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Orioles prospect season in review: Brenan Hanifee

The 20-year-old right-hander has flown under the radar so far in his pro career, but his performance is starting to turn some heads.

Tampa Bay Rays v Baltimore Orioles Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

It’s been decades since the Orioles have had a true ace on their pitching staff. That’s unfortunate, to say the least, but many clubs struggle to find and develop world class talents. The bigger head-scratcher for the O’s may be their inability to produce reliable mid-rotation arms with any sort of regularity. Instead, they have to venture into free agency and pay a premium for guys like Andrew Cashner, Alex Cobb and others.

Brenan Hanifee was selected in the fourth round of the 2016 draft out of Turner Ashby High School in Virginia. He ditched his commitment to Eastern Carolina in favor of an over-slot $500,000 offer from the O’s. Hanifee was viewed as a “projectable” 6-foot-5 hurler that played four sports in high school. Scouts felt that once he got in the weight room and focused on baseball that he had the chance to excel as a pro. So far, that would seem to be an astute prediction.

Hanifee entered the 2018 season as the O’s 10th-best prospect according to MLB Pipeline and 11th via FanGraphs. Following the handful of trades made in July, he fell down to 19th in the organization on Pipeline. However, the drop in the rankings was not a result of poor performance on his behalf.

The start to Hanifee’s career was delayed by a back injury. He had to sit out 2016 and then began 2017 with the short-season IronBirds, accumulating a 2.75 ERA over 68.2 innings while striking out 44, walking 12 and allowing a .249 batting average against. This season with the low-A Shorebirds was a continuation of that success. Over 132 innings with Delmarva, Hanifee had a 2.86 ERA while striking out 85 and walking 22 with a .244 batting average against.

Of course, statistics only mean so much in the minors. Positive outcomes are preferred, but they don’t always correlate to a successful major league career, especially when those outcomes come at the lower levels. Scouting reports and input from people that see young players on a regular basis is important to understanding how they are performing.

Here is FanGraph’s Eric Longenhagen on Hanifee prior to the 2018 season:

He’s already sitting 92-93 with sink, showing good plane, and flashing an average slider. He’s a high-variance arm but the right tail of his potential outcomes is more impactful than most of the other players in the system.

And now here is 2080 Baseball’s Ryan Sullivan back in August:

His delivery is quiet and has the look of a strikethrower, using a simple one-step pump into a semi-windup. The fastball sits 89-to-92 mph with above-average armside run that sinks down in the zone. Hanifee’s 84-to-87 mph slider is a hard cut-type pitch with sharp bite but limited depth. It does the job, but doesn’t miss many bats. His fastball and slider are the two primary pitches, but he will mix a mid-80s changeup with enough sell and fade action to project an average pitch with more development.

Hanifee has quietly become one of the system’s better pitching prospects. There is still room to add velocity to the fastball, and I expect Hanifee to induce more swing-and-miss as he learns to pitch outside the zone.

Scouts seem to really like Hanifee’s sinker, calling it “heavy” and leading to an impressive 57.9 percent ground ball rate in 2017 and 54.5 percent in 2018 to go along with a 3.9 percent home run-to-fly ball rate last season and 6.7 percent this year. Basically, he’s the opposite of Dylan Bundy.

There is room for improvement. His 5.8 K/9 rate is low, and is likely the result of a fastball that could stand to add velocity and secondary pitches that fail to really put away hitters. At 6-foot-5 and 180 pounds, the youngster could benefit from a little added bulk. But even if that doesn’t happen, it’s clear that Hanifee understands how to pitch, allowing him to avoid hard contact and walk just 1.5 hitters per nine innings.

For several reasons, Hanifee should be struggling. He just turned 20 back on May 29, he’s a touch young for the level at which he is playing, he missed all of 2016 with an injury and he was a multi-sport athlete. Instead, the big righty is thriving and showing that he’s ready for the next challenge.

High-A Frederick is the next logical progression. There’s no reason to rush him. Pipeline predicts that he will make his way to Baltimore sometime in 2020, which feels slightly aggressive, but remains a possibility. He’s a guy that won’t blow away the opposition with off-the-charts tools, but maximizes his effectiveness with superb control and savvy on the mound.