There is a mystery at work in Baltimore that is just beginning to get the attention that it should, and it invites speculation about possible motives far more sinister than anything Starling Marte did with a syringe. For this reason, those responsible should address it, in detail, right away:
The Orioles have curtailed their Latin American scouting, not just now but going back years. There is no explanation for this that can withstand the slightest scrutiny, and the club has offered none.
About a month back I wrote this about the Orioles’ record of scouting in the Dominican Republic and other Latin American countries:
Here is the list of great position players signed out of the Dominican Republic by the Orioles:
Here is the list of great starting pitchers signed out of the Dominican Republic by the Orioles:
Here is the list of great relievers signed out of the Dominican Republic by the Orioles: Armando Benitez? Jose Mesa if you give them credit for the decision made by the Indians to move him to the bullpen 13 years later?
Daniel Cabrera is the most successful Dominican-born pitcher in Orioles history with 5.5 career WAR. Miguel Tejada, signed away from the Oakland A’s as a free agent during the 2003-2004 offseason, had 19.5 WAR as a member of the team, by far the most from a Dominican native in team history.
Basically, the Orioles haven’t shown up down south and the major-league team has paid for it. But, Ken Rosenthal noted this week, “It’s difficult to argue with the team’s major-league success—the Orioles have won the most games in the American League since 2012, including their 8-3 start this season.”
With all due respect to Rosenthal, it’s very easy to argue with that. I grew up watching the team that won the most games in the decade of the 1980s (the Yankees). They boasted of this constantly as a smoke screen for their inability to win anything that matters. They couldn’t even make it to the postseason after 1981. Ask them if they were satisfied to win a lot of regular-season games. Ask Theo Epstein and Joe Maddon if they would have been satisfied to stop with the best record in baseball last year. Ask any surviving member of the 1954 Indians, who won 111 games and got steamrollered by the Giants in the World Series. Ask the 2001 Mariners.
We can’t know what the Orioles would have done if they had just bothered to put themselves on a level playing field with most other teams in terms of Latin American scouting, but had they done so with any competence at any time over the last couple of decades, they almost certainly would have been better and might even have gotten deeper playoff penetration than they have during their revival period. There are players now heading into the Hall of Fame who might have played in Baltimore had the team made a little effort, but never mind Cooperstown; even signing some average players would have deepened a team that, never mind what has happened since 2012, totally disappeared from 1998 through 2011. That was an accomplishment, and if the Orioles did it once they can do it again.
Last week, the outstanding Ben Badler of Baseball America published a review of the Orioles’ international efforts that excoriated the team for its lack of commitment:
Most teams sign around 25-30 international players per year. In the entire 2016 calendar year, the Orioles signed just five players. They didn’t sign any notable prospects on July 2. And on those five players they did sign, the Orioles spent just $260,000 total… The Rays—who have been under the penalty and unable to sign anyone for more than $300,000 the last two signing periods—spent $3 million and signed 36 players in the 2016 calendar year.
Since Badler’s article ran, the Orioles have traded a couple of international draft slots totaling about $1.1 million in exchange for fringe pitchers. This is nothing new. According to Badler, the Orioles spent only half of the approximately $2 million they had been allotted for the 2015-2016 international signing period, their biggest bonus totaling only $300,000.
Compare to the Braves, who gave Venezuelan shortstop Kevin Maitain $4.25 million, or the Padres, who spent $4.05 million on Dominican shortstop Luis Almanzar. Their biggest bonus the year before was $350,000. They spent less money than any other team in 2013, their highest bonus being $325,000 to the Dominican picker Ofelky Peralta.
Again, compare with the Cubs, who signed their current top prospect Eloy Jimenez that season for $2.8 million and Venezuelan shortstop Gleyber Torres, now the Yankees’ top prospect, for $1.7 million. The Orioles are budgeting for minute steak when almost every club is dealing in seven-figure filet mignon.
There are presently five players of Dominican birth on the Orioles’ 40-man roster, plus Jonathan Schoop and Anthony Santander, from Curacao and Venezuela, respectively. Their first venture into the new market of Cuban players, Dariel Alvarez, was a weird flier that has worked out very badly. Another Cuban signee, pitcher Ariel Miranda, was traded to the Mariners for Wade Miley after one major-league game. There was also the aforementioned Miguel Tejada, and a year of Nelson Cruz. It’s not as if the Orioles never sign players of Latin American origin, they just don’t go out of their way to do so.
Let us state that more affirmatively, given the number of dollars they’re leaving on the table: They go out of their way not to do so, even at the cost of limiting the major-league team’s chances.
One can imagine a righteous ownership not wanting to dabble in the corrupt world of the buscones, those local Svengalis who help professionalize young players in return for a cut of their signing bonus. That would be noble, if self-defeating , but it doesn’t hold water. The Orioles do sign some players, after all, not none. If a statement is being made, it’s half-hearted, inconsistent, and unrealistic.
Presumably following up on Badler’s story, Rosenthal asked O’s general manager Dan Duquette, an executive who has never shied from taking talent wherever he could find it, why the team was averse to overseas scouting. Duquette’s flat, inadequate response was that it’s, “an ownership decision.”
There is no answer for why Orioles ownership would choose largely to forego one of baseball’s chief sources of dynamic, inexpensive talent. It is startling to think that baseball’s smartest, most well-run teams see talent to our south that is worth millions while the Orioles do not.
Maybe ownership is so poor, so compelled to pinch pennies, that it can’t muster even $1.5 million (the amount spent by the Royals, the next most-self-defeating club in the last signing period) to sign a few players. If so, it should sell to someone who has the resources to run a baseball team. If that is not the answer, then we have to ask why ownership would forego this obvious resource. There is no rational answer.
It’s not as if the Orioles use the June draft so spectacularly well they don’t need the talent. They do. Their farm system lingers at the bottom of the annual rankings — whoever is making them — like gum on baseball’s shoe. Remember Matt Hobgood? Hell, they’re still waiting for Billy Rowell to show up. He went ninth overall in the 2006 draft. The next two picks have been worth four Cy Young Awards to date. They were Tim Lincecum and Max Scherzer.
Those were irrational decisions too, but at least they can be defended as errors of foresight, scouting, perception of talent, or just plumb incompetence. There is no such defense for a scouting “strategy” that largely eschews an entire region. Just as there is an alternative world, a better, more just world in which Frank Robinson blasted balls over the Green Monster 81 games a year (he hit .350/.464/.724 lifetime as a Fenway visitor, all in his old age) and Minnie Minoso lined 20 triples a year into Yankee Stadium’s expansive left-center field gap. In the same way, there is a world where Johnny Cueto and Robinson Cano came up as Orioles, where their fans don’t hate Jose Bautista — as Duquette has repeatedly claimed they do — because he was one of their own, where exciting young Orioles include Nomar Mazara, Miguel Sano, and Gary Sanchez.
If Baltimore ownership doesn’t want to have players like that, it owes baseball an explanation why. It’s something Commissioner Rob Manfred should be asking about as well.