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Orioles prospect season in review: Dean Kremer

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The right-hander has been the most successful pitching prospect acquired in the O’s 2018 fire sale, and he’s likely big league bound in 2020.

2019 Baltimore Orioles Photo Day

When the Orioles made the trade heard ‘round the baseball world July 18, 2018, dealing superstar Manny Machado to the Dodgers to kick off the club’s full-scale rebuild, some critics were underwhelmed by the five-player return package. They felt the O’s opted for quantity over quality, and that headliner Yusniel Diaz was the only one of the prospects likely to be a big league contributor.

Well...Dean Kremer would like to have a word with you, please.

The 23-year-old righty, a 14th-round pick by the Dodgers in 2016, didn’t jump off the page at the time of the deal. But a year and a half later, Kremer’s prospect status has skyrocketed, and he’s poised to help the major league rotation sooner rather than later.

Ranked by MLB Pipeline as the No. 28 in the Dodgers’ system when the Machado trade went down, Kremer has jumped up to No. 8 for the Orioles (nearly an equal to Diaz, who’s No. 5). And that’s not just a matter of the Orioles having a weaker system than the Dodgers. Kremer has legitimately excelled in the O’s system, thanks to a swing-and-miss arsenal that has helped him rack up the strikeouts. Kremer led all minor leaguers with 178 whiffs in 2018, and he holds a career 10.9 strikeouts-per-nine rate in the minors.

Kremer, who posted a 2.58 ERA in eight starts for Double-A Bowie after the 2018 trade, didn’t get off to the best start in 2019. A strained oblique sidelined him for all of April, and he was a bit rusty upon his return in May, giving up nine runs in his first two starts for Bowie.

Once he shook off the cobwebs, though, Kremer’s dominance returned. Starting June 4, he went 9-2 with a 2.28 ERA in 13 starts for Bowie, holding opposing hitters to a .223 average and .629 OPS. That included six starts of five or more scoreless innings, and eight in which he notched at least six strikeouts.

It’s probably no coincidence that Kremer’s return to form lined up perfectly with the club’s turnaround. The Baysox were 16 games under .500 on June 4, then went 56-27 the rest of the way, vaulting them to a second-half division title. Kremer’s addition to a stacked rotation — which also included Zac Lowther, Alex Wells, Bruce Zimmermann, and Michael Baumann — gave Bowie a chance to win nearly every night.

After Kremer struck out a season-high 10 batters in five shutout innings against Richmond on Aug. 10, the Orioles were pretty well convinced he’d mastered the level. They promoted Kremer to Triple-A Norfolk, where he made four starts to finish the season. Kremer didn’t quite handle the learning curve immediately. He alternated awful outings with decent ones, giving up six or more runs twice while allowing three apiece in the other two. He didn’t last more than five innings in any of them, but he was still racking up the strikeouts, notching at least five in each outing.

Kremer’s calling card is his curveball, which FanGraphs rates as his most effective pitch, and of which MLB Pipeline states, “It’s a plus pitch with big break that nets him whiffs both inside and out of the zone, one he’s comfortable throwing it in any count.” Kremer mixes it with a fastball that tops out at 95 mph, allowing him to keep hitters guessing.

There’s a lot to like about Kremer’s arsenal. He’s a strike thrower, and he keeps the ball in the park, averaging 0.7 home runs per nine innings in his minor league career. That’s a breath of fresh air for an Orioles pitching staff that just set the major league record for home runs allowed in a season (305).

The minor league season may be over, but Kremer isn’t done pitching yet. The Orioles sent him to the Arizona Fall League to get some more innings in, thanks to that strained oblique that cost him a month. (He threw 113.2 in the minors this year after working 131.1 innings in 2018.) So far he’s made three starts for the Surprise Saguaros, giving up just two runs while picking up 10 strikeouts in nine innings.

By Nov. 20, the Orioles will add Kremer to their 40-man roster to protect him from being selected in the Rule 5 draft. He’ll report to spring training with the Orioles in February, but is almost certainly ticketed for Norfolk to start the 2020 season. Once he shows he can handle the Triple-A level, Kremer will be on the doorstep of a major league promotion. (And he’ll have the devoted support of Baltimore’s Jewish community, which has already embraced Kremer, the first Israeli citizen ever drafted by an MLB team.)

Kremer, it should be noted, doesn’t have the top-of-the-rotation potential of fellow O’s prospects Grayson Rodriguez and DL Hall. FanGraphs’ Marc Hulet pegs him with “the ceiling of a No. 3 starter who might settle in as more of a solid No. 4.”

And you know what? That’s just fine. A No. 3 or 4 starter can be a valuable thing, especially for a team as thin on upper-level pitching depth as the Orioles. How many of the Birds’ 2019 starters could even be considered No. 3 or No. 4 worthy?

Kremer — and perhaps his Norfolk teammate, Keegan Akin — could be the first wave of actually competent starting pitching prospects to arrive in Baltimore during this rebuilding phase. If they can capably hold down a couple of rotation spots for a few years while other prospects begin to fill in around them, it won’t be hard to see brighter times on the horizon in Birdland.