If there’s going to be a better future for the Orioles than the last couple of 100+ loss seasons have shown us, key contributions are probably going to come from players presently in the minor league system. One small but encouraging sign that this might actually happen came in the just-concluded Arizona Fall League season, where pitching prospects Dean Kremer and Alex Wells had some success.
The AFL is where teams are able to send a few players each season to get some extra work in, perhaps because of missing time during the season with injuries or perhaps to test them against a bit higher-level competition.
Each of the 30 MLB teams contributes to one of six teams in Arizona. This year, the Orioles prospects played for the Surprise Saguaros, alongside of prospects from the Yankees, Royals, Rangers, and Nationals. It was a loaded year for the AFL overall, with 20 of the game’s top 100 prospects appearing on the initial rosters.
None of the Orioles who played for Surprise were on this list, though the team did send four of its top 30 prospects out to Arizona. Joining Kremer and Wells were infielders Mason McCoy and Rylan Bannon, outfielder T.J. Nichting, and relievers Cody Carroll and David Lebron. Initial plans were that Austin Hays would play out in Arizona, but he got his extra work in during a September call-up instead. That seemed to be a good decision for Hays.
AFL success is not a ticket to immediate MLB success, but my basic philosophy remains that I would rather see players succeed in such small samples and have to tamp down excitement than have them play poorly and have to come up with excuses for why they will be better later. With that in mind, here’s how they did:
The 23-year-old Kremer arrived in the O’s system in the Manny Machado deal last July. One reason he was sent out to Arizona this fall is that he missed time this season with an oblique injury. When he pitched, he was good, making 15 starts for Bowie, where he posted a 2.98 ERA while striking out 87 batters in 84.2 innings.
The fall league went well for Kremer. He pitched in six games, five of which were starts, and struck out 23 batters over 19 innings while walking just four. That added up to a 0.89 WHIP and 2.37 ERA. Of course he’ll face better hitters than this for Triple-A Norfolk and if he makes it to MLB, but he and the team can feel good about this progress headed into the winter.
Your favorite lefty Orioles prospect from Australia and mine, the 22-year-old Wells managed an even better ERA than Kremer, giving up just one earned run in nine games, with 15 strikeouts in 15.2 innings and only one walk. He was used mostly as a reliever, though this doesn’t necessarily mean the O’s are changing his role. There are other reasons to explain quirks in AFL playing time, since it must be shared among prospects from four other teams.
The K/BB ratio is something that’s been interesting about Wells going back to 2017, when he walked only 10 batters in 140 innings all season for Delmarva. At Bowie this season, he walked 24 batters over 137.1 innings, which is still not too shabby. He’ll need to keep the walks down if his K/9 stays around 7.
If this is not a name you’ve heard before, that’s OK, because he wasn’t in the Orioles organization before this year. In the regular season, the 25-year-old Lebron worked out of the rotation in Frederick, posting a 4.57 ERA in 22 games. Walking 47 batters in 82.2 innings in High-A at 25 is not going to get you on many prospect lists.
In Arizona, Lebron appeared in nine games, all in relief, striking out 12 batters and walking five over 13.2 innings. That added up to a 1.02 WHIP and a 3.29 ERA.
Carroll, who the Orioles got from the Yankees in the Zack Britton trade last July, turned 27 while in Arizona. For someone to be 27 in the AFL, things have probably not gone as planned. He missed essentially the entire 2019 regular season with a back injury, so his appearance in Arizona was definitely of the “get some work in” variety.
In a post-trade callup in 2018, Carroll walked 13 batters in 17 innings. In nine AFL outings, he walked seven batters in 8.2 innings. One might generously say he had rust to shake off. Less generously, one might speculate if he’s still on the Orioles 40-man roster when spring training rolls around.
Bannon, like Kremer, was part of the Machado trade in July 2018. The 23-year-old played a mix of second and third base for Bowie this season, batting .255/.345/.394 there. The batting line is not a hype-builder. He did make the most of a promotion to Norfolk for the final 20 games, posting an .893 OPS.
No Surprise position player appeared in more games than Bannon did, with his getting into 22 of the team’s 29 contests. That Norfolk mojo did not carry over; he batted just .200/.258/.247.
Four of the six AFL teams had bad offenses, collectively, so maybe that says something about the environment out there being tilted away from offense. They probably are not using the MLB/AAA juiced balls out there. Or it could be that the teams contributing to those squads didn’t send their best hitters.
The O’s drafted McCoy, now 24, in the sixth round in 2017. He’s been playing mostly shortstop in the O’s minors, including this year when he played most of the season for Bowie. McCoy was hot through the end of June and not so great the rest of the way.
McCoy’s AFL results were a continuation of the “not so great”: In 17 games, he batted just .219/.333/.281. One positive you could take is that he drew 11 walks in 75 plate appearances. He has never hit for much power and I wonder when he will run into the ceiling where he can’t overcome that.
One quirk of the AFL is that there are always a few guys who are there and just don’t play much. Nichting was one of those guys, appearing in just eight games. The O’s ninth round pick in 2017 batted .273/.304/.318 in those eight games. This followed up on a season where the 24-year-old hit .256/.293/.375 for Double-A Bowie.
With the Orioles starting rotation being what it is, I am intrigued by the fact that a couple of their starting pitching prospects went out to Arizona and had some good outings. Maybe it won’t amount to a hill of beans, but it’s better than having to explain away a 6 ERA.