Over the past few weeks, baseball publications everywhere have been releasing their lists of top prospects. We all know the Orioles don't exactly have the most impressive farm system, and the 2016 top ten lists for the O's have generally contained the usual suspects. Hunter Harvey and Dylan Bundy remain at the top of nearly every list, primarily because no one has impressed enough to replace them during their last few injury-plagued seasons. Chance Sisco is still there, along with Christian Walker and Trey Mancini. There are a few new names that aren't much of a surprise - D.J. Stewart and Ryan Mountcastle, both of whom were first round picks in 2015.
One name, though, may not be familiar with every Orioles fan - left-handed pitcher Chris Lee. Most recently, Lee has been mentioned by a reporter on Twitter (who probably was picking prospect names at random) as someone who could go the other way in an Andrew Cashner deal. Fans who followed Lee's progression last year weren't thrilled with that idea, and for good reason. If you don't know about Lee yet, you probably should.
Lee has appeared as high as fifth or sixth on some organizational top ten lists, which is interesting since he was essentially dumped on the O's last May. The Astros sent Lee to Baltimore in exchange for two international bonus slots totaling just over $600,000. It's easy to see why they made the deal: at age 22 and in his fifth pro season, Lee had been unable to advance beyond low-A, primarily because of decreasing velocity and some serious control issues. His fastball was sitting around 87-90, and when you're striking out six and walking four batters per nine for Houston's equivalent of the Shorebirds, that's not a prospect to lose sleep over trading. He was ranked 24th in Houston's system in 2014, and while that's better than being ranked 24th in Baltimore's system, it's still getting into "non-prospect" territory.
After being shipped to the O's, Lee started to turn things around. He credited Alan Mills and Rick Peterson for shortening his stride to make his delivery far less erratic. That also had an unexpected benefit: he got his velocity back. In the later part of 2015 Lee had made it through Frederick and into Bowie, and his fastball was sitting in the low to mid 90's while touching as high as 97. He finished out the year with a 3.07 ERA split between Frederick and Bowie, two levels he had never pitched in before the trade.
The Orioles clearly took notice, adding Lee to the 40-man roster this winter and sending him to the January minicamp. Lee will probably open the year in the starting rotation for either Bowie or Norfolk, but it may not be long until we see him in Baltimore. Roch Kubatko even reported that an anonymous scout from another organization predicted Lee would be an Oriole by this summer.
Lee still has some things to work on. Though improved, his control still leaves something to be desired, and he needs to improve his secondary pitches, particularly his changeup. He might be a long shot to get major league starts in 2016, but the Orioles' starting rotation isn't exactly rock solid. Not many of us expected Mike Wright and Tyler Wilson to combine for fourteen starts last year either. Funny what can happen when your rotation is terrible.
Another thing working in Lee's favor is the fact that he's left-handed. While I've never really understood the notion that a team needs to have one or two lefties in the rotation for balance, his left-handedness in an ocean of right-handed starters (save for Chris Jones, a guy I may be writing about in the near future) might give him the edge for a call-up over another pitcher of similar caliber.
As our leader here on Camden Chat likes to say, "probably nothing will happen." This is usually said in regards to free agency or trade rumors, but it certainly applies to pitching prospects as well. Tons of guys come along, have great single years in the minors, and look as promising as Lee does now. Many of them don't make the majors. Others make the majors, perform horribly, then go win a Cy Young in the National League. Others get foolishly traded for rentals, or for Travis Snider.
The likelihood that Chris Lee becomes a good starter for Baltimore, or for any MLB team, is far less than the likelihood that he doesn't. That's not a knock on him - he's a pitching prospect, and beyond that, an Orioles pitching prospect. That said, Lee is a name to keep an eye on. If he builds on the momentum from last year and continues his development, we might see him at the Yard in 2016. For all the young pitching the O's have regretted shipping away recently, in this case it looks like Dan Duquette might have come away with a steal.