By Daniel Gallen
Special to The Dagger
The Aberdeen IronBirds kick off their 2010 season against the Hudson Valley Renegades tonight at 7:35 p.m. at Ripken Stadium in Aberdeen. The Baltimore Orioles’ Class A short-season affiliate meets the Tampa Bay Rays’ affiliate for three games this weekend to open up a season that will stretch into the early part of September.
The IronBirds enter the season as a proving ground for young prospects who hope to one day help the big league team climb out of last place in the American League East. But the task won’t be easy.
Against the other teams of the New York-Penn League, the IronBirds will face some of the deepest farm systems in all of baseball. In addition to the Renegades, Cyclones, and Yankees, all of whom join Aberdeen in the McNamara Division, the league has the Lowell Spinners, a Boston Red Sox affiliate; the Connecticut Tigers, a Detroit Tigers affiliate; the Tri-City Valley Cats, a Houston Astros affiliate; and the Vermont Lake Monsters, a Washington Nationals affiliate, all of whom play in the Stedler Division.
Rounding out the league is the Pinckney Division, which contains the Auburn Doubledays, a Toronto Blue Jays affiliate; the Batavia Muckdogs, a St. Louis Cardinals affiliate; the Jamestown Jammers, a Florida Marlins affiliate; the Mahoning Valley Scrappers, a Cleveland Indians affiliate; the State College Spikes, a Pittsburgh Pirates affiliate; and the Williamsport Crosscutters, a Philadelphia Phillies affiliate.
Adding to the difficulty of the league is the fact that many of the draft picks sent to these teams are higher-level college players that have already seen a fair amount of action this year. Manager Gary Kendall said the league’s pitchers are especially tough for young hitters to face, as the pitchers “use what they need to survive.” Combined with their college experience, it can be difficult for even the best hitters to succeed.
“[Orioles outfielder and former IronBird Nick] Markakis didn’t even hit .300 here,” Kendall said. In Markakis’ lone season in Aberdeen in 2003, Markakis hit .283 with only one home run.
Left-hander Justin Anderson, a 24th-round draft pick in 2009, will make the Opening Day start for the IronBirds. Anderson spent 2009 with rookie-level Bluefield where he went 2-1 with a 2.50 ERA in 14 games. Upon his promotion to Aberdeen, Anderson made one start, giving up three runs over five innings while striking out two.
Saturday night will feature right-hander Scott Copeland, the Orioles’ 21st-round draft pick in 2010. Copeland was 11-1 with a 3.75 ERA in his senior year at Southern Mississippi.
Rounding out the series on Sunday will be right-hander Justin Moore. Moore was selected by the Orioles in the 26th round of the 2007 MLB Draft and will be entering his fourth year in the minor leagues. The pitcher spent his first two seasons with the Gulf Coast League before going 4-3 with a 3.11 ERA for Bluefield in 2009.
After this weekend, the IronBirds travel to New York City for two games with the Brooklyn Cyclones, a New York Mets affiliate, and three games with the Staten Island Yankees, a New York Yankees affiliate. These two teams are regarded as some of the better teams in the league and Staten Island has won five New York-Penn League championships.
Right-handed pitcher Tyler Sexton, who led the IronBirds in innings pitched and strikeouts in 2009, said, “This is a tough league.” Sexton said he focused on developing his pitch location, rather than velocity, at extended spring training in Sarasota, Fla. because of the “very good hitters” in the league. The 31st-round draft pick from 2008 said his velocity is topping out at about 85 to 86 mph, but said he feels comfortable with his pitching due to his ability to better locate pitches. However, Sexton said he wants to improve his strikeout-to-walk ratio, as it was 1.94-to-1 in 2009, and he also wants to last into later innings. The best appearance of his IronBirds career occurred on August 3, 2009 when he struck out a career-high eight batters over seven shutout innings against Staten Island.
While Kendall wants to win games, he understands that his primary job is to develop his players for the future. “I like to win games,” he said. “Winning breeds development.” Because of this, many IronBirds players will see playing time at different positions over the year.
The team has a log jam at first base with David Anderson, Mike Flacco, and Tyler Kolodny all rostered at the position. Kolodny is currently on a rehab assignment from Class A Delmarva, where he leads the team with 10 home runs. Kolodny was sent to extended spring training, where he started to learn how to play the outfield. He will play there for Aberdeen, and this versatility increases his chances of making it through the organization and making an impact. Kendall called Kolodny’s play a “work in progress” as he needs to adapt to playing balls live, but feels that “what he brings to the table” is too great to ignore.
After Kolodny’s stint with Aberdeen is over, Kendall will be left with Anderson and Flacco at first base. Kendall wants both players to get substantial playing time and hopes to do so by rotating them between first base and designated hitter. Kendall has talked to the Orioles about moving Flacco around and giving him time in the outfield. Kendall is a self-described “Mike Flacco fan” and said, “He needs to play baseball.”
Kendall feels that Flacco’s development will flourish if he can play every day, get his at-bats, and learn the game. After being drafted by the Orioles in the 31st-round of the 2009 MLB Draft out of CCBC-Catonsville, Flacco batted .272 with 3 home runs and 34 RBIs in 60 games with Bluefield before being promoted to Delmarva for five games at the end of the year where he was 3-19 (.158).
Anderson seems to be the safe bet to spend the most time at first base due to his large frame—he’s listed at 6-feet-6-inches, 240 pounds—and his need to develop his skills. In 2009, he led the Gulf Coast League Orioles in home runs, RBI, doubles, runs scored, and walks.
L.J. Hoes will begin the season at second base on an injury rehab assignment from Frederick. Hoes was batting .290 with one home run and 20 RBIs for the Keys and will be eased back into the lineup for the IronBirds before being sent back to Frederick sometime around June 25. After Hoes leaves, Omar Casamayora will take over at second base. Casamayora is entering his sixth year in the Orioles organization. In 2009, the Venezuelan batted .279 in 57 games with Bluefield. However, Kendall is looking to move some of the shortstops on the roster to second base, including 2010 31st-round draft pick Sam Starr or 2010 35th-round pick Joseph Donaldson.
“If he hits, he’ll play,” Kendall said of Casamayora.
Starr, a Toronto native, was drafted out of the University of British Columbia after batting .366 and stealing 14 bases as a senior. He said playing baseball in the United States will be “not much of a transition” and expects to get comfortable with his teammates quickly.
Donaldson led the Sun Conference and ranked fifth in the NAIA with 43 stolen bases at Southeastern University while batting .339 in 61 games.
Outfielder Jeremy Nowak is the highest-drafted player from the 2010 draft to start the season on the IronBirds roster, as the Orioles selected him in the 13th round. Nowak started his college career at Stony Brook University where he batted .286 over a three year span. After transferring to Mount Olive College, Nowak had a very successful senior campaign, leading Mount Olive in batting average (.446), hits (99), and runs scored (75), while finishing second on the team in home runs (17) and RBIs (81). Nowak also stole 26 bases while only striking out 22 times in 52 games. About his goals for the year, Nowak said, “I just want to have a successful year and play up to my potential.”
Joining Nowak in the outfield are Joel Polanco, who batted .268 for Bluefield in 2009; Kipp Schutz, who was drafted in the 19th round of the 2010 MLB Draft and batted .252 in 40 games for Bluefield in 2009; and Lance West.
West is one of the most intriguing prospects in the outfield in 2010. In 2008, he batted .210 in 29 games for Bluefield and in 2009, he batted .155 splitting time between Bluefield and Aberdeen. However, he had corrective eye therapy in the off-season and said he is seeing the ball better than he has ever seen it in his life. Kendall called West “very improved” and said it looks like West could make an impact with the team. Orioles fourth-round pick Trent Mummey, an outfielder from Auburn, could join the team if his contract is signed in time, adding depth to the outfield.
Behind the plate, the IronBirds have another logjam with four catchers on the roster. Kendall is looking to move Baltimore-native Zach Moore to the outfield. Moore batted .208 last season for Jamestown in the Marlins organization. Another, Austin Rauch, was signed as a minor league free agent. He has a career .196 batting average in five years in the minor leagues. Austin Goolsby was selected in the 26th round of the 2010 MLB Draft after batting .319 with 13 home runs and 57 RBIs as a senior at Embry-Riddle College. As a junior at Embry-Riddle, Goolsby basically matched those numbers, batting .344 with 12 home runs and 55 RBIs.
The final catcher rounding out the group is Joe Oliveira, a San Diego, Calif. native drafted in the 15th round of the 2010 MLB Draft. Oliveira batted .332 for Pacific University in 2010 after missing all of 2009 recovering from biceps surgery. Oliveira was targeted by the Orioles in previous drafts, but wanted to finish out his college career before entering the organization.
Oliveira said he sees himself as a defensive catcher and likes to call the pitches on his own from behind the plate, and to be thinking and focused on the pitching during the game. Oliveira also has unusual speed for a catcher, as he batted leadoff at Pacific and stole 12 bases in 2010. Asked how he feels about working his way up in a farm system that already has Matt Wieters, the Orioles’ long-term catcher at the top, Oliveira said, “You need two catchers in the big leagues.”
After the opening weekend trio of Justin Anderson, Copeland, and Justin Moore, the rotation is expected to consist of Blake Mechaw, Bruno Sanchez, and Sexton. Kendall expects to see Jose Barajas, Jason Gurka, Brandon Holloway, T.R. Keating, Brian Parker, Ashur Tolliver, and Will Startup come out of the bullpen. Tolliver, a fifth-round pick in 2009, is “building back up” according to Kendall. In 2009, Tolliver was 1-0 in three games for Aberdeen and did not allow a run in eight innings.
Startup brings an element of experience to the team. The elder statesman of the team at 25 years old, Startup is trying to make it back to the level of performance that had him playing for the Portland Beavers, the San Diego Padres’ Triple-A affiliate, in 2007 and 2009. Startup missed all of 2008 because of an elbow injury that required Tommy John surgery in September 2008, and did not return to playing until August 9, 2009.
Startup was released by the Padres in January and was picked up by the Orioles a month later. Kendall said Startup is “looking to help out higher level teams” but is “doing everything we asked.” Startup saw time at closer at extended spring training. Startup said he has no pain and is working on developing a changeup to go with his fastball which is increasing in velocity. A lefty with a self-described “deceptive delivery,” Startup said he goes out to pitch with a “mentality of ripping hitters’ throats off.” The Orioles are Startup’s third organization, as he was a fifth-round pick of the Atlanta Braves in 2005 before joining the Padres in 2007.
For 2010, Kendall and the IronBirds have one goal: to win games and to win a NY-Penn League championship. But they all know that they are part of a larger body, the Baltimore Orioles, and everything they do affects the organization as a whole. The IronBirds enter the 2010 season looking to not only help themselves, but to help a struggling organization in need of a youthful resurgence.