Through the June draft and the flurry of July trades, the Orioles had the opportunity to add a number of new and hopefully exciting names to their farm system. If many of those players work out, the team’s rebuild will be shorter than we fear. The same is true if many of the O’s prospects who’ve been here for more than three months work out. O’s fans can still hope for a player like Alex Wells to work his way to the big show.
Wells’s changing place on the Orioles top prospects list might be the biggest sign of how the team has transformed its farm. Before the season began, Wells rated as the #11 prospect in the system according to MLB Pipeline. The 21-year-old Australian lefty now finds himself rated as the #26 prospect despite posting decent results with High-A Frederick this season.
As one of the only international amateur signings made in an era where the Orioles have not bothered to do many, Wells stands out before even looking at his numbers. His story is a unique one before even mentioning that he has a twin brother, Lachlan, who is in the Twins organization. How the Twins whiffed on the opportunity to sign a pair of twins at the same time is a mystery to me. Their loss is the O’s gain, so far.
The other thing that made Wells interesting was the mind-blowing command and control he demonstrated in the 2017 season with Low-A Delmarva, when Wells walked just 10 batters in 140 innings. That is the kind of thing that makes you sit up and notice a guy, especially after having spent too much time watching some of the strike zone-challenged jabronis who have rolled through Baltimore over the past couple of seasons.
Feats such as this are not easy to duplicate. High-A competition is better than Low-A competition, Double-A talent is better than High-A, each rung of the ladder tougher to climb until you get to MLB. This is an obvious fact about the minor leagues that one still has to stop and think about before getting lost in the excitement about prospects. Most don’t make it for a reason. It’s hard to be good enough to be in MLB.
Wells’s 2018 results are an illustration of the challenge of climbing that ladder. Now facing that tougher competition, his walk rate spiked. A BB/9 of 0.6 from 2017 turned into a 2.2 in 2018 - that is, 33 walks in 135 innings pitched. It’s still a good walk rate, lower than any Oriole who threw more than 40 innings this year. What it’s not is the eye-popping performance of last season.
The batters Wells was facing for Frederick were better at baseball than the ones he faced with Delmarva. They were less likely to be fooled by his arsenal and more likely to be able to hit the ball well rather than make poor contact. The escalation of his walk rate went along with an increase in his hits per nine innings. The H/9 was just 7.6 in 2017, leading to a sub-1.00 WHIP, but it jumped in 2018 to a 9.5 H/9 with a 1.296 WHIP. A ground ball rate over 40% last year slipped to 35.8% this year, as measured by Fangraphs.
For Wells, this added up to a 3.47 ERA for the season. That’s still pretty good. An O’s fan would be understandably tempted to carry out some kind of dark bargain to ensure an Orioles rotation full of guys with a 3.47 ERA. It is nearly two full runs better than the ERA for all O’s starters this season. If the O’s rotation had pitched to Wells’s High-A ERA, they’d have surrendered in the neighborhood of 150 fewer runs on the year.
It’s not so easy to assume a 3.47 ERA will translate from High-A to MLB, of course. That’s especially true for someone with Wells’s profile from his Pipeline scouting report:
Wells pitches with an average fastball, operating in the upper 80s and scraping 91 mph, but the pitch plays up thanks to his smooth delivery and because he commands it well. He also has great feel for throwing an above-average changeup in the low 80s that has late fading action and plays nicely off of his heater. Wells’ curveball, a 12-to-6 downer in the mid-70s, has improved in the professional ranks, giving him a quality third pitch to keep hitters off-balance.
That sounds nice enough, but in practice there is very, very little margin for error for the “crafty lefty” archetype. Everything is tougher if your fastball can’t blow anybody away. And according to ESPN’s Keith Law, who also rated Wells as the #11 prospect in the system before the season, calling Wells’s fastball in the upper 80s may be generous. Law has seen Wells sitting more in the 86mph range. The Fangraphs preseason O’s prospect list didn’t even rate Wells except to label him in the “pitchability depth arms” grouping.
These things do not mean that Wells cannot make it to MLB. They just mean that he will have to keep showing at every level that the jump in talent has not overwhelmed his ability to adjust to it. Wells has surely done enough this year to move up to Double-A next season, where he will be competing at age 22.
That is still reasonably young for the level and if Wells continues to have success in Bowie, a future in the back end of the Orioles rotation could present itself in the second half of the 2020 season. I’ll be wishing the best for him all along the way.