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Orioles Make Major Strides in Minors

April 11, 2006
By Charlie Vascellaro

The two lights at the end of the tunnel for the Baltimore Orioles, who slipped into darkness after a surprisingly splendid start last year, arrived in the form two minor league hurlers who shored up the pitching corps at a time of need. Right-handed starter Hayden Penn was called up from (AA) Bowie on May 26 and pitched well enough to remain with the big club for the remainder of the season, posting a 3-2 record in eight starts.

Hayden Penn
RHP Hayden Penn is ranked third among Orioles minor league prospects by Baseball America magazine. (Photo courtesy of Bowie Baysox)

Perhaps even more impressive was reliever Chris Ray, who joined the Orioles from Bowie on June 13. Making 41 appearances, with a 2.66 ERA and 43 strikeouts in 40.2 innings, Ray has moved into the closer's spot for the Orioles this year, recording saves in three of his first four appearances.

The Orioles dipped into a vastly improved minor league system 25 times last year, giving prospects like outfielders Jeff Fiorentino and Alejandro Freire sips of the proverbial "cup of coffee" before sending them back to the minors for a little more seasoning.

Industry periodical Baseball America ranks the Orioles minor league system twelfth out of thirty major league franchises, a dramatic improvement from earning the 25th spot last year, and the bottom of the barrel just two years ago. In addition to the aforementioned minor league call-ups, infielders Ed Rogers, Walter Young, Bernie Castro, outfielder Napoleon Calzado and catcher Eli Whiteside also made big league debuts last season. Lefty Eric Dubose has seen action with the Orioles in each of the last four seasons and also earned a late season promotion. With the exception of Ray, all were reassigned to the minors at the start of the 2006 season.

Last year, outfielder Nick Markakis hit a composite .310 with 15 home runs, 41 doubles and 92 RBI, splitting time at (A) Frederick and (AA) Bowie and earning a spot on the Orioles 2006 Opening Day roster. Right-handed starter Cory Morris was 8-5 with a 3.03 ERA and 159 strikeouts in 142 innings at Bowie last year and now has a spot with the big club. Right-handed reliever Sendy Rleal, who was 4-4 with a tidy 2.04 ERA and 75 strikeouts in seventy innings pitched, also made the Orioles Opening Day roster.

Four of the six Orioles minor league affiliates play their home games in Maryland. The Eastern League Bowie Baysox are just 45 minutes down the road, and Carolina League Frederick Keys is within relative close proximity.

Bowie Baysox (AA)

Anchored by a strong starting rotation that saw three team members (Corey Morris, Eric Dubose, Hayden Penn) make it to Baltimore before the season ended, the Baysox finished with a 74-68 record, ending in third place in the Eastern League's Southern Division.

This year, lefty Adam Loewen and righty James Johnson, both among the Orioles top ten prospects named by Baseball America, will provide Bowie with a solid one-two punch in the starting rotation. Loewen, who was signed to the largest bonus in club history ($3.2 million) in 2002, is a hard thrower who averaged 9.3 strikeouts per nine innings, posting a 10-8 record with a 4.12 ERA at Frederick last year. Johnson was 12-9 with a 3.45 and a Carolina League leading 168 strikeouts in 159 innings.

With 21-year-old outfielder Nick Markakis on the Orioles active roster, the Baysox will look for outfielder Jeff Fiorentino (22 dingers, 66 RBI, .286 at Frederick) to provide some pop in a batting order that includes first baseman Mario Delgado, who knocked 26 homers with 86 RBI and a .306 average last year with Frederick.

On the road until May 5, the Baysox will return for a six game home stand versus Akron and New Britain.

Frederick Keys (A)

While pursuit of minor league championships is not always a priority for major league parent organizations (whose focus is primarily on player development), the Frederick Keys 2005 Carolina League championship certainly bolstered the Baltimore Orioles minor league organizational status. With a 79-61, record the Keys defeated the Kinston Indians three games to two in the league's Mills Cup championship.

The Keys were led at the plate by Delgado, Fiorentino and Markakis ,who have all moved on, as well as outfielders Brandon Florence (16 HR, 51 RBI, .325) and Dustin Yount, (yes Robin's son) with 12 home runs and 52 RBI and shortstop Bryan Bass with 12 homers and 51 RBI. Florence has since departed as a free agent, but Yount and Bass remain with the Keys.

Left-handed pitcher Garrett Olson and outfielder Nolan Reimold were both listed as organizational top ten prospects by Baseball America. Olson was 2-1 with a nifty 1.58 ERA in 40 innings over six starts with (A) Aberdeen of the short-season NY Penn League last year. Reimold split time between Aberdeen and Frederick knocking 15 home runs with 41 RBI and a .285 average in 73 games.

The Keys will be at home, versus Winston Salem, from May 1-4.

Delmarva Shorebirds (A)

The fortunes of the Delmarva Shorebirds this year may very well rest with a pair of teen-aged Brandons: Catcher/third baseman Snyder and pitcher Erbe are the two most highly touted prospects on the team. Within the organization, they are being named among the top ten. Brandon Snyder, 19, was impressive during brief stints at short-season Bluefield and Aberdeen compiling a .291 batting average and .488 slugging percentage. Brandon Erbe, 18, brings a mid-90s fastball and struck out nearly two batters every inning he pitched, including an amazing 48 Ks in 23 innings at Bluefield.

The 2005 Shorebirds finished 72-67 in second place nine games behind Northern Division leading Lexington in the low A South Atlantic League. Outfielder Jason Fransz, now with Frederick, led the league with 111 RBI.

Issue 1.1: April 27, 2006