Top Ten Prospects: Baltimore Orioles
Complete Index of Top 10s
By Will Lingo
Baseball America's Top 10 Prospects lists are based on projections of a player's long-term worth after discussions with scouting and player-development personnel. All players who haven't exceeded the major league rookie standards of 130 at-bats or 50 innings pitched (without regard to service time) are eligible. Ages are as of April 1, 2004.
The Orioles drew national attention with the signings of shortstop Miguel Tejada and Javy Lopez. With Vladimir Guerrero the likely cherry on top of their free-agent sundae, the Orioles are suddenly relevant again after several years in baseball exile.
The reconstruction of the franchise actually started more than a year earlier, with the firing of general manager Syd Thrift after the 2002 season ended. Owner Peter Angelos took the unusual step of hiring Jim Beattie and Mike Flanagan to share the GM duties, but their first year together yielded promising results.
One of their first moves was hiring Doc Rodgers as farm director to bring stability to a system in disarray. After the organization had the game’s worst minor league winning percentage (.434) in 2002, it improved to 20th (.486) last year. More important, Rodgers brought communication and discipline back to player development. Players actually blossomed rather than stagnated in the minors.
Rodgers started by putting new managers at five of the organization’s seven affiliates. On the first day of minor league spring training last year, he emphasized his old-school principles by telling players to show at least four inches of sock. When several didn’t adhere to the rule, Rodgers brought a ruler to a meeting the next day. The Orioles also made a better effort to let players know the organization’s expectations and how they were doing at fulfilling them. Rodgers met individually with every player in minor league camp.
The message was consistent, as was the instruction. Instead of hearing different things from different coaches, players worked under a standardized training regimen for every level in the organization. The Oriole Way returned.
“It was really just a case of getting back to fundamentals,” Rodgers said. “We emphasized work ethic, communication, expectations and accountability, and our players responded.”
While making significant changes in the minor leagues, Beattie and Flanagan made few big moves with the big league team before the 2003 season. Knowing a quick fix wouldn’t work, they spent time assessing their talent.
During the summer, they unloaded Sidney Ponson and Jeff Conine and got five players who should surpass the talent they got in their great purge of 2000. Three years earlier, they dealt six veterans and received only one player of value, Melvin Mora. This time the club got big league righthanders Kurt Ainsworth and Damian Moss (who was nontendered in December) as well as Denny Bautista, Ryan Hannaman and Don Levinski, who rank among the organization’s best pitching prospects.
The next step was replacing manager Mike Hargrove with the younger, more dynamic Lee Mazzilli. Finally came the free agents, adding premium players to a team devoid of impact talent.
The Orioles still have a lot of questions to answer before they can contend in the American League East, especially on the pitching staff. And the minor league system, while dramatically improved, still isn’t close to ranking among the best in the game. But the organization has made significant steps in the right direction on both fronts.
Top Prospect: Adam Loewen, lhp
Age: 19 Ht.: 6-6 Wt.: 220 Bats: L Throws: L
Background: As significant as free agents Miguel Tejada and Javy Lopez were to the major league team, the signing of Loewen was just as important for the farm system. It provided a true impact player to an organization that sorely needed one. It also showed the team’s new administration was willing to move boldly to bring in talent. The Orioles took Loewen fourth overall in 2002, making him the highest-drafted Canadian ever, but tried to lowball him in negotiations. With the Orioles’ offer at $2.5 million and Loewen standing on a demand of $4 million, he enrolled at Chipola (Fla.) JC, becoming the earliest pick to take the draft-and-follow route in draft history. The Orioles signed him minutes before they would have lost his rights. He received a major league contract with a $3.2 million bonus and a guaranteed value of $4.02 million. It was clear at an early age that Loewen was special. He led a team from British Columbia to the 1996 Little League World Series, handed Korea its only loss at the 2000 World Junior Championship and no-hit the Pirates’ Rookie-level Dominican Summer League team during a Team Canada tour in 2001. The Orioles played it safe with Loewen after he signed, giving him just seven starts, none more than five innings, and shutting him down in August.
Strengths: With two plus pitches and the possibility of two more, Loewen has legitimate No. 1 starter potential. His fastball usually ranges from 90-95 mph, though it was a bit lower at the end of the season as he tired. His curveball, a big 12-to-6 breaker, is his best pitch. He has a good feel for a changeup and has dabbled with a slider as well. He’s athletic with smooth mechanics, effortless arm action and good extension. Loewen would have been drafted early as a power-hitting outfielder if he wasn’t such a promising pitcher. His low-key demeanor on the mound earns comparisons to Tom Glavine. The Orioles praise his makeup and maturity as much as his physical ability.
Weaknesses: Because he needed little other than his fastball and curveball as an amateur, Loewen still needs work on his changeup. His fastball command also can improve, and he’s still learning to command his offspeed stuff. He’ll have to build up his durability and get accustomed to pitching from February through October.
The Future: Though they played it safe with Loewen last year, the Orioles expect him to move quickly to the big leagues. He’s motivated to get there, calling the team in November to see if he could come to the minor league complex in Sarasota, Fla., to work out. The Orioles told him to wait until January, and after spring training they’ll send him to low Class A Delmarva. He’ll probably spend half the season there before moving up to high Class A Frederick.