and this doesn't even include relievers who often come from later in the draft.

The point is, if you are going to build your farm system on pitching, the most unpredictable of commodities in baseball, shouldn't you have as many rotation spots for them as possible, especially in the lower levels?

I would assume that with the contraction of two teams in their farm system, they will use that savings to spend more on the draft and on international talent. I hope so or the Oriole farm system may be taking a step backwards in 2011. That would be a shame given the steady progress it's made over the past four years.

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