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MLB Draft 2016: Orioles pitching system depth

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If all goes well, the Orioles won't need any of their farm arms until 2018. What does the crop currently growing look like?

The "grow the arms, buy the bats" philosophy laid down by former Orioles GM Andy MacPhail was always a good plan, even if the O's never seemed to make it work in his tenure, or even afterwards.

The reason for it is simple. Pitching on the free agent market is both expensive and volatile. We have seen that for ourselves in the last few years as the O's have shelled out for mid-tier (or worse) pitchers Ubaldo Jimenez and Yovani Gallardo.

Even when signings like that kind of work out for them, and it remains an open question how much either one will work out in the long run, it's still not as good as if the team would have been able to draft (or trade for) and develop its own quality pitching corps.

Money not spent for rotation answers on the free agent market is money they can use to, say, extend Manny Machado, or keep rather than trade Zach Britton as his arbitration raises increase over the next couple of years.

The Orioles can also use extra money to give themselves flexibility to add players like Mark Trumbo, whom another team may give up on when they could have some value to the O's.

Not having to give up draft picks is good, too, because that is one more chance the O's have to keep adding to their farm system to keep the cycle going. They will not have their top pick this year as a result of signing Gallardo.

Pitching on the farm is particularly important for the not-too-distant future of the O's because three-fifths of the starting rotation - Jimenez, Gallardo, and Chris Tillman - will be free agents after the 2017 season. They will look to the farm to fill those holes, especially if there are injury problems before then, as they have looked to Mike Wright and Tyler Wilson this season.

Will there be reinforcements for the rotation in a couple of years when the team needs them? That depends. How much of an optimist are you?

Triple-A Norfolk

Ariel Miranda
Joe Gunkel

You won't find Miranda on MLB.com's Top 30 Orioles prospect list, but that's because they don't count players who were professionals in Cuba, which Miranda was. The 27-year-old lefty debuted in the O's system last year and has worked his way up to the Norfolk level.

Though at Norfolk, he's seen as more of a fringe guy, an honorable mention but not a Top 20 in the O's prospect list done by John Sickels of SB Nation's Minor League Ball back in February.

As a general rule, you don't want to draw judgments on a player only by looking at his box scores and stat lines - there's a lot of noise in there when dealing with players facing inferior competition, and for some pitchers, with inferior defenses behind them. But sometimes that's all there is.

Miranda's performing decently at the level, a 3.54 ERA in eight starts. He's struck out 34 batters in 40.2 innings, though he's also walked 16 in the same time. Miranda is a fly ball pitcher, though he's only given up three home runs this year. If he keeps up that level of play in the high minors, he'll probably at least get a big league shot.

Gunkel, 24, is a favorite of mine if only because I like to refer to him as The Gunk. He started his season at Bowie and earned a promotion, but through the small sample size of four Norfolk starts, things aren't going well here - a 6.30 ERA. Maybe he needs time to adjust to the International League. Gunkel is the #17 O's prospect according to MLB.com.

The O's acquired Gunkel from the Red Sox when they made a post-DFA trade of Alejandro De Aza last season, so they're playing with house money with him and aren't out much if he doesn't make it.

Double-A Bowie

Chris Lee
David Hess

These two might be the best shot to fill the hypothetical rotation holes that await starting in 2018. That doesn't mean they will, just that, as guys who are at Double-A and enjoying at least some moderate success, they could stay on that trajectory and be ready for a chance at the time the O's need to give some guys a chance.

Hess, 22, was the O's fifth round pick in 2014. ESPN's Keith Law is particularly aggressive about Hess, rating him as the #3 prospect in the system:

Hess is a four-pitch guy who doesn't have a true swing-and-miss offering but sits mid-90s, bumping 96, with a chance to be a mid-rotation guy if any of the three offspeed pitches improve.

It's a big if. He's making it work against Eastern League hitters so far this year, posting a 2.33 ERA over seven starts. Something to like is he's issued only nine walks in 38.2 innings. Yet he has a 1.34 WHIP even with such a low walk rate. That could be a problem for the future... or a sign that a Double-A caliber defense is giving him BABIP problems that an MLB defense would not.

Lee, 23, is interesting by virtue of being a lefty. The O's got him from the Astros last year for a couple of international bonus pool slots. A pittance. After that trade, Lee came over and got good results (a 3.08 ERA) while walking a whole lot of people. This year he's getting solid results again (3.32 ERA) and he's cut that walk rate in half, a respectable 12 walks in 43.1 innings.

What makes you raise your eyebrow about Lee's 2016 numbers is that he's also barely striking anyone out - only 15 on the season. That's a 3.1 K/9. A certain O's beat writer would tell you it's OK Lee's not getting strikeouts, but keep this in mind: Lee would be in last place in K/9 among all qualified MLB starters. You need to be able to strike SOME guys out to have any kind of MLB success.

How is Lee making it work? Maybe it's the fact that he's got a 2.33 ground outs/air outs ratio, meaning he's starting to approach Zach Britton level of ground ball tendencies. If a guy was going to weirdly succeed with so few strikeouts, that's one way he might do it.

Also at Bowie are the enigmatic Parker Bridwell and last year's Rule 5 pick Jason Garcia. Neither one presently looks like he'll be taking the next step soon.

High-A Frederick

John Means
Tanner Scott

These are the two guys on MLB.com's top 30 list for the O's system. Here's their capsule on Means:

A 6-foot-3 lefty, Means uses his height to create downhill plane toward the plate, giving him a propensity for generating groundball outs with a 88-92 mph heater that bumps 93-94 mph. His slider, which flashes average at times, has some top-to-bottom tilt to it that gives it curveball-like action, and his changeup has the potential to be Major League average offering as well.

What that adds up to is a 23-year-old who is trying to grind his way up through the system. The Frederick rung of the ladder is going well for Means so far, with 46 strikeouts in 43 innings against only nine walks. His 2.08 ERA is impressive. Probably not worth getting excited for him unless he makes the Double-A jump successfully.

Scott is a lefty reliever who throws 100. Yeah, it's crazy! The good news is that batters have only gotten eight hits against him in 20.1 innings pitched. The bad news is he's walked 23 guys and has a 7.08 ERA. If he can throw strikes he'll get somewhere. That's another big if.

Low-A Delmarva

Ofelky Peralta
Garrett Cleavinger
Brian Gonzalez
Ryan Meisinger

Don't mistake quantity for quality here. Peralta, at #14, is the highest placed guy of the bunch of them. If you've been paying close attention to MASN Orioles broadcasts in the last week or so, you've heard multiple mentions of Peralta, including Jim Palmer offering the opinion that Peralta might win this year's Jim Palmer Award, given to the O's minor league pitcher of the year.

A rare Orioles international amateur signing, Peralta is just 19 and enjoying success in full season ball. The 6'5" righty is one of those guys who gets the label "projectable" applied to him because of an expected improvement to his arsenal when his frame fills out. He's doing OK enough already - 35 strikeouts in 32.1 innings, though he has a problem with walks. Don't they all? Peralta's issued 21 free passes so far.

Cleavinger was the O's third round pick last year. The 6'1" lefty is a reliever who O's scouting director Gary Rajsich proclaimed could be the first to debut in MLB out of the O's 2015 draft class. May just be a LOOGY but if you're like me you're feeling like the Orioles could use a new one of those anyway, so maybe Cleavinger will be that guy in time.

Gonzalez was the O's top pick in the 2014 draft - when, you'll recall, they had no first or second round pick due to signing Jimenez and Nelson Cruz. This is his second year at Delmarva and he wasn't good there last year, but he's still just 20 and he's cut his walk rate and is enjoying good results (2.01 ERA in eight starts). You have to like 37 strikeouts in 44.2 innings - and only two home runs allowed.

Meisinger just popped up at #30 on the list yesterday due to Dylan Bundy finally having enough big league service time to lose prospect status. Don't get excited about the #30 prospect, especially when he's already a reliever in Low-A, but root for him all the same, because he's Maryland born. The 22-year-old has struck out 30 guys in 18.1 innings and has a miniscule 0.49 ERA.

Elsewhere

Hunter Harvey
Gray Fenter
Pat Connaughton

Harvey got some prospect heat after the O's drafted him 22nd overall in 2013 - as high as #20 on the Baseball Prospectus 101 before last season. Various injuries, the latest of which was a sports hernia requiring surgery, have kept him from throwing a competitive pitch since 2014. At least they aren't Bundy-like injuries to arm and shoulder, and he won't have the whole "must be on MLB roster" thing any time soon.

Fenter was drafted by the O's in the seventh round last year and given an overslot signing bonus of $1 million. He had to have Tommy John surgery earlier this year. Dang.

Connaughton averaged 4.2 minutes per game for the NBA's Portland Trail Blazers this season. I am hoping that inspires him to come back to baseball.

**

There isn't another Kevin Gausman here, but then, that's not necessarily a bad thing. The O's got Gausman as a result of being very bad in 2011. They are not very bad any more. They don't get to draft those guys now. That means they have to find less-regarded elsewhere and polish them as best they can.

If the Orioles are able to avoid giving up their first round pick in either 2017 or 2018 to sign the next Jimenez/Gallardo-type pitcher, their farm will have done its job as far as pitching is concerned. That, too, is a big if. Not every one of these names has to make it - which is good, because, prospects being prospects, they won't. They only need enough to make it to get by.