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Does Joe Gunkel fit into the Orioles future?

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Norfolk pitcher Joe Gunkel isn’t a highly-touted name in the Orioles organization, but the righty has made waves during his time in professional baseball. Is there a future role for him on the O’s?

Week after week, reports from the Orioles minor-league system have been full of surprises. Happenings down on the farm have been somewhat encouraging, even with a pre-season “doom and gloom” prediction. One of the biggest noise-makers has been Joe Gunkel, a man who deserves much more attention that he’s currently being given.

The 2013 18th round pick out of West Chester was acquired by the O’s in last year’s mid-season Alejandro De Aza trade with the Boston Red Sox.

At the time, the deal seemed clear-cut — trade a player who wasn’t performing for a mid-level arm who had a chance to be a semi-formidable option moving forward. Boston knew it’d be unlikely for Gunkel to turn into a superstar, while the Orioles felt enough confidence to pull the trigger.

The move seemed to be fair and balanced at the time, but it’s now very clear that the Birds got the better end of the deal. With De Aza having jumped to the Giants and then Mets since the trade, it’s been Gunkel who has lived up to his potential.

Now, De Aza serves as a part-time, below-the-mendoza-line lineup filler for the Mets while Gunkel has established himself as AAA Norfolk’s best starting pitcher.

Realistically, the 24-year-old right-hander is giving the Orioles a look at a potential future big-league arm with the events of his 2016 season.

The pros

Though he wasn’t thought of as much of a top-tier prospect in 2013’s Draft, Gunkel has proven that what he did in his final two years at West Chester wasn’t an aberration or byproduct of lower-level talent.

There, he went 17-5 with an ERA in the low 2.00’s in his final two seasons, pitching to contact but keeping his walk and home run rates on the low end. His numbers painted him as a reliable, not overpowering starting arm who managed collegiate-level hitters very well.

But what they didn’t show was any reason to believe he’d have overwhelming success at the pro level. As with the majority of arms making the leap to the minor-leagues, Gunkel was expected to take a dip in terms of overall numbers.

But as he has played out his first three full pro ball seasons, he shown the exact opposite of regression.

Here’s a quick look at the nitty gritty of his numbers since 2014 — every level (Red Sox and Orioles) included:

  • 2014 (full-A and high-A): 6-5, 3.47 ERA, 103.2 IP, 88 H, 24 BB, 101 K, .228 AVG
  • 2015 (high-A and AA): 11-6, 2.68 ERA, 144.2 IP, 127 H, 27 BB, 113 K, .236 AVG
  • 2016 (AA and AAA): 8-13, 3.76 ERA, 150.2 IP, 166 H, 20 BB, 101 K, .279 AVG

What immediately stands out with Gunkel is his consistency to stay in the strike zone and pitch very effectively to contact. Unlike many rising Orioles prospects, he’s been able to keep a consistent grasp on finding the zone.

His walk percentage since he’s arrived on scene with the Orioles has been tremendous, shown by his 1.17 BB/9 ratio this season in Norfolk. Last year, in 17 starts at Bowie, that number, too, impressed at 1.37.

This year, he has the best walks/innings ratio among starters in the International League.

What you also like to see is the consistency of staying on the field and making outings on a regular basis. After being eased into a starting role in 2014 (15 starts, 27 appearances), he made 22 starts in 2015 before a career-high — both in HS and college — 26 starts this season.

According to the numbers at MLBfarm.com, the 6’5” Gunkel has also done an adequate job at keeping balls on the ground and out of harms way, likely contributing to his low earned-run totals.

This year, 43 percent of balls are going for groundouts, as shown below:

MLBfarm.com

The cons

Despite the fact that his ERA has shown a level of consistently being good enough at each level, concerns regarding just how much he’s pitching to contact have to be at the forefront of the minds of O’s talent evaluators.

Sure, his ultra-low walk rates have contributed to the big picture of his numbers — but at the end of the day, it’s hard to ignore the spike in opposing average that he’s seen with the Tides this year.

In reality, the only true aspect of his game that is currently acting as a barrier comes within the opposition’s ability to barrel up the ball and make regular contact. In 11 of Gunkel’s last 12 games, the opposing team has notched at-least one hit per inning he’s pitched.

Luckily home runs haven’t been an issue and a lack of free passes have kept his WHIP at just 1.23 on the year. But before proclaiming Gunkel as the next great Orioles starter, it’s important to realize that hitters aren’t exactly missing the baseball — also shown in a decrease of overall strikeouts.

It should be noted that Gunkel’s overall arsenal isn’t incredibly complex or overwhelming. He only has three pitches — a low 90s fastball (impeccable command), a mid 80s change, and a slider that is still in the development process.

Despite the top-tier command, you’d like to see a rising prospect have more than two fully mastered pitches. He’s still relatively young, but the tall righty isn’t known as crafty.

Future with the Birds

There’s clearly a high level of complexity with the potential of Gunkel finding a long-term home in Baltimore. It’s hard to know how his “stuff” — or lack thereof — will translate to the major league level.

But the 2012 MVP of the NCAA Division-II College World Series is worthy of serious consideration for a future rotation spot. These days, it’s rare that a pitching prospect in the Orioles organization is worthy of excitement.

And while it might be premature to label him a sure-fire future piece of the rotation, it surely appears the Orioles might have a legitimate candidate in “The Gunk”.

At the very least, O’s fans can take solace in the fact that he’s not developing in the Boston organization.

NOTE: All stats totaled before Gunkel’s Tuesday night start in which he went 5.2 innings, allowing 7 hits and 2 earned runs, no walks and striking out 5.