MIAMI, MARCH 2 -- When Baltimore Orioles owner Edward Bennett Williams fired general manager Hank Peters last October, he listed the failings of the minor league system as a prime reason.
At the time, the Orioles had not in five years produced an everyday player who could both hit and field, and the pitching staff was woefully thin. But, in the five months since, it has become clear the system wasn't as weak as Williams may have thought.
For instance: Out of that farm system there may be four young everyday players in the major leagues this season. Only one of them -- Ken Gerhart -- has spent a full year in the majors, and even if they don't all make it this spring, Gerhart, Bill Ripken, Pete Stanicek and Craig Worthington probably will be important parts of the organization for years to come. The Orioles appear headed toward an everyday starting nine that will include seven products of the franchise's minor league system. The only exceptions probably will be catcher Terry Kennedy, who was acquired for pitcher Storm Davis, an Orioles' product; and right fielder Fred Lynn, a free-agent signee. Although four new pitchers have been acquired this winter, the hopes of the staff for 1988 and beyond are based around people who were produced by the farm system. Those include Mike Boddicker, John Habyan, Eric Bell and Jeff Ballard from the system and Mike Morgan, Tom Niedenfuer, Jose Mesa, Oswald Peraza, Jay Tibbs, Mark Williamson and Doug Sisk, all acquired in trades for Orioles-developed players, And the organization's biggest hope for the 1990s lies in pitchers taken in last summer's draft -- Chris Myers, Pete Harnisch and Anthony Telford. That draft was conducted by the Peters regime. Since last season ended, seven prospects from the supposedly barren system have been traded in deals that brought Sisk, Tibbs, Mark Thurmond and Joe Orsulak.
The day he was fired, Peters bristled at suggestions the farm system was weak, and today, Cleveland Indians President Peters said, "I don't feel vindicated because I never thought there was anything to be vindicated from. I never panicked because I knew what kind of shape the system was in. I think when professionals look at something, they're always going to see it differently than nonprofessionals.
"I said then and I say now that the farm system is in good shape and would provide a steady flow of talent for years to come."
Even Peters' successor, Roland Hemond, believes that the system is in better shape than he was originally led to believe.
"We have some players," Hemond said. "I haven't seen them all, but I like what I see. Sometimes the farm system takes a beating when the big league club is taking it on the chin. I see guys like Worthington and Stanicek, and I feel good. We were also able to use prospects to make deals. What is it we've traded, seven guys? That says something."
This isn't to say Williams didn't have other reasons for firing Peters. He has said many times he likes a general manager who will act and he is willing to suffer the consequences if some of the moves turn out wrong.
So Hemond's philosophy of nervous energy suits Williams better than the patience of Peters. Williams knows that Hemond may have made four bad deals in acquiring Sisk, Orsulak, Thurmond and Tibbs, but he may have made four good ones, too. Given the choice of action or inaction, Williams has said many times he prefers action.
Williams also perceived other evidence against Peters, the strongest being the organization's failure to draft and develop many black players. Peters says only, "I don't have to defend my record to anyone."
For several years, his argument with Williams had been over philosophy. Where Peters wanted to attempt to build through trades and the farm system, Williams went for quick fixes such as free agents Lynn, Lee Lacy and Don Aase. Now, it would be easy to wonder if the Orioles haven't fallen into the same trap in a different way.
Instead of signing older players, the Orioles are now trading for them. Sisk (30) has a 17-16 record after five big league seasons; Tibbs (26) is 27-32; Thurmond (31) is 35-31 overall, 14-20 the last three seasons.
All appear to be good additions, and certainly all make a club that lost 95 times last season more interesting. But at what price?
"My philosophy was that if you had what I called blue-chip prospects, you didn't trade them unless it was a real significant deal," Peters said. "But every club has different goals."
In his own subtle, polite way, he's saying he wouldn't have traded away a couple of the players who have left the organization since he was fired. One is shortstop Terry Crowley, son of the Orioles' hitting instructor and a player considered a blue-chip prospect.
Another was left-handed pitcher Blaine Beatty, who was 17-6 at Hagerstown and Charlotte last season. And maybe the most promising of all was reliever Rick Carriger, who had nine victories and 10 saves for Class A Hagerstown. He went in the deal for Tibbs.
"We went out to add pitching and we've done it," Hemond said. "I don't believe in a four-year plan or anything like that. I think if you work hard, you can improve in a hurry."