By Staci Wolfson
When the Orioles traveled to Minnesota in June, the team they faced wasn't all that different from themselves.
With inadequate pitching staffs and stale offenses, both the Twins and the Orioles were struggling to climb out of fourth place in their respective divisions, the Twins over 10 games out of first place and the Orioles nine games back. But only one team found its way back to the top and into the hunt for the playoffs.
|(Photos by Mitch Stringer/PressBox)|
At the opposite end, the Orioles have consistently held down fourth place in the AL East and as September approaches face the conclusion of their ninth consecutive losing season.
Over the past nine seasons, the Orioles organization has offered a number of reasons and promises for a better future. One common refrain has been that a middle-of-the-pack payroll will not allow the Orioles to compete with their high-spending division neighbors, the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox. According to the Associated Press, at the season's start the Orioles' payroll was 15th among major league teams while the Yankees and the Red Sox ranked first and second, respectively.
"The one thing, the difference, between our club and the Orioles is, they're in this division out here with the Yankees and the Red Sox and they're playing them 19 times,"
Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. "They have to go out on the market to stay competitive in that division.
"Our division is very good now and our team has developed and we've played very good baseball, but being in this division, the Orioles can't. It's hard to just develop your players and stay up. They've had to go into the free agent market to compete with the Yankees and the Red Sox because that's what (those two teams) do."
But even though the Orioles face a financial obstacle, the monetary gap between Minnesota and its division rivals is just as daunting. The Twins have the 12th lowest payroll among major league teams while the Chicago White Sox and Detroit Tigers rank fourth and 14th highest, respectively.
Regardless of the role that money plays in baseball, the Tigers' record is the best in the American League while Chicago's winning percentage is higher than Boston's. They may not have the two highest payrolls in baseball, but the White Sox and Tigers still provide a difficult challenge for the small-market Twins.
While a tight budget is never an advantage, the Twins have seemingly taken their underprivileged lemons and turned them into lemonade.
"They know that they're not a big market club from the start," Orioles manager Sam Perlozzo said. "They take great pride in their scouting and development program. They're just doing a great job at it. Minnesota seems like their development system is something that they put extreme emphasis on and they do a good job of it ."
When the Twins suffered from eight losing seasons in a row in the '90s, they decided it was time for a change. They started by working from the bottom to the top.
"In the mid-'90s or late-'90s we were going through a period where we were really sucking," Gardenhire said. "We were playing bad baseball and we decided it was time to go a new direction and totally use our farm system and develop our players, draft our players and build from the bottom up and get a strong system so we would have players continually coming through our system that could help us."
Gardenhire, who last year became the first Twins manager to lead his team to four consecutive winning seasons, said he sees the difference a strong farm system can make.
"There's a big emphasis on developing your own system, drafting your players, and our scouts being out there longer than anybody else's scouts and studying," he said. "And it's worked, I mean, it really has worked. We see it, a lot of our players come from our system or we make trades and get minor leaguers from other teams and we develop those players in our system. So we've been very lucky but also our system has been very good."
On the other hand, over the Orioles' last eight seasons, the organization has divided its efforts between building a minor league system and navigating the market via trades and off-season free agent acquisitions.
Because of this, the Orioles lack one of the Twins' secret weapons, an asset that has perhaps helped make the Minnesota pitching staff one of the best in the big leagues.
"We haven't ventured into the free agents, so we've had, I guess the word is probably continuity," Gardenhire said. "We've had a little bit of togetherness for a while and it's maintained. We've developed [our bullpen] and made a couple of nice trades to pick up some guys, but our pitching staff stayed together and we've developed groups through our minor leagues and used them really well."
Although the Orioles' farm system has been an object of criticism in past years, it's not without hope. Outfielder Nick Markakis, who is putting up Rookie of the Year numbers this season, said he has seen first-hand what the minor leagues have in store.
"We've got a great farm system," Markakis said. "We've got great talent down there."
While Markakis has been a success as a position player out of the minor leagues, Baltimore's system is stockpiled with young arms. This season the ailing bullpen has been aided by Chris Britton and Kurt Birkins while Adam Loewen has given fans faith in a future starting rotation.
"I think we've got a lot of good pitching; a bunch of guys are a couple years away from being really solid major league pitchers," Loewen said. "We've got a good core group of guys in Double-A and in Ottawa, so things are looking up. It's been a lot better than it has been in the past."
Another byproduct of dependence on a minor league system is a perpetually young team. Going into last week's series, the Orioles' active roster included six players under 30, making up a list that compiled an average age of 29.7.
And not only does youth hold promise for a future, Perlozzo said youth changes the atmosphere.
While Perlozzo is using his veterans every day, Gardenhire is getting some of the best numbers from his youngest players. Catcher Joe Mauer, a homegrown 23-year-old Twin, is having his best offensive season yet, spending much of the season leading the AL in batting average. His hitting is complemented by 25-year-old first baseman Justin Morneau's burst of power; after hitting two home runs in the first game of the season against the Orioles, Morneau has easily surpassed his career-best 22 home runs. He already has 32 on the year.
The defense is no different. Anchored in the front by veteran starter Brad Radke and in the back by closer Joe Nathan, Minnesota's pitching staff boasts 27-year-old Cy Young Award winner Johan Santana with a 3.01 ERA and rookie phenom Francisco Liriano with a 2.19 ERA.
Although the Twins struggled early in the season, Loewen said Minnesota has emerged as the full package.
"As soon as they moved Liriano to the starting rotation I think that gave them extra depth in their starting rotation and their bullpen's been throwing great since," he said. "Morneau's turned his game around since we've last seen him. A lot of guys stepped it up."
After Loewen struck out seven batters in eight innings of one-run ball to lead Baltimore to a 6-3 victory over the Twins in the first game of the August series, Gardenhire said he sees similarities between the two pitching staffs.
"Talking with Sammy Perlozzo, he likes the looks of some of these young pitchers," Gardenhire said. "Like Loewen, for sure, that was unbelievable. You look at that young man and watch him throw the ball and some of the other guys are going with him. And they've got some great young hitters and some great young players and you can pick a few of those guys and they're going in the right direction."
Loewen said he hopes for the same kind of success that Minnesota has experienced.
"Hopefully (Erik) Bedard and I can become a lot wiser and learn as much as we can so we can have a pitching staff like theirs," he said.
Perlozzo agrees and said the Orioles are a bullpen away from matching the Twins, whose pitching staff is on the opposite end of the spectrum from the Orioles in runs allowed, ERA, walks issued and home runs allowed.
"Daniel Cabrera and Adam Loewen have been really great lately," Perlozzo said. "And then the emergence of Erik Bedard, coming through like he has. We look like we've got a No. 1 or No. 2 guy in our rotation now. If we can fix our bullpen like Minnesota's then we're gonna have a chance too."
Continuity is something that has been present throughout the Twins' organization, not just among its players. After Tom Kelly replaced Ray Miller as manager of the Twins in 1986, he remained manager until 2002, when Gardenhire took over. Over that same span of time, the Orioles have operated under 10 managers, skippers whose styles have ranged from that of the fiery Earl Weaver to that of composed Lee Mazzilli.
Although Gardenhire's 27 career ejections -- his seventh this season coming in last Wednesday night's game against the Orioles -- reflect a personality different than that of the calmer Kelly, the low turnover has resulted in a sole philosophy, something the Orioles organization finds itself lacking.
"I was with T.K. as a coach for 11 years and you knew what to expect," Gardenhire said. "I think players knew what to expect coming into this organization. They knew what we were all about, respecting the game of baseball. And when I took over, it was the same thing. It didn't really change because I believe in the same philosophy."
Oriole reliever LaTroy Hawkins, who came up through the Twins' farm system and spent nine years with the team, said he sees a large difference between the way Minnesota and Baltimore have handled their managers.
"I played for Tom Kelly and Ron Gardenhire," Hawkins said. "When Tom Kelly retired, we never saw it coming. I think the thing that helped the Twins is that they hire within. Over here I think they've done things a little differently. They went away, away, away and then they hired within. I think that helps, hiring within."
Perlozzo, who began his major league managing career as interim manager after Mazzilli was fired last year, said consistent management sets the tone for the whole establishment.
"Stability in the organization and when they feel like they have a certain guy that they like and they believe in that person and they ride with him, it becomes a lot easier to keep a standard of operation throughout the minor leagues," Perlozzo said. "All the players know exactly what to expect, what the big league manager expects and it works all the way down through the minor league system."
Said Gardenhire: "It's not just like, go out and fire people and let them go. You get something that works and you stay with it and you continuously try to mix the players up and try to find the right ways. We're pretty lucky. It's a good organization for that because they believe in their people and they're loyal."
Issue 1.19: August 31, 2006