The Orioles farm system is not very good, just about everyone who doesn’t work for the Orioles agrees. It is lacking in just about every way that you would not want your favorite team’s farm system to be lacking. Thankfullly, this hasn’t been hurting the O’s at the big league level this year. That doesn’t make it any less of an issue for the future.
With the way things are, there is no wonder why, during Saturday’s State of the Orioles Q&A session for season ticket holders, Dan Duquette faced a fan who wanted to know, “When will the Orioles farm system come into the 21st century?”
MASN’s Steve Melewski noted the exchange on his blog. When Duquette understood what the question was asking, he replied, “The same people that rate our farm system are the same people that pick us last in the AL East every year.”
Whether or not that’s true almost doesn’t even matter. That’s a great response. Nothing will get the Baltimore sports fan on your side faster than appealing to an “us vs. them” kind of attitude about the national sports press. Duquette’s been around long enough to know it.
In at least one case, at least for this season, it is true. ESPN’s Keith Law rated the Orioles farm system 27th out of 30 MLB teams back in February, and when he predicted the AL East for the year, he put the Orioles in last with a 74-88 record. His assessment: “The Orioles weren’t good in 2015 and I see no argument they are any better now ... This could all go pretty wrong.”
What’s actually gone pretty wrong is that prediction.
The past is not the future
Duquette had more to say about the farm than just the quip about the media rating of the system. As transcribed onto Melewski’s blog:
“We are state-of-the-art in several different areas, so trust me when I tell you the farm system is very good. The people that rate those, I want to ask them, is a good farm system the one that produces a lot of players, or produces great players?
“We have great players that came through our system. We have Matt Wieters, Manny Machado, (Jonathan) Schoop, Zach Britton, the dominant closer in the league. That, to me, is the sign of a healthy farm system. Don’t believe everything you read. The Orioles are healthy, from top to bottom.”
The reference to the number of good to great players who are on the team right now who’ve come up through the system is akin to a magician distracting you with one hand while his other hand is performing the trick.
Duquette isn’t wrong that the Orioles have a number of key players - and by the way, all of the ones he named were drafted or signed before he was the GM - who’ve worked their way up to the majors through their own farm and are now big contributors to the team.
The problem is that this does absolutely nothing to alleviate concerns that right now the Orioles farm system is weak. If the next players of the caliber of Wieters, Machado, or Schoop are down there, they haven’t revealed themselves yet.
It’s not exactly all Duquette’s fault that the farm is depleted of star talent. Some of that is because the Orioles have been winning ever since he got here. When you’re good, you don’t get to draft the next Wieters or Machado. The Orioles haven’t had a top 10 pick to play with since their bad 2011 season resulted in the #4 pick in 2012’s draft.
The price of chasing the pennant
Another fan brought up the trade of Andrew Miller for Eduardo Rodriguez and said she hoped that didn’t happen again.
Duquette responded with something very revealing about his thinking: “You have to reinvest your minor league assets into your major league team if you want to advance and win the World Series.”
This is a fair statement to make. Though there are those who still don’t like that trade, it was a move made to bolster a good Orioles team and try to make them great enough to win the World Series. If the Royals hadn’t had every bloop and fluke play go their way for an entire week, the O’s may have gotten to that World Series.
With the 2016 Orioles team in first place entering the last week in July, it seems reasonable to view this O’s squad as one with a lot of potential, despite their flaws. Every team has flaws. Even the Cubs, who have the best record in MLB, look to be trading a top 50 prospect for two months of Aroldis Chapman.
If the Orioles actually had a good farm system, I might feel better about their chances of being able to significantly improve on this year’s team on the trade market. If they had a strong farm like Boston’s, they might have been able to dangle their fourth-best prospect for whatever starting pitcher they wanted. Trey Mancini isn’t getting you the best pitcher on the market.
They don’t have that. Even if they were inclined to trade their top/only pitching prospect, Hunter Harvey, he just got put on the shelf to get Tommy John surgery. For position players, they have Chance Sisco - who is someone who seems like he’ll be needed mightily on the 2017 roster, so how could you trade him? - and basically nobody else anywhere close to the majors.
At least when the Orioles made that Rodriguez trade, they seemed to have some other depth at that position. That depth doesn’t exist any more because of other trades that have since been made, like the failed attempts to acquire an outfielder from last year. Those moves cost the Orioles Stephen Tarpley and Steven Brault as well as Zach Davies.
Meanwhile, Davies has a 3.64 ERA in 17 starts for the Brewers. Brault was called up by the Pirates for a spot start and seems to have more in his future. Keep Davies, and maybe you don’t have to give up your first round pick in desperation to sign Yovani Gallardo. These are snowballing issues.
What a good farm system looks like
If the Orioles farm system were any good, as Duquette contends, what do you think that would look like? This is a slippery question as there is more than one way to have a solid farm system. They don’t all have to look alike. A team’s farm system might be good overall and still weak in some areas.
Still, a good farm system probably has four or more players on various top 100 prospect lists. A good system can call upon prospects from the high minors if there is an injury at several different positions, rather than relying on veteran retreads. A good system should be able to at least pencil in replacements for soon-to-be free agents.
A good farm system does not look like Mike Wright and Tyler Wilson both making a double digit number of starts for a contending team. It doesn’t look like having 30-year-old Julio Borbon up from Double-A as an injury replacement. And when you think about having three open starting rotation spots after next season, a good farm system has a decent answer for at least two of those. The Orioles just don’t have those answers.
It’s not all the end of the world. After all, having a good farm system doesn’t mean anything in and of itself. Most evaluators seem to think the Braves have the best farm system right now. Great for them, but at the big league level they have lost two-thirds of their games. Not even the bad Orioles of the early-00s were ever THAT bad.
The Orioles have managed to get by with papering over many of the deficiencies, and they’ve been able to do some things very well, like cultivate a series of bullpen arms that really make a difference. There aren’t many organizations that could do what the Orioles have done with the rotation they have had so far this year.
They’ve also been able to make moves that don’t even involve the farm, like sending Steve Clevenger for Mark Trumbo. What a deal that was. My goodness. It’s almost the end of July and the Orioles have 30 home runs from a guy they acquired for a catcher with a .608 career OPS.
You can get around having a weak farm system if you are good at these other things. Duquette is better at all of it than most give him credit for being. But that doesn’t mean the Orioles have a good farm system at this moment just because they’re winning for other reasons. They don’t.
As long as they keep winning at the big league level, people won’t care too much. It’s only when the winning stops and there are no reinforcements that it will be a problem. The party doesn’t look like it’ll be stopping in the 2016 season. This is a problem for another day, and that’s enough for now.