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For Now, Orioles Should Sacrifice Future For Present

March 16, 2016
Before right-hander Yovani Gallardo’s three-year contract was downsized to two due to shoulder concerns, before outfielder Dexter Fowler hit reverse and backpedaled to Chicago and before the Orioles and the media were criticized for how all of it went down, there was a significant local debate swirling around the potential signing of those free agents.

Should an organization with a widely panned farm system give up two, Top 30 picks in the upcoming amateur draft in order to acquire a pair of veterans?

The answer for the Orioles needed to be a resounding “Yes” then -- and it should remain in the affirmative, at least until the club’s window of competitiveness narrows around 2018.

It’s a bit of a dichotomy; the Orioles have not been able to consistently draft and develop top talent in roughly two decades, and yet many were advocating that the club should surrender two first-round slots to improve the current roster, even though that could further hamper the club’s chances of producing homegrown stars.

The reasoning is simple: Major League Baseball’s first-year draft is always a crapshoot, and the Orioles, more times than not, have ended up with a heavy sampling of the front part of that compound noun. 

It would be considered a major victory if they drafted a pitcher with the 14th overall pick who ends up with 102 career wins and a sub-3.70 ERA like Gallardo or an outfielder with the 27th pick who could get on base at a .363 career clip like Fowler. 

Consider that the Orioles have chosen 35 players since 1995 in the first round or supplemental first round. Only 17, less than half, made it to the majors. Only three of them have been All-Stars as Orioles: Manny Machado, Matt Wieters and Brian Roberts.

Machado was taken third overall in 2010 and Wieters, fifth in 2007 (Roberts was the 50th overall selection in 1999, when the club had seven picks in the Top 50; Roberts was the only one of that group to have a lasting big league career).

Ultimately, the Orioles only will lose one pick this year (14th overall) for signing Gallardo, who rejected a $15.8 million qualifying offer from the Texas Rangers. The Orioles added their own first-round compensation pick (27th) when lefty Wei-Yin Chen rejected the club’s qualifying offer and signed with the Miami Marlins. The Orioles held onto that spot when Fowler decided to stay with the Chicago Cubs after multiple outlets reported he was joining the Orioles.

The club still has five picks in the Top 91 this June, so there should be a solid opportunity to somewhat replenish the farm system. And that, obviously, needs to be a priority. 

But recent club history shows that its primary focus must be winning now -- while the core of the roster is under contract and in its prime.

Due to the departure of Chen, the Orioles desperately needed a legitimate major league starter to fill his spot in the rotation. Two homegrown pitchers, Mike Wright (third round, 2011) and Tyler Wilson (10th round, 2011), are solid insurance plans, but shouldn’t be counted on in April. The big league club is much stronger if Wright, Wilson or both get the call when injury or ineffectiveness occurs during the season.

As rookies last year, Wilson and Wright combined to pitch in 21 big league games and make 14 starts for the Orioles. 

Those two -- along with relievers Mychal Givens and Oliver Drake, co-winners of the 2015 Jim Palmer Prize -- are mentioned routinely by club executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette when he is defending the Orioles’ cadre of prospects.

Heading into last season, Duquette’s farm system was ranked 28th of 30 organizations by Baseball America. Yet nine of the Orioles’ Top 30 prospects played in the majors in 2015, including Givens, who was ranked 27th. Drake wasn’t even in the Top 30.

This year, Baseball America has the Orioles slotted 27th, which is roughly where most publications and websites have pegged them. 

A disciple of legendary talent evaluator Harry Dalton, Duquette isn’t accepting such low marks. He told the crowd at Fanfest in December not to believe it as well.

Duquette thinks the Orioles have several young players about ready to bloom, including pitchers Dylan Bundy and Hunter Harvey, who are attempting to rebound from injury, as well as infielders Trey Mancini and Jomar Reyes and catcher Chance Sisco. 

Duquette also is quick to point out that several other pitching prospects, such as Zach Davies, Steven Brault and Josh Hader, were late-round picks the club traded away to fortify its big league roster. So, Duquette emphasizes, the talent is there in the system, even if some observers don’t see it.

But it is difficult not to be skeptical. The organization still hasn’t produced its own big leaguer from Venezuela (Eduardo Rodriguez could have been the first, but he was traded to the Boston Red Sox for Andrew Miller in 2014) and only five of Baseball America’s Top 30 Orioles prospects for 2016 are international signings. Three are Cuban defectors, the other two are from the baseball-rich Dominican Republic. No other foreign country is represented in the organization.

Duquette prides himself in exploring all avenues to find help for the big league club, continually stating there is more than one way to build a consistent franchise. 

That’s precisely why giving up draft picks for Gallardo and, conceptually anyway, Fowler, made sense. The time is now for the Orioles, and a relatively inexpensive Gallardo was worth the price of a draft pick, especially by an organization that has struggled to develop prospects and especially in an international sport that has varied pipelines to the majors.

One other thing to keep in mind: If the Orioles’ grand plan of staying competitive through 2018 falls apart, the club can always go the other way and sell off big league pieces to quickly rebuild the system. That’s what former club president Andy MacPhail did with the Orioles in 2008 and that’s what the Philadelphia Phillies and the Atlanta Braves have done this past year.

The Phillies’ recent fire sale pushed them from 22nd to eighth in this year’s Baseball America organizational rankings. And the Braves jumped from 29th to third.

So, yes, having a consistently good farm system is important. But the Orioles followed the path they needed to this offseason: Sacrificing a little of the future for the present.

Issue 219: March 2016