O's system packed with young talent

O's system packed with young talent

BALTIMORE -- It's the farm system that keeps on giving. The Orioles may have gone through a barren patch in the early part of the decade when they didn't have much homegrown talent, but they've struck it rich in recent seasons and still have a bumper crop of highly rated prospects poised to get their shot at the big leagues.

Some of those prospects have come from the Draft, and some of them have come from trades. And after the recent promotions of Matt Wieters, Brian Matusz and Chris Tillman to the Major Leagues, nobody stands taller than third baseman Josh Bell, who was acquired last season.

Bell, who came over from the Dodgers in the midseason trade for closer George Sherrill, thrived at Double-A Bowie and then went on to star in the postseason showcase Arizona Fall League. David Stockstill, Baltimore's director of player development, said the Orioles are thrilled with what they've seen from Bell so far.

"He's made outstanding progress, especially working on his range and his agility at third base," he said. "I saw him in the last week of the Arizona Fall League, and he made a few nice plays at third and got his bat head on the ball very quickly and very consistently from the left side. He was making some progress from the right side also."

The Orioles saw Nolan Reimold step up and contribute last season, and they feel like Bell and fellow prospect Brandon Snyder are a half-season away from further fleshing out the team's youth movement. Baltimore has several highly touted arms littered through the entire system, and Stockstill thinks he may have a couple sleepers.

When asked about prospects who may have a chance to step up and surprise people in the next few seasons, Stockstill nominated Class A shortstop Pedro Florimon and hard-throwing reliever Luis Lebron.

"I think Pedro Florimon has a good chance," he said. "And I think Luis Lebron has an outstanding chance to be a good relief pitcher in the big leagues. He's throwing 96-97 mph with a very good slider. He's pitched about 10 innings in the Dominican Winter League and he hasn't given up a run yet. We've put them both on the Major League roster this year, and by doing that, we're obviously showing that we have confidence in them."

Bell: Bell projects as a strong offensive third baseman, and several scouts report that he's really improved his defense over the past year or so. Bell earned a lot of attention for his right-heavy batting splits, but Stockstill said that's an overrated criticism of his game and that the 23-year-old is making fine progress from both sides of the plate.

"I wouldn't say it's struggles as much as the left-hand swing is advanced over the right-hand swing," said Stockstill of the young switch-hitter. "It's just something that will catch up as he works on it more."

Jake Arrieta, RHP: Arrieta has often been compared to Tillman and Matusz and is considered part of Baltimore's "Big Three" going forward, but he hit a road block at Triple-A Norfolk and will be watched carefully in Spring Training. Arrieta will likely make his big league debut at some point next year and could wind up as a rotation fixture.

"Arrieta just needs to be more consistent," said Stockstill. "He had a stretch of about six games in July and August where he was just outstanding. He needs to continue to do that. Before that, he was working on being more consistent in his release point and in pitching side-to-side and up with his fastball. He needs to keep working side-to-side and be able to make one pitch after another instead of taking a couple pitches to adjust."

Zach Britton, LHP: A southpaw with an outstanding sinker, Britton provided a fairly dominant season for Class A Frederick last year. The Orioles will test him at Bowie in 2010, and he should spend most of the season there. If Britton, a former third-round Draft choice, can repeat his success, he'll likely move into the team's rotation plans for 2011.

"Zach made outstanding improvements," said Stockstill. "One thing that probably hurt his numbers this year was that he gained 2-3 mph on his fastball. And when he did that, he tried to strike out too many hitters early in the year. That ran his pitch-count up higher and he didn't get as many winning decisions as he could've. Once he backed off and went back to pitching to contact with that hard sinker and hard slider, then things came right back to him."

Brandon Snyder, 1B: Snyder, a former first-round draftee, started his pro career as a catcher, but moved out from behind the plate after a major shoulder injury. Snyder has shown steady progress at the bat and busted out for Bowie last year before struggling at Norfolk, a showing that may ultimately delay his big league debut by a half-season.

Still, Stockstill said that the concerns that Snyder can't hit at Triple-A are exaggerated at best.

"Snyder had an incredible first half this year, but then we moved him up to Triple-A and he had a lot of learning to do," he said. "Then he went back to the Arizona Fall League, which is closer to Double-A pitching, and he regained his confidence and played pretty well there. That ballpark at Norfolk is difficult for guys to hit the ball to right-center field, and he hit a lot of balls really good there that turned into outs. He tried to do too much."

Matt Hobgood, RHP: Hobgood, Baltimore's most recent first-round draftee, was named the Gatorade National High School Player of the Year last season. The right-handed pitcher didn't really get to play too much professionally, and the Orioles are still wondering what they have in the talented 6-foot-4 and 245-pound package of talent.

"I think it's just way too early," Stockstill said. "We really didn't see that much of him this year, because after he signed and got to where he could start pitching in games, he had to go to the West Coast for the Gatorade presentation and missed some time. It was a big year for him and a lot of things that he'd never gone through. He went to instructional league and did a good job, and I think we'll know a lot more about him after he plays a full year."

Spencer Fordin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.