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Orioles prospect season in review: Chris Lee

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Chris Lee started this season with hopes that he might be a rotation option if someone at the MLB level got hurt or stumbled. Things didn’t quite work out that way.

Baltimore Orioles Photo Day
Chris Lee posing for a photo during spring training 2017.
Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images

There is no greater indictment of the state of pitching in the Orioles high minors than the fact that the Orioles felt like their best choice was to soldier on with an AL-worst rotation, adding to it only non-upgrade Jeremy Hellickson at the trade deadline. The O’s surveyed their options at Norfolk and thought, “Nah, we’ll stick with Chris Tillman.” One of those Norfolk disappointments was lefty Chris Lee.

If any of the Orioles numerous trades where they dump international signing bonus money for a random minor league player have come close to bearing fruit, it looked initially like Lee might be the one.

After joining the O’s system in 2015, Lee posted a decent ERA while getting a lot of ground balls for both Frederick and Bowie. He followed that up with another campaign at Bowie last year that was cut short by a lat injury. Starting the season at age 24, the O’s chose to bump Lee up to Norfolk, perhaps in hopes that he might be an option either in the rotation or out of the bullpen during this season.

Lee did not exactly run with the opportunity presented. He is one of just two pitchers who started the season on the 40-man roster who spent all year on the roster and didn’t get a call-up at any point in time. With how his results look for Norfolk this year, it’s no wonder why not.

Over 27 games, Lee had a 5.11 ERA. The O’s shifted him out of the rotation for a little while; only 20 were starts. Although Lee still succeeded in getting ground balls more than half the time, according to Fangraphs, not much else about his profile was a positive. Lee struck out just 83 batters in 116.1 innings. It’s tough for a starter to survive with a strikeout rate that low in today’s game.

What’s worse for Lee is his walk rate, as he issued 54 walks on the season. Command problems AND a lack of strikeouts will be a big problem for a guy. It’s important not to take minor league box scores as destiny. Maybe Norfolk’s defense was bad this year and that’s why none of their starting pitchers looked very good. But maybe the pitchers were just bad.

In the midseason update to their top Orioles prospects list, the folks at MLB Pipeline rated Lee as just the #21 prospect in the system, with this scouting report:

An athletic southpaw, Lee pitches at 89-93 mph with his fastball but can reach back for a few extra ticks, throwing the pitch down in the zone with late life and running action so as to induce ground-ball outs. His hard, sweeping slider is above average, flashing plus at times, and it's a major weapon against left-handed hitters. Lee's changeup lags behind the two offerings, which has caused problems against right-handed hitters throughout his career and limits his ability to turn over a lineup.

There is some belief that the fastball-slider combo could be sufficient to give Lee some value as a reliever. That may be supported by how he performed in his seven relief outings. Lee’s only good month on the season was his month in the bullpen. Lee’s relief outings went at least 2.1 innings and as many as 4.1 innings, in essence making sure that he never had to face anybody in the lineup the third time, though many of his bad starts didn’t even get to a third time through the order.

On the other hand, Lee’s platoon splits don’t offer much to hope for a future as a lefty specialist. Triple-A lefty batters still hit .285 off Lee. That’s bad. Just about everything about Lee’s 2017 stats was bad, with the exception of his time in long relief and his home ERA - a curiously low 2.06 compared to a 7.59 road ERA.

In an ideal world, Lee, now 25, would have pitched well enough this season to possibly present himself as a 2018 rotation option, blowing away any thought of the Orioles exercising Wade Miley’s $12 million option for next season to be the obligatory rotation lefty.

Where Orioles prospects are involved, especially O’s pitching prospects, it’s seldom the ideal world. Lee is old enough and struggled enough this year that his 40-man spot might not even survive through the offseason.

If some new hotness crosses the waiver wire in front of Dan Duquette, or if a more likely 2018 Norfolk-Baltimore shuttle rider becomes available for PTBNL or cash, Lee could be the player to find himself on a one way trip to the great DFA in the sky. If they still believe in Lee and stick with him, hopefully he’s able to develop as either a starter or reliever to find his way onto the Orioles after all.

Tomorrow: OF Randolph Gassaway