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Is the Baltimore System Falling Behind?

Baseball America recently published their top 20 prospects from the two Rookie-level leagues where the Orioles fielded affiliates in 2010, the Appy League and the Gulf Coast League.  No Oriole prospect was selected for either list, while every other AL East team had multiple selections (Red Sox 2, Yankees 3, Blue Jays 4 and Rays 7).

To some extent, this listing is deceiving - the Rays and Jays failed to sign multiple protected picks in the 2009 draft, and therefore had extra picks in 2010, which they used on easy to sign players who went quickly to rookie level clubs.  But it also reflects how the market for amateur talent has changed, and how the other clubs in the AL East are at the forefront of that change, while the Orioles have remained largely stagnant since the first wave of improvement under Andy MacPhail.

Last week, the Red Sox made a somewhat puzzling move, signing Felipe Lopez.  This move will not help the Red Sox in any meaningful way over the final week of the season, and Lopez was a problem in the clubhouse for the Cardinals and is having a poor season.  But Lopez is a Type B free agent who is being paid a low salary in 2010, allowing the Red Sox to offer arbitration and possibly gain a supplemental first round pick for roughly $50,000.

AL East teams have become experts at stockpiling picks in the supplemental round, with the Red Sox having two supplemental picks in the 2010 draft, one in 2008, and two in 2007; the Blue Jays netting three in 2010, one in 2009, and three in 2007; the Rays netting one in 2010 and the Yankees trailing with their most recent supplemental pick in 2008.  The Orioles have not had a supplemental first round pick since 2006, and in the intervening period have lost three picks due to signing Type A free agents.

MacPhail and scouting director Joe Jordan downplayed the impact of this last offseason, when the signing of Mike Gonzalez cost the Orioles their second-round pick, suggesting that overslot deals in later rounds could assuage the loss of high picks due to free agent signings.  However, the outcome of this so far has been disappointing.  The GCL Orioles in 2010 featured several overslot signings from later rounds - Cameron Coffey, Tim Berry, Sebastian Vader, Wynston Sawyer, and David Rivera.  None were impressive enough to make BA's top 20.  The same was true of the Bluefield Orioles, who featured David Baker, Jarrett Martin, Michael Ohlman, and Brenden Webb.

Looking at the players who were selected as top prospects from the rookie leagues by BA, we see that the drafted players were nearly all from the top three rounds.  The honored players are names like Delino DeShields Jr., Mike Foltynewicz, Todd Glaesmann, Jake Marinsick, Kellin Sweeney and Cito Culver.  Like other markets in baseball talent, the draft is becoming an efficient market - teams are less and less inclined to allow the top talents to slip into the later rounds.  The handful of players who are from below the second round on this list, such as Marinsick or Luke Bailey, were top talents who were given the kind of seven figure bonuses that the Orioles have not paid out since Jake Arrieta.

To some extent, this suggests that bias may play a role in BA's rankings.  This is also indicated by the high rankings of international signees who received high bonuses, such as Gary Sanchez, Miguel Sano, Juan Urbina and Max Kepler.  Scouts and evaluators already know the players who were drafted in the early rounds or who were given high bonuses, and they are more likely to see the potential of these players than they are the more anonymous names who get results on the field without the same fanfare.  But for minor league players, value is based on perception - the players who the industry believes are most valuable are going to be the ones most in demand, regardless of whether those players are actually the best prospects for eventual major league success.  And as player evaluation grows in importance, the market values of prospects and their actual values will continue to converge.

All of this suggests strongly that at least in the present, the quality of the prospects in the lower minors of the Orioles has fallen well behind that of the competition in the AL East.  This is a problem that even the greatest of managers cannot solve.  Until this disparity is rectified, our competition will develop more young stars, will be able to trade for more established players from other teams, and will have more talent on the field when we play them.  For a team that has spent over a decade losing the majority of their games, we cannot afford to allow this disparity to persist if we want to be competitive.  And the Baseball America rankings suggest that we have a lot of work to do simply to catch up.