"There has been absolutely nothing like it since the Yankee teams of the '50s. The Orioles have so much depth that the American League's seventh-leading hitter, Merv Rettenmund, is no better than an alternate outfield starter. But the kicker is that Rettenmund—and even a few Oriole All-Stars—would appear to have tougher competition coming up in the farm system. Look out below.
Rochester, the Orioles' Triple A International League team, opens its lineup—one-two-three—with what just might be the top three prospects anywhere. The intramural battle for playing spots next March may make spring training more interesting than this year's World Series. Consider Rettenmund's problem, for example. Don Baylor, who was merely Minor League Player of the Year last season with Rochester, is back there again. Still only 22, with a strong facial resemblance to Bob Gibson, Baylor bats third for the Red Wings. He leads the league in RBIs with 79, is fourth in average with .331 and has stolen 20 bases in 26 tries.
But now Baylor is learning how poor Rettenmund feels. The leadoff hitter on the Red Wings is a kid of 20 named Rich Coggins. "Some people like him as much as Baylor already," says Harry Dalton, the Oriole director of player personnel. Coggins is a complete surprise—he was the 475th player selected in the 1968 summer draft—but now his numbers are .303 with 17 home runs.
Hitting between the slugging leadoff man and the speedy power hitter is a slick-fielding shortstop, Bobby Grich, who leads the league with .342 and in home runs with 25 (all the regular shortstops in the National League have totaled 16 homers so far). "In the 17 years that I have been with the International League," says League President George Sisler Jr., "Bobby Grich is the best player I have ever seen." For those with short memories, Sisler was among the first to tout Johnny Bench when he passed through the league four years ago.
Grich played in 30 games with the Orioles last season but they shipped him back to Rochester this year to play shortstop. Last year at Rochester he was a second baseman. It is almost as if Baltimore is thinking up new things for him to do. "I hit .383 the first half of last year with the Red Wings," Grich said last week at Silver Stadium in Rochester, "so Earl Weaver told me to swing harder and learn to pull the ball." Presto: 25 home runs—an even more difficult task from the second spot, because the job of that hitter is often only to protect the leadoff man and advance him.
Baylor played for Manager Frank Robinson last winter at Santurce, Puerto Rico, and hopes to return to winter ball. Grich is not interested in that, however. "I love nature and the earth," he says candidly, "and when the season is over my wife and I are going back to California and commune with nature for a while and kind of get away from the turmoil of the cities."
Then will come the turmoil of spring training. Perhaps the Orioles can keep Coggins down another season; they simply cannot hold Grich and Baylor back any longer. "Maybe I can work in the infield the same way Rettenmund works in the outfield," Grich says.
"I'm playing left now," Baylor says, "but I like center better. But then, Paul Blair just might be the best centerfielder in the game, and Buford and Rettenmund would be ahead of me, too. Then there's always Frank Robinson, but it would be a pleasure for me just to be around him again." Of course, if F. Robby becomes the first black manager at Cleveland next year, as has been rumored, then Baylor could assume the '71 Rettenmund role as the fourth regular outfielder.
And, oh yes, down on the Oriole Double A team at Dallas-Fort Worth, a 22-year-old prospect named Tom Walker pitched a 15-inning no-hitter last week—and they say Walker might be the second-best pitching prospect on the team.