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The futility of the Orioles minor league system has been on full display in 2017

The lack of useful pieces in the upper minors is a big part of the team’s struggles this season.

Baltimore Orioles v Chicago White Sox Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images

For years, experts had said, again and again, how poor the Orioles minor league system was. They felt that it lacked high-ceiling talent and overall depth. But the major league squad kept on winning, trading away the few prospects the organization did have in exchange for stopgaps (Gerardo Parra, Andrew Miller, Francisco Rodriguez, etc.) at the big league level in positions of need. In 2017, that lack of quality down on the farm is starting to rear its ugly head.

Before we go too far down this rabbit hole let’s acknowledge Dan Duquette’s favorite point on this subject. Yes, the Orioles have some solid-to-excellent major league regulars that were brought up through their very own minors, including Jonathan Schoop, Manny Machado, Caleb Joseph, Zach Britton, Mychal Givens, Trey Mancini and, for much of his development, Chris Tillman.

But even though that is true, and that dealing prospects for help at the trade deadline is part of doing business in professional baseball, it does not totally excuse the complete lack of viable options in the upper minors this season.

There is an amateur draft every summer, as well as opportunities to sign international free agents (ha!), and even the Rule 5 draft in the winter. The team should be able to pull together some semblance of reliable minor leaguers in both double-A and triple-A. Instead, the “Norfolk shuttle” has provided little to no relief to a team that feels like it is constantly tittering on the precipice of disaster.

Pitching problems

The pitching rotation is especially awful. The 5.65 ERA from starters is second-worst in the bigs (ahead of the Reds), yet the Orioles still run out the same five regulars because the farm has failed to provide any useful alternatives.

Below is a chart covering every pitcher that has appeared for both the Orioles and the Norfolk Tides (triple-A) at some point this summer, and gives their major league numbers:

Norfolk Duds

Richard Bleier 22 0 25.2 1.75 1.403 250 4.51 12/9 0.267
Donnie Hart 26 0 22.0 3.27 1.455 134 3.51 19/8 0.264
Alec Asher 21 6 55.1 5.53 1.392 79 5.26 42/21 0.264
Vidal Nuño 12 0 14.2 10.43 2.250 42 9.62 13/10 0.343
Tyler Wilson 8 1 13.1 7.43 1.800 60 5.32 6/4 0.351
Miguel Castro 10 0 13.1 3.38 1.350 132 6.37 7/5 0.265
Gabriel Ynoa 4 0 12.2 4.26 1.500 104 4.80 12/2 0.321
Stefan Crichton 8 0 12.1 8.03 2.432 55 4.93 8/4 0.456
Mike Wright 6 0 11.1 5.56 1.059 80 3.50 14/1 0.250
Logan Verrett 4 0 10.2 4.22 1.313 106 6.52 9/3 0.275
Jayson Aquino 3 1 8.0 9.00 2.000 50 8.77 6/6 0.294
Edwin Jackson 3 0 5.0 7.20 3.000 64 9.94 2/4 0.458
Jimmy Yacabonis 3 0 3.1 10.80 2.700 44 11.84 1/6 0.240

Pretty horrific isn’t it? Bleier has been an unexpected success, though some of his stats would suggest he is a tad lucky to have done so well. And Hart has a bit of a track record going back to last season, so the team can have some confidence in him. Beyond that, it gets dicey.

Lack of options on offense

That said, the pitchers are not alone in their poor play. The offense has had some of their own struggles. As mentioned above, Mancini has been fantastic and, in a non-Aaron Judge year, could get some “Rookie of the Year” buzz. But the O’s have a gaping hole at shortstop and, years after they knew it was a problem, still lack clarity in both corner outfield spots.

The problem at shortstop can be somewhat excused. J.J. Hardy is finishing up his contract and he has been a steady, sometimes brilliant, Oriole that will surely be inducted into the organization’s Hall of Fame one day. But the best they could do in replacing him for the time being was Paul Janish (again) and Ruben Tejada, who hasn’t had a good season in three years. It is tough to find a worse hitter than Hardy at this point in his career, but Baltimore managed to do it, twice.

In the outfield, it is a very different problem. Nate McLouth was the last regularly trusted left fielder and he’s been gone since 2013. Nick Markakis was the rock in right field. He left for Atlanta following the 2014 season. Ever since both bolted, it has been a cavalcade of temporary options, some who have had nice seasons (Steve Pearce, Mark Trumbo) and other’s that have failed terribly (David Lough, Nolan Reimold, Parra).

Where are the hitters?

You’ll notice, as you go back and look at many of the trades the Orioles have made where they swap prospects for major league talent, few of them involve young hitters. It’s been the pitchers that they have shipped out. Certainly, the impact of that is being felt this season. But it makes one wonder what has happened to the guys who are supposed to be the next wave of O’s sluggers.

Chance Sisco, Cedric Mullins and D.J. Stewart are the only three hitters in the O’s top 30 prospects that are currently at or above double-A. Sisco, a catcher, by all accounts will be a nice major league player and could make his debut in September. Mullins has been the surprise of the season, going back to the spring, but an injury dampened the center fielder’s fast pace. Stewart has been a disappointment. As a college outfielder, the O’s hoped for him to dominate the lower minors and rocket to Baltimore. It hasn’t happened, but he has continually showed good plate discipline.

That trio is not quite ready for the big time, and that’s totally fine. But it is concerning that Mancini is the only rookie hitter that has debuted for the Orioles in the last three seasons that actually worked his way through their system. The team has not been trading away valuable hitters, they just stink at finding them.

Instead, Norfolk’s roster is full of guys like Pedro Alvarez, Craig Gentry, Johnny Giavotella and Logan Schafer. These are hitters that are certainly capable at the big league level, but they are far from difference-makers or high-end talents. It gives the Orioles no option but to plod along with the struggling roster they have in place.

The O’s kinda stink this season. It’s a bummer. They lack high minors talent knocking on the big league door. And they have nowhere near enough lower minors assets to orchestrate the major changes needed at the big league level. It’s simple; his team has less than four weeks to get their act together or else they need to sell off their players with expiring contracts, and recoup any useful young talent that they can.