When the Orioles made their final cuts ahead of the 2019 season, there were some cries of anguish when outfielder Austin Hays, catcher Chance Sisco and some of their closest friends were rerouted to the club’s Triple-A team in Norfolk.
Given the analytical nature of the game today and the sometimes restrictive nature of the free agent system now in place, those cries have been heard at one time or another by all 30 major league teams. That’s especially true for those that have been through the dreaded “rebuild” phase, and the Orioles certainly qualify as the poster team for that strategy.
In retrospect, given the team’s (by now) well-established theme that no talent will be unveiled before its time (which, in some cases, could be prime), the demotions should not have shocked anyone. They may have been among the best hitters in the spring training camp — Hays, in fact, had been the best player — but neither had yet distinguished himself at the highest minor league level.
And, while Hays and Sisco were the best examples of the Orioles’ well-documented desire to build the organization from the bottom up, there were a few other demotees who could be lumped into the same category — pitchers Cody Carroll, Evan Phillips and Josh Rogers plus outfielders Anthony Santander and Yusniel Diaz being the most notable.
Even though he was considered the focal point of the trade that sent star infielder Manny Machado to the Los Angeles Dodgers last year, Diaz doesn’t have to be added to the 40-man roster until next year, so the chances of seeing him in Baltimore before the September callups are remote at best.
New general manager Mike Elias, the architect of the rebuilding plan, is on record as saying there are some players in the system who will be part of the Orioles’ next contender, so it will be interesting to see how Hays, Sisco and friends respond to their reassignment. If they need some examples, the team’s history provides some good ones — the careers of Bobby Grich, Don Baylor, Doug DeCinces and Terry Crowley being the four most prominent.
For sure, those were different times, under different guidelines and different rules, but they provide interesting studies about advanced minor league experience (as opposed to advanced analytics). After 63 games with Rochester in 1970, his fourth year in professional baseball, Grich was en route to a dream season (.383/.503/.570) when he was called up to the big leagues, where he spent the rest of the year as a bench player on a team that won the World Series.
While Grich was mostly warming the bench in Baltimore, Baylor took advantage of his roommate’s absence to carve out a .327/.429/.583 slash line at Rochester, where he won Minor League Player of the Year honors. Incredibly, the next year both were back on the same team, in Rochester. Grich’s line of .336/.439/.632 earned him Minor League Player of the Year honors over Baylor (.313/.422/.539).
“In spring training 1971, [coach] Billy Hunter came to me and asked what I’d rather do — play sparingly in the big leagues or go play every day in Triple-A. I said except for the money, I’d rather play every day,” Grich recalled. The major league minimum at the time was $12,500. “They told me there wouldn’t be any difference. [General manager] Harry Dalton actually gave me a $500 raise, so my salary was more in the minor leagues than it would have been in the big leagues — but the per diem was a lot different.”
Not to mention lost service time, which wasn’t even a consideration in those days.
“I honestly felt like I needed a full year at Triple-A before I’d be ready for the big leagues,” said Grich, who still has no regrets to this day and enjoyed a run at Rochester probably as good as any two-year stretch in minor league history. “I needed to play every day and I think it was the best thing for my career.”
DeCinces hardly had the same feeling three years later, when manager Earl Weaver told him that despite having solid credentials and a strong spring training, it would be to his benefit to play another year in the minor leagues rather than sit as Brooks Robinson’s heir-apparent-in-waiting.
“One of the most disappointing days of my career was when I got sent down in ‘74,” DeCinces said. “I told Earl I didn’t think it was in my best interests — but it was in the club’s best interest in a lot of ways. I began to think maybe it wasn’t in the cards for me to play in Baltimore. I had a big chip on my shoulder, but I worked hard to get back. I’d heard a lot of stories about players not being the right guy in the right place, and I didn’t want to be one of those guys.”
After the unwanted additional year in the minor leagues, and with the prospect of ultimately replacing a legend, DeCinces carved out a nice career with the O’s and later the California Angels.
“To this day I believe my greatest accomplishment in baseball was being able to replace Brooks and go on to have my own career against some long odds,” he said.
In some ways, Crowley’s experience with the Orioles in 1977 was even more unique. His career had been somewhat checkered to that point, though it did include a World Series ring with the 1975 Cincinnati Reds, so when the Orioles released him at the end of spring training he considered hanging it up. He had lost his job to an untested rookie he didn’t think was ready for the big leagues and found himself at a baseball crossroads.
It turned out Crowley was much better at assessing his own ability than he was judging others — at least at that stage of his career. The rookie was Eddie Murray, so that was a bad call, but after some deliberation Crowley made a decision and the best prediction I’ve ever heard coming out of spring training.
“I’m going to go [to Rochester] … hit .300, hit 30 home runs and prove that I can still play,” Crowley said, still not convinced he didn’t belong on the major league roster.
He played 108 minor league games that year with a slash line of .308/.372/.600 — and, yes, he hit exactly 30 home runs. It was, in a couple of ways, the most productive year of a 15-year career.
The Orioles brought Crowley back to the big leagues Aug. 16, 1977, the day Robinson retired. He would go on to play six more years in the big leagues — and become a much better judge of talent as a longtime hitting coach for the Minnesota Twins and Orioles.
As stated earlier, there are major differences between the circumstances of today’s players and those of yesteryear — the option rule being a prime example (a subject for another day); the Orioles’ minor league system is not on prospect overload; and, of course, the most obvious of all — there are no future Hall of Famers blocking the way.
But if history can indeed be the best teacher, then maybe Hays, Sisco and friends can learn something here about extended stays, and success, at the highest level of the minor leagues. What they most definitely will learn, however, is the process can be a slow one.
Jim Henneman can be reached at JimH@pressboxonline.com
Photo Credit: Courtesy of the Baltimore Orioles
Issue 253: April 2019