The Orioles farm system is not very good, pretty much everyone who does not work for the Orioles agrees. There’s no getting around this simple fact. The team will potentially need to fill a ton of gaps over the next couple of years and there’s no star talent and little surefire big league talent to call upon.
Dan Duquette and others try to dance around this, as in a July season ticket holder Q&A where Duquette deflected criticism of the farm with a crowd-pleasing line: “The same people that rate our farm system are the same people that pick us last in the AL East every year.”
Nor is Duquette even wrong when he says this. The Orioles are often counted out and in Duquette’s tenure they have made the playoffs three times in five seasons, with no losing seasons in the bunch. When it comes to predicting the big league club, the pundits have been very wrong, and were wrong again this season.
Yet when Duquette followed up by talking about the players on the MLB roster who’ve come up through the farm - like Manny Machado and Jonathan Schoop - that kind of thing comes across, to me, as disingenuous. You can find this exact rationale continuing to be put forth in Baseball America’s recently-released top 10 Orioles prospect list, written by MASN beat writer Steve Melewski.
That many key contributors to the 2016 Orioles were at one time in the O’s farm system does not change the reality that, as it looks right now, the O’s farm will not be able to contribute meaningfully to the O’s over the next couple of seasons.
Still, just for fun, let’s suppose that the Orioles officials are right and that there are future big leaguers all over the place down there. What does the optimist’s case for each of these players on that top 10 list look like?
Obviously, the absolute best case scenario is that Chance Sisco somehow turns into Buster Posey, an outfielder turns into the next Mike Trout, a pitcher turns into the next Clayton Kershaw, and so on. That’s not happening. What I mean is, if these players do work out as big leaguers, what’s a reasonable hope to have for their role and when they might arrive?
The optimist’s future for the Orioles top 10 prospects
- Chance Sisco - C
With reports of improved defense at Triple-A Norfolk, Sisco arrives in Baltimore around the 2017 trade deadline, with Duquette remarking, “It’s like we traded for a .400 OBP hitter.” Showing a decent if not great ability as a defensive catcher, Sisco hits for average and gets on base at a Hyun Soo Kim-like clip (.300+ BA, near-.400 OBP) despite not much power - and solidifies the backstop position for the O’s for the next six years.
2. Cody Sedlock - RHP
Harnessing the power sinker that led the Orioles to draft him, Sedlock works his way fairly quickly through the minors, tackling Delmarva and Frederick in 2017 and Bowie and Norfolk in 2018, then makes his way to Baltimore not long into the 2019 season and enjoys success as a ground ball pitcher in Camden Yards in front of a strong infield defense for several years, continually confounding pundits who believe his batted ball luck is unsustainable.
3. Ryan Mountcastle - SS
Even in the optimistic version of his future, Mountcastle ends up being a left fielder. Fulfills the prediction of a prospect for whom “the doubles turn into home runs,” bats in the high .280s with an OBP around .320 and respectable power upon his arrival in Baltimore midway through the 2019 season.
That one is probably too optimistic. So is this next one. Being an optimist is hard. I don’t know how people do it.
4. Hunter Harvey - RHP
Things go smoothly for Harvey as he returns from Tommy John surgery and he starts the 2018 season in Frederick, where he dominates. The Orioles are able to build up his innings as he ascends through the minors such that, by the time he makes his MLB debut down the stretch in the 2020 season, Harvey can pitch without an innings limit. Strikes out a lot of people and eventually is the #1 O’s starter for a number of years.
5. Trey Mancini - 1B/DH
Although we all know the Orioles are set at first base, Mancini manages to hit well enough - especially against lefties, which the Orioles desperately needed in 2016 - that they find chances to play him. Think the good-hitting version of Steve Pearce with less positional flexibility, though don’t be surprised if the Orioles stick Mancini in left field from time to time. You’ll hold your breath every time he’s in the outfield, but it’ll be worth it every time he homers.
6. Keegan Akin - LHP
Pretty much the same as what was written for Sedlock, tackling two levels each of the next two years. Akin will be different because he won’t be as much of a pronounced ground ball pitcher, and also, he’s a lefty, which means that once Akin arrives in 2019 the Orioles won’t have to do anything dumb like trade for Wade Miley just to have a lefty in the rotation. Ends up as a solid mid-rotation starter for a while as the 2019 O’s rotation - topped by Kevin Gausman and Dylan Bundy - surprises the baseball world with its quality.
7. Austin Hays - OF
In Hays, the Orioles finally manage to again develop an outfielder who can both hit and play good defense in the outfield - their first success story there in the draft since Nick Markakis. Never makes any All-Star teams but, after arriving some time during the 2019 campaign, quietly compiles decent numbers and ends up as a perennial two-win player.
8. Jomar Reyes - 3B
Although Reyes only OPSed .607 for Frederick this year, he was also the youngest player in the High-A Carolina League - so let’s say he gets back on track in 2017, harnesses some of the power that scouts think will be in his frame, and slugs his way up to Baltimore in the 2019/2020 range.
Not really a third baseman by then, but the O’s leave him there for the last couple of years of the Chris Davis contract before shifting him across the diamond. Ends up as a three true outcomes guy - strikeouts, walks, monster dingers.
9. Chris Lee - LHP
After missing most of the 2016 season with an injury, Lee gets back on track with Bowie and Norfolk in 2017 and even finds his way into the big league bullpen down the stretch before making his way into the MLB rotation to start 2018 - filling one of the spots vacated by the O’s numerous soon-to-be-gone starting pitchers.
Ends up as an unremarkable back-end innings-eater type of pitcher... but it’s better to get that guy out of your farm than giving up a draft pick and hoping Yovani Gallardo can be that guy even though he’s past that point in his career.
10. Tanner Scott - LHP
This article from Melewski says that people in the Orioles organization told him they’ve seen Scott clocked at 104mph. Even if that’s hilariously inflated, no one doubts that Scott can and regularly does throw 100. Over the next two years, he works on his command enough to get good enough that he’s obviously the closer of the future - breaks in down the stretch in 2018, strikes out the world as a 7th or 8th inning guy in 2019, and settles in as the new flame-throwing closer in MLB in 2020.
If things go right for the Orioles, three or four of these players will hit these outcomes. Even that much is hard to do. Go back seven years to the post-2009 season edition of the top 10 Orioles prospects list - time when the O’s farm was actually thought to be good - and you can get an idea of how hard it is to get the most out of top prospects, let alone less-heralded players.
Josh Bell was the #2 prospect. That just makes me laugh now. He was a top 50 prospect in all of MLB before the 2010 season. The prospect-industrial complex is wrong all of the time.
Maybe they’re all wrong about the Orioles farm right now, like the Orioles insist. There are a few interesting names worth keeping an eye on. They’re just going to have to come a long way from where they are to being successful in the big leagues. If fans are really lucky, the O’s won’t trade any of these players for failed Orioles like Travis Snider and Gerardo Parra.
I’m rooting for all of them. The O’s will certainly be needing them over the next few years.