Note by Stacey: Please notice this wasn't written by me. James F wrote the minor league section of our SBNation.com preview but only a portion of it was printed. The extended version of the article includes details and stats that I think would be of more interest to serious Orioles fans and not the overall baseball audience for which preview was intended. Below is James' entire article, I think you'll enjoy it. I learned a lot.
In 2009, nine different players made their big league debut for the Orioles (Matt Wieters, Brad Bergesen, Chris Tillman, Nolan Reimold, Brian Matusz, David Hernandez, Jason Berken, Justin Turner and Koji Uehara). In 2010, the Orioles should be more established at the big league level, and fewer new names should appear on the back of Baltimore uniforms. But there are still several players in the Orioles' system who could end up seeing the big leagues for the first time this season, with the potential for some significant impact on our roster going forward. Here is a look at some Orioles prospects most likely to make their Orioles debut in 2010:
Jake Arrieta, RHP - To start off, let's look at the name which is the closest to a sure thing to see major league time this season. Arrieta's name is familiar to most O's fans at this point, having been the third in the Orioles' "Big Three" of pitching prospects along with Matusz and Tillman that was relentlessly hyped last offseason (his name was probably already familiar to Luke Scott because he shares it with a popular line of high-end shotguns). Already 24 years old, Arrieta is older than both Matusz and Tillman and is the only one of the three yet to see major league time, yet has the hardest fastball of the group, topping out at 96 and sitting in the 92-94 range. He complements his four-seamer with a slider and a change-up.
Arrieta had an up-and-down 2009 season. In Bowie, Arrieta appeared dominant, with a WHIP of 1.15 in eleven starts that also saw improvement in both his K/PA and BB/PA ratios. Arrieta was then promoted to Norfolk, where he had his worst numbers of his professional career, posting a FIP of 4.11. In AAA, Arrieta was particularly prone to giving up a big inning, most often in the fourth inning or later. This has led some to wonder if his eventual destination is in the bullpen.
But I disagree. Looking inside the numbers for Arrieta gives reason for optimism. Despite his struggles at Norfolk, Arrieta showed good improvement in his control, walking batters in only 8.2% of their plate appearances, the best ratio of his career and a 1.2% improvement over his numbers in Bowie. His GB% remained relatively constant at 41%, and his HR/FB ratio remained at 5% where it has been his entire minor league career. There are two major deviations from his career numbers in Norfolk - his BABIP, which ballooned to .333 after being below .290 his entire minor league career, and his K/PA, which fell to 19.5% after being above 25% his entire minor league career. In short, Arrieta put more balls in play than he ever had before while in Norfolk, and the defense behind him gave up more hits than should be expected on those balls in play.
An analysis of his PITCHf/x data from his August 8th start against Pawtucket done by Project Prospect helps shed some further light on his performance. In that start, Arrieta belied his reputation as a pitcher whose standout pitch was his fastball, doing an excellent job of locating his slider against righties and his change against lefties. But he had difficulty locating his fastball, and when it was in the zone, it was usually up (a problem that plagued Tillman and Hernandez in the majors in 2009 as well). The analysis by Mike Rodgers suggested that this was due in part to inconsistency in Arrieta's release point. While this is a small sample of Arrieta's 2009 performance, it fits with the overall picture of his improvement in some areas while showing poorer results in Norfolk.
With that in mind, I think there is cause for a lot of optimism about Arrieta's possible 2010 debut. A refinement of his mechanics and improvement with his fastball location would cement the improvements in his secondary pitches and overall control that brought his walk rate below 10% for all of 2009 for the first time in his career. Arrieta doesn't have too far to go before his is ready to be an impact arm at the major league level.
Brandon Snyder, 1b/3b - Snyder was selected by the Orioles with the thirteenth overall pick in the already legendary 2005 draft, and was the fifth high school hitter selected, behind Justin Upton, Cameron Maybin, Fort Meade's Andrew McCutcheon, and Jay Bruce. A shortstop in high school, Snyder was drafted as a catcher, but injuries his first two seasons led to his being moved to third base and eventually to first, which is where he saw the majority of his time in 2009. Those injuries, along with the unfavorable comparisons to the rest of his draft class, led to Snyder pretty much falling off the prospect map for a couple seasons until he put together a nice but unspectacular year at Frederick in 2008.
In 2009, Snyder had a year much like that of Arrieta - he dominated in the first half with Bowie, but struggled in the second half with Norfolk. In Snyder's case, the difference was even more pronounced - he had an OPS of 1.018 in AA and a mere .671 in AAA. This dropoff in performance coupled with the doubts about Snyder that have persisted since his first injury-plagued seasons leave many questioning whether Snyder's breakout in Bowie was real and whether he has the potential to be the Orioles' starting first baseman going forward.
Like with Arrieta, there are reasons to remain optimistic about Snyder, but the case isn't as clear cut. Snyder was sent to the Arizona Fall League after the season, where he was dominant for the league champion Desert Dogs, with an OPS of 1.056 that was fifth-best in the AFL among players who had two or more plate appearances per game. While the AFL is notorious as a hitter's league, the fact is that Snyder outperformed many of the game's top first base prospects there, including Yonder Alonso, Ike Davis, Josh Vitters, Mike Moustakas, and Dustin Ackley. He also showed excellent strike zone control in the AFL, with a K% of only 13.9%, 13th best among qualifiers, and a BB% of 16.5%, 4th best among qualifiers. Of all the players in the AFL, only Cole Gillespie of Arizona did better in both categories. Statistically, strike zone control is one of the best predictors for major league performance by prospects, so this data does seem significant.
But the AFL season is short, and Snyder still has something to prove to the doubters in Norfolk. Still, if he builds on his strong AFL performance with a strong start to the year in AAA, all it will take to see Snyder at Camden Yards is an injury or continuation of last year's struggles by Garrett Atkins.
Troy Patton, LHP - Once the top prospect of the Houston Astros, Patton has been largely forgotten by prospect watchers. Patton came to the Orioles as the centerpiece of the Miguel Tejada trade before the 2008 season, was promptly diagnosed with a torn labrum, and missed the season. Patton came back last year, beginning with Bowie where he was pretty dominant in the first half, posting an ERA of 1.99 with a FIP of 3.53. While those numbers spoke well of his recovery from surgery, they are less impressive than they seem, seeing as it was Patton's third stint in AA. But then, possibly due to pressure to fit in with his fellow prospects, Patton struggled in the second half after a promotion to Norfolk, with an ERA of 6.45 and a FIP of 6.80 in nine starts. While some of his struggles can be attributed to the effects of his long layoff due to his 2008 surgery, there is a lot of cause for concern with Patton.
Patton is a pitchability lefty, whose fastball tops out around 91 and usually sits in the high 80s. He mixes that with a cutter, curveball and change. His primary talent is in limiting walks; even in his disastrous nine games in Norfolk his BB/9 remained below 3, where it has been ever since he made the transition to AA in 2006. He also historically has been excellent at limiting home runs, with a career minor league average of 0.8 HR/9. This was the ability that he lost in Norfolk, allowing 2.4 HR/9 over his nine starts there.
However, looking at his splits, something strange emerges. Patton did pretty well against right-handers in Norfolk, but was absolutely destroyed by lefties. Against right-handers, his numbers were worse than his career averages, but not by much - he gave up 2.48 BB/9 and 0.99 HR/9 (he also suffered from a higher than average BABIP in Norfolk, which along with Arrieta's BABIP increase suggests the defense in Norfolk in the second half was pretty lousy). Against left-handers, it was a different story, with his BB/9 ballooning to 3.86 and his HR/9 a whopping 7.71. His park neutral numbers are even worse, with his HR/9 against lefties becoming an even 10.00. For a left-handed pitcher, these numbers are extraordinary, and probably speak to Patton being an unlikely candidate for a LOOGY role. It suggests that his changeup was his best pitch in Norfolk and that his breaking ball was getting killed.
As a flyball pitcher, Patton has a lot of work to do on limiting home runs before Orioles fans can hope that he will fulfill his early promise that had him among Baseball America's top 100 prospects for three seasons. And there is reason to fear that even a slight decrease in his already marginal stuff may prevent him from ever being an effective pitcher at the major league level. But considering how his struggles in Norfolk in the second half of 2009 were so strongly focused in a single area, there is still a lot of reason to hope that Patton may yet be a quality starter in the back end of Baltimore's rotation. If Patton is healthy and shows he has recovered his ability to limit home runs in 2010, I'd expect him to be in line for a couple starts in September, but unlike Arrieta, he probably won't be someone who gets the call if a spot starter is needed due to injury. With more heralded arms like Zack Britton on the way and two full seasons gone since his major league debut, Patton needs to have a strong 2010 to have much of a future in the organization.
Josh Bell, 3b - Bell exploded onto the prospect scene in 2009, and his tremendous season, split between the Baysox and the Chattanooga Lookouts, made him the Orioles' top position prospect after his arrival in the midseason trade of closer George Sherrill. A switch-hitter, Bell was selected by the Dodgers in the fourth round of the 2005 draft. Going into his senior season at Latana, Florida High, Bell had been considered a possible first rounder, but played his senior season overweight and failed to produce the power scouts had expected to see. But the Dodgers were optimistic about Bell, and gave him an overslot bonus to sign after nabbing him 136th overall.
While Bell didn't break out as a prospect until 2009, he did perform steadily with the bat after being drafted. In his first season in the Gulf Coast League, Bell managed to hit only one home run but still posted an OPS of .799 and an OBP of .399. He followed that up with an OPS of .911 as a 19 year old in the Pioneer League. He put together 100 games of an .824 OPS for the low A Great Lakes Loons before being promoted to A+ Inland Empire where he stunk up the joint to the tune of a .574 OPS in 89 at-bats. Given a second shot at Inland Empire in 2008, Bell showed improvement with an OPS of .827 in 51 games before being felled by a knee injury. Despite this, the Dodgers moved Bell to AA in 2009, and he had his best season yet, with twenty home runs and an OPS of .899. Scouting reports on Bell's defense also improved in 2009, although his range factors at the position remained steady.
The big knock on Bell so far has been his platoon split, which is huge for a switch-hitter. In 2009, Bell hit .340 against right-handers but only .198 against southpaws, and his OPS against lefties was .497 lower than against right-handers. With only 131 at-bats against lefties, some of this is possibly distorted by sample size, but comments by Baysox manager Brad Komminsk that questioned Bell's work ethic regarding hitting left-handers combined with the stats is a cause for serious concern. Bell showed improved results against left-handers in a strong AFL performance, but he will need to show improvement over a larger sample to quell doubts. But far worse things could happen than Bell turning into an excellent major league hitter who needs to be platooned against tough lefties. Despite some discussion about whether he should stop switch-hitting, the decision for now seems to be that he will continue, and the O's will hope to add another strong switch-hitter to the lineup along with Brian Roberts and Matt Wieters.
Bell's chances at seeing major league time took a big hit this offseason when Miguel Tejada was signed. The Orioles are not paying Tejada $6 million to sit on the bench come midseason, and team officials have been adamant that Tejada is expected to start at third for the entire season. It seems that the decision has been made that no matter how Bell does, he is going to be in Norfolk until September. But unless Bell struggles terribly, count on seeing him get a lot of playing time down the stretch, as the Orioles will need to evaluate his readiness with Tejada on a one-year deal.
Luis Lebron, RHP - Kam Mickolio is likely to begin the year on the Orioles and is considered by many to be the team's closer of the future, but Lebron is nipping at his heels after a huge 2009 where he struck out 91 batters in 60 1/3 innings between Fredrick and Bowie and held opposing batters to an average of .138. Signed as a free agent out of the Dominican Republic in 2004, Lebron was always an electric arm, with a fastball in the mid to high 90s. But he also had a reputation as someone who couldn't control his stuff. He gave up 55 walks in as many innings in 2007 with Delmarva, and in an injury-shortened 2008 where he pitched solely in the Gulf Coast League and short-season Aberdeen, he gave up 27 walks in 19 2/3 innings.
But in 2009, Lebron found his control, bringing his BB/9 to a manageable 4.84, which paired with a 13.09 K/9 will turn quite a few heads. Lebron will have to keep racking up the Ks, however, since his peripherals outside of his K-rate leave something to be desired. Lebron is an extreme fly ball pitcher, with a ground ball percentage of only 35.7% in over 175 minor league innings. He has a career HR/FB of 5.5%, but in Bowie it ballooned to 13.6%. Lebron has a risk of turning into a three true outcomes pitcher, which is hardly ideal in close situations.
Now 25, Lebron has been added to the 40 man roster, and should likely see some time in the major league bullpen by midseason. The key to keep an eye on will be his walk rate; if he cements the control improvements he showed in 2009, he will likely be a key piece of our future bullpen, and a much needed success for our international scouting department.
Brandon Erbe, RHP - Selected by the Orioles in the third round of the 2005 draft out of McDonogh High, Erbe is the most prominent local product in the Orioles' system. Erbe's calling card is his mid-90s fastball, which tops out at 98, and some still think that his skinny 6'4" frame still has some projection. He compliments his four seamer with a cutter, a slider and a change. His change lags behind his other offerings, and it shows in his splits - he held right handed batters to a .133 average and had a WHIP against them of 0.82 in Bowie.
That he managed such dominance against right handed batters in 2009 is something of a mystery, since he didn't strike many of them out. Erbe struck out only 6.92 righties per nine. The key to Erbe's 2009 dominance of right handed batters seems to be that he was able to induce a large number of infield flies; 22.4% of fly balls hit against Erbe by righties were infield flies. These numbers are consistent with his career performance; for his career 18% of all fly balls hit by righties against him are infield flies.
Indeed, Erbe's above average ability to induce soft pop ups allowed him to vastly outperform his FIP in 2009, a discrepancy that has some wondering whether Erbe's 2009 performance (when healthy; Erbe missed a chunk of 2009 with a dead arm) was as good as his sparkling 2.34 ERA made it appear. However, since his ability to induce infield flies appears to be consistent across his career, that may be less of a concern.
But while Erbe's ability to limit home runs while giving up a lot of fly balls may not be a major cause for concern, the regression in his control is. After cutting his BB/9 to 2.99 in 2008 in his second pass at Frederick, Erbe saw a huge regression in his control at Bowie, with his BB/9 blossoming to 4.32. The key for Erbe in 2010 will once again be harnessing his electric stuff and limiting his walks. If he does, Erbe could see time with the Orioles in September.
Wilfrido Perez, LHP - A free agent from the Dominican Republic, Perez is a slightly built lefty relief arm who has achieved stellar results in five seasons in the Orioles organization, never posting an ERA above 3.30 and posting ERAs below three in his three seasons in full season ball. With a fastball sitting from 88-92, a plus curveball and a decent change, the Orioles tried to use Perez as a starter initially, but moved him to the bullpen on a permanent basis when Perez reached the Sally League one season removed from Tommy John surgery in 2006.
For a lefty reliever, Perez has an interesting career split. Since converting to the bullpen full-time, Perez has been much better against right-handed hitters than lefties. In 2009, this trend was reversed, with Perez posting a FIP fully four runs better against left-handed hitters, but the very small sample - only 27 total innings - makes this data unreliable. While this isn't exactly a detriment, as relievers who can get out all kinds of hitters are more valuable, Perez's stuff may be marginal enough that if he can't put lefties away, he won't have much use on the big club.
Regardless, the Orioles are quite high on Perez, and he is likely to see time in the big league bullpen this season. He probably won't win a spot in Spring Training, but he will compete with Alberto Castillo to be the next lefty up after Will Ohlman. That the club believes he will be a contributor is made clear by his continued presence on the 40-man roster, despite the fact that several other lefties also hold roster spots.
The key for Perez's 2010 will be to remain healthy. Perez would have seen time in the majors last year if not for July surgery to remove bone chips from his throwing elbow that ended his season. This is Perez's second major surgery to his throwing arm, and if he fails to recover, his time with the Orioles may quickly come to a close. But good health will get Perez to the majors in 2010, even if he may not have the talent to last there.
Pedro Florimon Jr., SS - Florimon is what you might call a long shot to see playing time this season. A slender 6'2" shortstop out of the Dominican Republic, Florimon had fallen off the map after a promising debut of 33 games Bluefield in 2006 as a nineteen year old. Following that performance, Florimon posted sub-.600 OPS numbers in two attempts at low A Delmarva before getting promoted for organizational reasons to Frederick in 2009. But in the first two months of 2009, he was a very hot hitter, belting seven home runs in his first 143 plate appearances, two more than he had in three combined minor league seasons. All told, in April and May his OPS was over .900, and Florimon was looking like he might be a prospect.
Florimon came down to earth after those two torrid months, and while his August was also strong, his final numbers showed that he probably isn't the player he was the first two months of 2009. But the Orioles saw enough improvement with the bat, and think highly enough of his defensive potential that they decided to place him on the 40-man roster to protect him from the Rule V draft.
The Orioles were concerned that Florimon might be the next Everth Cabrera, a former Colorado prospect who was selected in the last Rule V draft and emerged as a starter in the majors for the Padres. Like Florimon, Cabrera had struggled in A ball but flashed plus defensive tools, and put things together enough with the bat to carry his glove. Florimon doesn't have Cabrera's pure speed, but he is a decent basestealer, and has more pop in his bat than Cabrera does.
The Orioles cannot afford to keep Florimon on the 40-man roster if he doesn't perform, so the pressure will be on him in Bowie to justify it. If he shows that last spring wasn't a fluke, he could move quickly, perhaps even getting time at the major league level by midseason if an injury to Cesar Izturis opens up a spot at short, and certainly by September to help the club gauge their needs before Izturis becomes a free agent. Florimon is a long shot, but if he can cut down on his errors at short and keep his OPS above .700, he might be the most unknown face in an Oriole uniform this fall.
If all goes as planned for the Orioles this season, few of these names will be written on the back of a Baltimore jersey. But as the last decade has taught us, things in baseball rarely go as planned. The good news is that while this year's class of potential first-time Orioles is less illustrious than last years, many of these names still have the potential to be useful contributors for years to come. Here's wishing all of them a great season in 2010.
Statistics are courtesy of Fangraphs, Minor League Splits, and Project Prospect.