A new wave of pitching prospects is percolating in the lower levels of the O's minor league system. What makes this intriguing is the number of southpaws that comprise their midst. Both Frederick and Delmarva can boast of a trio of young lefties who could some day ascend to the majors as the likes of Wei-Yin Chen, Zach Britton, and Brian Matusz are nearing the possible end of their Orioles tenure.
Part of the O's recent success has been a result of having a strong corps of left-handed pitching. Wei-Yin Chen has been arguably the O's best pitcher since the start of the 2012 season, compiling a 3.83 ERA (3.99 FIP) over 40 starts and 240 innings of work in that span. Brian Matusz, long a frustration as a starter, has taken to his role in the bullpen, allowing him to focus on his strength as he has held left handed batters to a .209/.261 /.363 triple slash line over the course of his career thus far. Troy Patton has been nearly as good as Matusz against lefties, allowing a .242/.277 /.339 line. Rule 5 selection T.J. McFarland has provided value as a long man for the Birds this season, eating 41.1 innings over 18 appearances. And Zach Britton continues to flash the potential that made him a highly regarded prospect just 2 years ago.
The good news for the major league O's is that each of these players is under team control for the next few seasons. Matusz and Patton have 3 seasons of club control remaining. Chen and Britton could be O's for 4 more seasons before hitting outright free agency. And McFarland, in his rookie season, has 5 more years ahead of him. But each of these gentlemen will become increasingly expensive as the years go on. And at some point their value will be eclipsed by their cost. Who will then assume these roles for the O's? Let's take a look at six southpaws currently assigned to Frederick or Delmarva who are the primary candidates.
The 20-year-old lefty has demonstrated why he was deserving of recognition as the best pitcher in the Orioles system behind the powerhouse 1-2 punch of Dylan Bundy and Kevin Gausman. Rodriguez was widely regarded as the O's 4th best prospect and even garnered some Top 100 overall prospect love. Over 13 starts thus far for Class A+ Frederick, Rodriguez has tossed 78.1 innings and pitched to a 2.99 ERA and 3.21 FIP. He's actually running a reverse split at the moment, holding righties to a .615 OPS while lefties have hit him to the tune of an .816 OPS. As he's grown he has seen his fastball tick up, and he now sits in the low 90s. His change up and slider are still being refined, but retain their potential to develop into plus offerings. And he'll need those secondary offerings to remain on a track to end up as a mid-to-back of the rotation starter. Fans of Birdland can expect to see ERod pitching with 'Orioles' emblazoned across his chest come some point in 2015.
Rodriguez's Frederick rotation mate is one of the better draft picks of recent note. Berry was selected in the 50th round of the 2009 draft out of a California high school. The 22-year-old Berry's fastball sits in the same range as ERod's, and he has a change up that flashes as a future plus pitch. The difference comes in the big curveball that Berry features, and average to potential above average future offering. In 14 starts this season Berry has thrown 75.1 innings of 4.30 ERA and 3.48 FIP. The overall ERA is slightly elevated by 1 particularly brutal outing where he allowed 8 ER in 1 inning of work. I've personally had the pleasure of witnessing two of his better starts of the season in person, playing in Wilmington each time while being matched up against Kyle Zimmer, the pitcher taken one pick after Kevin Gausman in the 2012 draft. Each time Berry has come away with the superior boxscore. With over 150 innings pitched with Frederick now I'd expect to see him get a promotion to Bowie at some point this season. His ultimate ETA in Baltimore is likely 2015 as well.
After 18 up-and-down starts with the Keys last season the 23 year old Howard has been used primarily out of the bullpen in 2013, and this change has done much to improve his results. After a 4.83 ERA and 4.61 FIP over 100.2 IP with the Keys last year he has posted a 1.51 ERA and 3.10 FIP over 16 appearances and 41.2 innings thus far in 2013. Could also be deserving of a bump up to Bowie at some point this year, and as a strictly relief arm could move quick and be primed for Baltimore action late next season.
No one in the system aside from Gausman has gotten more pub this year than the local boy done good. Drafted in the 19th round last year out of Old Mill H.S., Hader has laid waste to the Low-A South Atlantic League in spite of being one of the youngest players (he just turned 19 in April). Featuring an arm-slot reminiscent of Chris Sale, Hader has dominated lefties to the tune of an .098/.191 /.180 triple slash with his low 90s fastball, below average curve, and a nascent change up which needs plenty of work still. He is walking quite a few (4.5/9) but he is keeping the ball in the yard (just 3 HRs over his 60.1 IP). The arm-slot, mixed with his long, lanky frame (6'3", 165 lbs) can lead to problems repeating his delivery, and this will naturally lead to some of the wildness he has experienced. But he's still so very young and could well develop into a dynamite arm if he can learn to repeat his delivery and add a slider to his repertoire. 2017 ETA.
Repeating Low-A after 95.2 innings pitched last year, the 22 year old Taylor has made some significant improvement in 2013. Over 12 starts and 59.2 innings his 3.62 ERA is in line with a 3.82 FIP. While not dominating lefties to the same extent as Hader, Taylor still has a more than respectable .193 /.292 /.281 slash line against them. Should be in line for a promotion to High-A Frederick before the season is over. Unclear whether he can stick as a back-of-the-rotation starter, or if he ultimately moves to the 'pen. 2016 ETA.
This 2012 6th round draftee has posted an impressive 11.0 K/9 rate over his first 11 appearances and 22.0 innings with Delmarva, leading to a 2.05 ERA and 2.97 FIP. He has made a couple of spot starts (and pitched quite well in one of them) but he profiles as a bullpen arm in the long run with the possibility of being able to handle late inning, high leverage duties. Could make his way to Baltimore as early as some point in late 2015.