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Orioles' Reluctance To Spend On International Amateurs Is Hindering Farm System

June 15, 2017
The Orioles, under executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette and manager Buck Showalter, practically have cornered the market on diamonds in the rough.

So many castoffs have turned into productive players for the Orioles, so many men have resuscitated their careers at Camden Yards the past five years or so.

The Orioles also end up with a lot of unworkable pieces while sifting through baseball's soil, of course.

A lot of guys running through the gauntlet in spring training, the minors and, sometimes, the majors simply don't work out.

That's part of the price of doing business the way the Orioles do it.

As Showalter likes to say, "No stone goes unturned."

The problem is a major stone has gone unturned for years in the Orioles' organization. The club simply does not spend much money on international amateurs. And when it does, it has rarely worked out -- which is precisely why ownership has a philosophy of not accessing the most volatile avenue of procuring baseball talent.

According to Baseball America, the Orioles spent roughly $260,000 last year on five international amateurs, far below all other big league teams that were eligible to partake in the international market. That's a stunningly low number. It's such a definitive reality, though, that Duquette routinely has traded away international bonus slots, knowing the money wouldn't be spent otherwise. And, again, he's gotten some useful pieces in return, such as left-handed pitching prospect Chris Lee, who has been with Triple-A Norfolk.

The Orioles' last big bonus buy was $350,000 in 2014 -- the most the franchise had ever given to a Dominican amateur -- for third baseman Jomar Reyes, who was starting to hit in his second year at High-A Frederick before fracturing a finger while punching a wall in May. He's currently on the Keys' disabled list.

When the Orioles dole out significant money for international players, it's usually for established professionals such as Korea's Hyun Soo Kim, Taiwan's Wei-Yin Chen or Japan's Koji Uehara.

The Orioles also jumped into the midlevel Cuban market the past couple years, offering between $700,000 and $850,000 each to Henry Urrutia, Dariel Alvarez and Ariel Miranda. None has panned out: Urrutia has been released; Alvarez is recovering from Tommy John surgery, and Miranda is starting for the Seattle Mariners, dealt there as part of last summer's trade for Wade Miley. And, remember, all six of the above-mentioned players had track records to consider when the club was deciding whether to sign them.

A viable argument can be made that not paying six- and seven-figure bonuses to 16- and 17-year-old teenagers from outside the U.S. is rooted in sensibility. So much can happen to those young men in the years it takes to be a major leaguer that it's often an unwise investment. It is the ultimate high-risk, high-reward proposition, and it usually involves players whose backgrounds can be mysterious.

That's why the Orioles tend to use their amateur money on MLB's first-year-player draft, which takes place every June. If the Orioles are going to shell out millions on inexperienced commodities, they at least want to have vetted the players thoroughly.

Here's the rub, though: The Orioles' decision not to pursue international amateurs makes it even more crucial that they hit on their picks during the domestic draft so that they can improve a farm system that rarely receives high marks from national observers.

The problem is the Orioles have suffered through roughly two decades of not consistently turning draft picks into helpful major leaguers. There have been some, certainly. Manny Machado, Kevin Gausman and Dylan Bundy are all high picks that have been contributors, and lower picks such as Trey Mancini, Caleb Joseph and Donnie Hart have been good finds.

Zach Britton, Mychal Givens and Jonathan Schoop -- the only international amateur signed by the Orioles on the 25-man roster -- among others are homegrown, too.

But the Orioles' draft busts are seemingly more memorable than the successes, whether it was failing to take advantage of seven picks in the Top 50 in 1999 (only Brian Roberts was a legitimate big leaguer from that group), or taking showcase darling Billy Rowell over Tim Lincecum and Max Scherzer in 2006, or the Matt Hobgood reach in 2009.

Orioles amateur scouting director Gary Rajsich has been in his position since November 2011 and he's yet to have one of his draftees really blossom in the majors, although Gausman was the first player he selected in 2012, and he's also responsible for Mancini as an eighth-round pick and top catching prospect Chance Sisco as a second-rounder in the same draft in 2013.

Rajsich has selected several players who have already reached the majors or are quickly on their way -- but are doing so with other teams. In the past four years, the Orioles have dealt away Rajsich-drafted left-handed pitchers Josh Hader, Steven Brault and Stephen Tarpley, among others.

Rajsich also has had his hands tied at times. The Orioles didn't have a first- or second-rounder in 2014 due to the signing of free agents with qualifying offers attached (Ubaldo Jimenez and Nelson Cruz). Two highly regarded picks, Branden Kline and Hunter Harvey, underwent elbow surgeries, halting their progress. And, since Gausman, the Orioles haven't selected higher than 21st in the first round.

Plus, you never know who to blame when players don't pan out, whether it's a drafting or a development problem. Sometimes, it's just bad luck, too.

The draft -- and the development of players -- is a crapshoot. Which is why it's not a wise philosophy to put the bulk of your minor league system on the shoulders of draftees. There should be a mix that includes international signees and those rescued from other organizations.

The Orioles have done a great job at recognizing talent in other organizations and acquiring those players at minimal cost.

But, in a no-stone-unturned organization, there's a conspicuous boulder in the way of making the farm system as good as it can, or should, be. 

Issue 234: June 2017