The Orioles surprised many people on the July 31 trade deadline by making the decision to embark down the road of a multi-year rebuild. When they traded Jonathan Schoop, a free agent after the 2019 season, and Kevin Gausman, a free agent after 2020, the signal was not hard to miss. Not only was this season a lost cause, but next season’s probably not going anywhere good, either.
O’s fans can only hope that the players they got back in these trades are able to develop and become key contributors to the next good Orioles team. Is that actually going to happen? It’s too early to say, but we can start to judge how they performed in 2018 and what they need to do in the future to make it.
The full return for the Gausman trade from the Braves: Third baseman Jean Carlos Encarnacion, catcher Brett Cumberland, starting pitcher Bruce Zimmermann, reliever Evan Phillips, and international signing bonus slot money. Anybody who was envisioning a bounty of top prospects if Gausman was traded was probably disappointed by the return.
Jean Carlos Encarnacion
The best-ranked prospect in the trade was the 20-year-old Encarnacion, who cost the Braves a mere $10,000 to sign when they inked him out of the Dominican Republic in 2016. Even so, he was not one of the top ten Braves prospects at the time of the trade.
Tall, lean and athletic, Encarnacion screams projection. At the plate, he’s shown the ability to hit the ball hard to all fields from the right side. His impressive hand-eye coordination allows him to find the barrel consistently, though he’ll have to improve his plate discipline to continue hitting for average. That will also allow him to tap into his raw power, which is sure to show up even more as he fills out his 6-foot-3 frame. Encarnacion played some shortstop initially after signing, but he’s settled in at third base, where his arm and defensive actions have the chance to work long-term.
Perhaps as the Orioles looked at Encarnacion’s performance for the Braves Low-A affiliate, Rome, for the first few months of the 2018 season, they thought they saw a player who was beginning that breakout. He batted .288/.314/.463 for Rome in 97 games. That’s pretty good if you think there’s more power coming later.
This did not continue on into his Orioles organization debut. The O’s sent Encarnacion to their own Low-A affiliate, Delmarva, where he played in 26 games and batted just .216/.240/.356. Sigh. Minor league numbers must be taken with a grain of salt anyway, because they don’t always tell you how a player will be able to perform against better competition, but it would have been nice if he kept his level of play up after the trade.
Overall, Encarnacion did well enough at Low-A that he’s probably ticketed for Frederick next year. Even if everything works out smoothly for him in the climb, he is most likely at least two years away from any possible big league appearance.
This 23-year-old switch-hitting catcher was selected by the Braves in 2016 with the draft pick that the Orioles gave to them in exchange for the Braves eating the remainder of Brian Matusz’s salary.
Cumberland made himself look interesting as a prospect by posting a .409 OBP across two levels in the Braves system in 2017. That’s good! However, this is where the dreaded “old for the level” rears its ugly head: Success for a 22-year-old in Low-A and High-A just isn’t as interesting as if he was doing the same at age 20.
For Cumberland, the 2018 season began with Atlanta’s High-A affiliate, the Florida Fire Frogs, where he threw out 42% of the runners who tried to steal on him while batting .236/.367/.407. The Orioles kicked him up to Bowie, which is a level higher. He only played in 15 games for the Baysox after the trade, batting .190/.292/.405. That’s a small sample size, so it’s not worth fretting, but again, it would have been nice if the small sample size was a good one.
The high evaluators on Cumberland were the duo at Fangraphs, who rated him as the #12 Braves prospect before the season. That stands in contrast to Pipeline, which had Cumberland at #30 in that system at the time of the trade, and Keith Law, whose preseason Braves prospect list doesn’t mention Cumberland at all. Here’s Fangraphs’s Kiley McDaniel on Cumberland:
He has a surprising feel for hitting (making contact, bat control, not chasing out of the zone) for a young power- and loft-oriented hitter, a type who traditionally take longer to develop. Most also never have above-average contact skills. Cumberland’s defense will always be a concern, as he has a fringey arm that plays up to average pop times with a quick release, but sometimes plays below average. His receiving and blocking are fine, suffering from occasional mental lapses but the ability to be average.
The scouting report on Cumberland also includes a note that the Braves were hoping a new hitting coordinator would be suited to help a hitter with Cumberland’s profile. It’s fair to wonder whether whoever ends up in charge of the Orioles development is going to be able to help unlock the potential of their players, including Cumberland.
I think the possibility exists that the 23-year-old lefty Zimmermann was included in this trade entirely because he was born in Baltimore. The Braves selected him in the fifth round of the 2017 draft. He was already 22 when he made his pro debut, so again, the “old for the level” comes into play.
For Zimmermann, what probably interested the Orioles was his striking out 99 batters with just 18 walks in 14 starts for Low-A Rome. Atlanta promoted Zimmermann to Double-A, jumping him right over the High-A level - not a surprising move for an older draftee. The strikeout/walk ratio was not so great in his six starts with Double-A Mississippi before the O’s traded for him: 19 walks, 26 strikeouts in 28.2 innings.
At the time of the trade, Zimmermann had not been listed among the top Braves prospects by either MLB Pipeline, Fangraphs, or Law. It’s no surprise because nothing anybody is doing when they’re 23 at Low-A really matters - except, apparently, to the Orioles.
Figure on an assignment at Double-A Bowie to start the season for Zimmermann. Hopefully he’s able to pick up the strikeouts again. If he can do that, he could have himself in the rotation picture as soon as 2020. If he can’t, he won’t even be much of a prospect in a year’s time and all of our hopes for this trade will be pinned on the other names.
Another Maryland connection with the now-24-year-old Phillips, who was born in Salisbury. The 6’2” righty reliever was a 17th round pick in the 2015 draft whose last full season before this saw him walk 34 batters in just 51.1 innings. Few prospects are less exciting than relievers who walk too many dudes.
Phillips looked like he might have improved on the strikeout/walk ratio problem starting the 2018 season with the Braves Triple-A affiliate in Gwinnett, holding batters to just a 1.033 WHIP with 59 strikeouts and 14 walks in 40.2 innings.
It was enough for the Braves to give Phillips a little call-up before the trade... where he proceeded to walk four batters in 6.1 big league innings. Oops! Phillips has also appeared in four games for the O’s, where he walked... six batters in 3.1 innings. Whoops! Good thing the Orioles have such a great track record of teaching wild pitchers how to throw strikes.
$2.5 million worth of international signing bonus slot
If the Orioles end up signing Cuban outfielder Victor Victor Mesa, who is still waiting to be cleared to sign by Major League Baseball, this money from this trade will have been significant. If they do not sign Mesa, then this money being included in the trade will amount to bupkis.