The woeful state of the Orioles farm system is made apparent with the release of each league-wide prospect list. Though the tune of people whose paychecks are signed by the Orioles is a positive one, the judgement of independent evaluators is clear. The O's organization is lacking in both players who stand a decent chance of reaching a high upside and in players who can meaningfully contribute in the near future.
Two different lists were published on Friday. Baseball Prospectus released its top 101, where you will find only two Orioles: Hunter Harvey at #58 and Dylan Bundy at #69. That's a big difference from a year ago when those two were rated at #20 and #8, respectively. A year ago, the O's even had catcher Chance Sisco down at #101. He's fallen off the bottom of the list entirely.
It's an even bleaker picture on the MLB.com top 100 prospect list. There, only one Orioles prospect makes an appearance. Harvey is the #85 prospect in that ranking. No other Orioles appear. After all of the injury problems Bundy has suffered, he no longer warrants inclusion in their eyes. Harvey's tumble down the rankings reflects real worries over his long-term health as well. There's nobody else waiting in the wings to step up, especially not potential top starters.
There's a temptation to have the knee-jerk reaction of blaming Dan Duquette's bad trades for outfielders last year. While it's true that the Orioles system would look a bit better with Zach Davies, Steven Brault, and Stephen Tarpley still in the fold, none of these guys have rated in any top 100 with their new teams. Those trades were a problem for the O's system overall. It's not why they're bereft of top 100 talent.
Another thing to keep in mind is that prospect lists are not destiny. They reflect one group of people's judgement about where things stand right now. It's better to be loaded with top prospects than not, but being loaded with top prospects, or even having one top prospect, doesn't guarantee anything. Orioles fans are unfortunately acquainted with how high-ranked prospects can fail to live up to expectations.
For one example, Brian Matusz rated in the top 10 of some prospect lists and was believed to be a surefire top of the rotation starter. He was a failure in that role and became a LOOGY. Matt Wieters, though he's been a fine Oriole, has come nowhere close to the prospect hype that led him to be the #1 prospect in the game according to Baseball Prospectus prior to the 2009 season.
Players who are never rated as top prospects can achieve success and still help their teams, too. Look no farther than reigning AL Cy Young winner Dallas Keuchel for that. He was never on any top 100 list and couldn't even crack the Astros top 10 on Baseball America prior to the 2012 season. No one cared much about him at all after posting a 5+ ERA in his first two big league seasons, then he broke out.
Good outcomes can still happen, if likely not as good as Keuchel's. If one of the duo of Mike Wright and Tyler Wilson becomes a useful back-end starter, that would be a victory for the O's farm system. That's one less free agent they need to sign later. If either Christian Walker or Trey Mancini hits his way into a big league career, that could also be a victory. Even minor league grinders like starting pitchers Chris Jones, Joe Gunkel, and Chris Lee could get into the picture. Not all hope is lost forever.
However, mainstream articles quoting Orioles executives and evaluators will frequently cite players like them as reasons why the farm system is better than you think. This gives little credit to the basic observational skills of the fanbase. Every team has a farm full of players who, if everything breaks right, may become useful big league players for a while. The O's system is not unique for this. The difference is that players who make top prospect lists have better odds of at least becoming regulars, and much better odds of some day becoming stars.
The Orioles just don't have those guys right now, especially compared to their divisional rivals. Take a look:
Top 100 MLB.com Prospects in the AL East
|Team||Top Prospect (#)||Others in top 100|
|Orioles||Hunter Harvey (#85)||none|
|Blue Jays||Anthony Alford (#42)||none|
|Yankees||Jorge Mateo (#31)||Aaron Judge (#32), Gary Sanchez (#59)|
|Rays||Blake Snell (#14)||Brent Honeywell (#43), Willy Adames (#81)|
|Red Sox||Yoan Moncada (#7)||Rafael Devers (#17), Andrew Benintendi (#25), Anderson Espinoza (#39)|
The Red Sox are so loaded with prospects that they could afford to trade Manuel Margot (#45) and Javier Guerra (#58) and they've still got four better-ranked players than those two left behind. That netted them up to three years of Craig Kimbrel, an experienced closer who's posted a 1.63 ERA in six years at the MLB level.
Though the Red Sox were able to draft Benintendi with the 7th pick because they were such a bad baseball team in 2014 - the Orioles, you may recall, were great and so had to settle for pick #25 - the other three Sox prospects above were international signees. So were the traded Margot and Guerra. Two of the three Yankees prospects were signed internationally as well, as was Adames of the Rays - though they picked him up in the David Price trade at the 2014 deadline.
A lot of money is spent on those international amateur players and not all of them turn into good prospects or useful players at all. Still, the Orioles farm system pays a price for the organization not paying the price in that market.
One might view the lack of top prospects in the O's organization and want to make sure the Orioles keep the #14 pick no matter what. As impulses go, it's a reasonable one. Two of the last three #14 picks are currently in MLB.com's top 100 - 2015's Kolby Allard at #89 and 2013's Reese McGuire at #98. In 2011, Jose Fernandez was the #14 selection. He won the NL Rookie of the Year Award in 2013 by posting a 2.19 ERA and sub-1.00 WHIP in 28 starts.
More than just the #14 pick, however, you'll find a number of players on the top 100 list who were picked in the 14-19 range - exactly the type of player the O's might be able to get with that pick this year. The #1 overall prospect, Dodgers prospect Corey Seager, was the #18 pick in 2012. Nationals prospect Lucas Giolito at #3 was the #16 pick in that draft. Philly's J.P. Crawford, the #5 prospect, was picked #16 in 2013. Pick the right player and you can make a real difference with the #14 pick.
The O's farm, and near future, would look a lot better had they managed to stumble into one of those players. Of course, they're hoping their own 2012 top pick, Kevin Gausman (#4 overall) turns into something even better as soon as this year. Gausman had his turn as a top prospect too. He hasn't lived up to his potential yet.
Even considering the Orioles track record developing players, you shouldn't want to see the O's give up the pick to sign a player who might not even help the team much in 2016. The debate over which of the remaining draft pick-attached free agents might be worth the sacrifice is one for a different article. So far the Orioles haven't been keen on flushing the pick away, and that's OK with me.
The state of the farm system, especially at the top, is a real problem for the Orioles. This is even more significant since, as we've seen demonstrated quite clearly this offseason, their free agent budget is not infinite and never will be. It's important for the farm to bring them reinforcements as much as can be managed. They need to get top talent back into the system and they need to develop players who were once not seen as valuable into top 100-caliber prospects.
It's not out of the question for something like that to happen. With strong 2016 campaigns, a number of O's, including Sisco and third baseman Jomar Reyes, might get some top 100 list attention. The O's seem to keep talking up 2015 compensation pick Ryan Mountcastle, and if he keeps hitting the way they believe he might, he could be another name to keep an eye on.
Until and unless that kind of surprise development happens, the Orioles will be lagging far behind the rest of the league, particularly some of the teams they'll need to beat if they want to take down another division crown.