If you think the Orioles are taking a long time to promote their top prospects to the Major Leagues these days, well I hate to tell you this, but…it used to be worse.
In fact, you’ll think the upcoming promotions of Adley Rutschman, Grayson Rodriguez, Kyle Stowers, DL Hall and Kyle Bradish are lightning fast when you hear the story of Don Baylor.
If you’re under the age of, say, 45 you may only remember Don Baylor as a big league coach or manager.
Baylor was a hitting coach with the Brewers, Cardinals, Rockies, Diamondbacks and Angels. And he managed the Rockies from 1993-98 and the Cubs from 2000-02.
But Don Baylor had an outstanding big league career as a player, winning the 1979 American League Most Valuable Player award and hitting .260 with 338 home runs and 285 stolen bases over 19 seasons.
Before all of that, however, there was a time – back in the early 1970s – when Don Baylor was a top minor league prospect in the Orioles organization.
One whose promotion to the big leagues was painfully slow in arriving.
Drafted by the Birds as a second rounder in 1967, Baylor posted a .980 OPS in 286 plate appearances in rookie level ball that same summer.
The very next year, Baylor played at Single-A Stockton, Double-A Elmira and Triple-A Rochester, posting a .908 OPS in 89 games.
Baylor started the 1969 season back in Single-A before moving up to the Orioles’ Double-A Dallas-Fort Worth affiliate, where he hit .301 with 11 home runs, 57 RBI and 19 stolen bases in 109 games.
But it’s in 1970 where things begin to really get interesting.
Baylor opened the 1970 season at Triple-A Rochester, and had a monster year. He hit for a .327 average (and an OPS of 1.011) with 22 home runs, 107 RBI and 26 stolen bases.
In September – after rosters had expanded – he received a promotion to Baltimore, where he batted .235 in 17 at-bats over eight games as the team prepared for yet another postseason run.
Following the 1970 season, Baylor was named baseball’s Minor League Player of the Year by The Sporting News...and for good measure he went to Puerto Rico for winter ball (playing for teammate Frank Robinson, who was managing the Santurce club) and hit .290.
Obviously with the Minor League Player of the Year award under his belt – and those lofty 1970 statistics – there was nothing left for Baylor to prove in the minor leagues and he’d begin the 1971 season in Baltimore, right?
The Orioles were in the midst of their three-year reign as American League champions from 1969-71 and had an outfield of Don Buford in left, Paul Blair in center and Frank Robinson in right.
There was simply no room for Baylor in the Orioles’ lineup…so it was back to Rochester for the reigning Minor League Player of the Year.
In his autobiography, Don Baylor by Don Baylor with Claire Smith, Baylor wrote of his disappointment at not making the team out of spring training in 1971:
“It was becoming a nightmare. All I had done in four minor-league seasons was hit .346, .369, .375 and .327. I’d given the organization the stolen bases, the power, the line drives it wanted.”
“I had understood when Earl shipped me out in 1970; I probably was too young…I did not understand in 1971. Earl had said he didn’t want me sitting on the bench taking bits and pieces. ‘I’ll take the two hundred fifty at-bats,’ I told Earl. ‘I want to play in the big leagues.’”
“Earl just shook his head. I was gone, the Minor League Player of the Year heading back to Rochester.”
“It was nothing personal, they wanted us to believe. It was just that, in a talent-rich system, the policy was strictly, ‘no room, no need.’ So Orioles prospects were left down in the minors to become not just qualified, but overqualified.”
And, again, Baylor knocked loudly on the door to Baltimore during the 1971 season, hitting .313 (with an OPS of .961) with 20 home runs, 95 RBI and 25 stolen bases for the Rochester Red Wings.
Because Rochester had a deep run in the Triple-A playoffs, Baylor’s major league cup of coffee in 1971 consisted of just one game.
So what did Baylor do? He went to back to winter ball in Puerto Rico and hit .329 to win the Puerto Rican League batting title.
Finally…after two full seasons playing at an MVP level in Triple-A, Baylor was about to get his full-time promotion to the Orioles.
It happened when the Orioles traded future Hall of Famer Frank Robinson off to the Los Angeles Dodgers prior to the 1972 season.
After that trade – in spring training 1972 – Orioles manager Earl Weaver said of the trade, “This allows us to bring Baylor along. Our organization feels Baylor is another Frank Robinson, a guy who, in five years, will be what Frank was.”
In his autobiography, Baylor remarked, “Another Frank Robinson. That was tough. I knew, in my heart, I was ready for the major leagues. I wasn’t ready to be the next Frank Robinson. My emotions were certainly mixed. To this day, I don’t know why Earl let Frank get away. I would have gotten rid of someone else, even myself…Besides, I had wanted to play alongside Frank, not replace him.”
This opened a spot in the Baltimore outfield and Baylor found regular playing time, posting an OPS of .745 with 11 home runs and 24 stolen bases in 363 at-bats.
Baylor would improve in each of his four full seasons with the Orioles, eventually hitting .282 with 25 home runs, 76 RBI and 32 stolen bases in 1975.
The following April – just before the season was to begin – Baylor was dealt to the Oakland Athletics along with pitchers Paul Mitchell and Mike Torrez for Ken Holtzman and future Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson.
It seems almost impossible to believe all these years later that a player could be so dominant at the Triple-A level – winning the Minor League Player of the Year Award – and still be sent back to the minors for another full year of seasoning.
But that’s exactly what happened, thanks to exceptionally unlikely timing for Baylor back in the early 1970s.
So when we’re complaining this summer about how the Orioles are taking too long to promote their top prospects to Baltimore, just remember…it could always be worse.
And it once was.