For several seasons now, the Orioles have had a very bad starting rotation. This was not a fresh problem that only cropped up in 2018, the last year of Dan Duquette’s tenure in charge of this team. They were bad in 2017 and in 2016 as well. The grand rebuilding plan of Mike Elias did not involve trying to fix this problem with new players at the MLB level for 2019, so here we are again.
The idea of a mostly homegrown, successful Orioles starting rotation never materialized even when they had their good stretch from 2012-16. We can only hope that Elias and company have more success in drafting and developing these pitchers. With the Orioles starting rotation being what it is right now, the easiest way to imagine a better O’s team is if they are able to add good pitchers from within.
One place to look for the hopeful Orioles rotation of the future is in their 2017 draft class. Three of the first four picks they used were on pitchers, including two of the team’s top eight prospects. This was the first full strength draft that the team made in several years, as the Orioles did not forfeit any picks due to free agent signings nor stupidly trade their competitive balance pick for paltry salary relief. Their first pick was not a high one due to the 2016 team making it to the wild card game.
First pick - #21 overall - DL Hall - Valdosta (GA) HS
In 50+ years of MLB drafts, there have been a total of six players drafted and signed at the #21 slot who have gone on to accumulate 10+ WAR in their careers. A skillful and lucky team might end up with Ian Kennedy (2006 draft) on its hands. A more modest outcome is the last time the Orioles held the #21 pick, when they selected Larry Bigbie in 1999. Once you’re into the 20s, you’re not picking from surefire stars.
The best that a team can hope for is to get lucky with a player rated higher dropping to them in this spot. That’s what happened to the Orioles with Hall, who was ESPN’s Keith Law’s 8th-ranked prospect in the draft, and MLB Pipeline’s #14 player. Like Cody Sedlock from the previous year, this was good drafting for the spot the O’s had, though that doesn’t guarantee player development success.
Hall was the #3 prospect in the O’s system preseason, and #75 in the game by MLB Pipeline, who wrote this about him:
Hall already pitches with a plus fastball, sitting at 92-94 mph and reaching 96, with late life that makes the pitch difficult to barrel. His curveball is above average but can flash plus, thrown with a high spin rate that gives it late bite, and the same can be said about the fading changeup he’s made strides in developing. Meanwhile, that he does a good job repeating his simple delivery and knows how to find his release point with each pitch suggests he could develop above-average command.
These are exciting words. The results don’t yet match the exciting words, especially regarding his command. In the Gulf Coast League in 2017 after being drafted, he walked 10 batters in 10.1 innings. With Low-A Delmarva last year, he walked 42 batters in 94.1 innings. So far this season with High-A Frederick, Hall has handed out 19 free passes in 30 innings.
Do not panic. Hall, 20, is more than three years younger than the average player in his league. There is also an encouraging number this year: His strikeout rate has thus far spiked significantly, going from a 9.5 K/9 to 15.9 so far this season under the Elias player development program. That is 53 strikeouts in 30 innings. If they can get the command going and keep most of the strikeouts, there will be a lot to look forward to with Hall.
Second pick - #60 overall - SS Adam Hall - AB Lucas (ON) Secondary School
A trend for some of the O’s second and third picks under Duquette was to just be off in their own world relative to pre-draft prospect rankings. The Canadian Hall was the 99th-ranked prospect by Baseball America in this draft and 114th on MLB Pipeline’s rankings. That’s not exactly picking someone who is a complete nobody in the second round, but it is something where, if it doesn’t work out, you have to wonder what they were thinking.
Law tabbed Adam Hall as his possible sleeper project from the O’s system this season, writing this in February:
...an athletic, fast shortstop who has needed more time to develop than most high school kids, perhaps since he’s from Canada and hadn’t played as much, but also was held back by bad player development decisions. In the final 30 days of the summer, when the shackles were off, he hit .395/.459/.523 and went 16-for-18 stealing bases. He’s a legitimate shortstop who could end up as a classic leadoff hitter with OBP and speed.
Hall just turned 20 a couple of days ago. In his first taste of full-season minor league ball with Delmarva this year, Hall is batting .323/.404/.421 in 40 games. He has swiped 14 bases while splitting time between second base and shortstop with 2018 draftee Cadyn Grenier.
Delmarva is a long way from MLB, and Hall will probably need to develop some power to keep up at higher levels. He has just two homers so far this season. This weird pick at the time looks interesting enough to keep an eye on two years later. He won’t be on the O’s tomorrow or even next year, but he could be a part of the next good Orioles team.
Other picks of note
Zac Lowther (competitive balance pick) was another guy who on draft day looked like a possible reach - the 74th pick but rated 112th by Baseball America and 127th by MLB Pipeline. As a lefty without a lot of velocity, there was nothing about him to really pop in the way that a pitcher might have been evaluated 20 years ago. What’s interesting about Lowther is found in more modern analytics.
Rating Lowther the #8 prospect in the system before this spring, the Fangraphs prospect team described him as “the kind of prospect who grows on you the more you watch him and once you see his Trackman readout.” The Trackman cameras provide a lot of information about pitchers that wasn’t available before, including spin rate. That spin rate showed up in his performance last year, with Lowther striking out 151 batters in 123.2 innings between Delmarva and Frederick.
The Elias regime has Lowther up in Bowie this year. The strikeout rate is down against more advanced hitters, with Lowther striking out 39 in 42.1 innings. He’s walked 17 in that time, which leaves his BB/9 about a third higher than it was last season. With a 1.91 ERA so far, you can’t complain about the results. Maybe his Trackman magic leaves him with a big league future.
Michael Baumann (third round) has seen his strikeout total surge this season at Frederick. He’s sent 55 batters packing while issuing just 10 walks, and he’s only allowed two homers in 33 innings. At 23, he’s a little old for Frederick now; that performance would be more interesting at Bowie. Perhaps he’ll get a chance there in the second half of this season.
Mason McCoy (sixth round) was a senior sign and thus not inherently interesting as a draft prospect, but he forced a promotion from Frederick to Bowie by batting .379/.416/.509 in 27 games to start the year, and now he’s batting .379/.455/.569 in 14 games so far with Bowie. Probably means nothing, because being 24 at Bowie doesn’t scream “the next big thing,” but sometimes guys are just late bloomers and things click at different times.
As you’ve probably heard, there’s a new GM with a new player development program, so who knows what untapped talent was sitting here in the system already? Fortunes haven’t changed much at the MLB level, nor with the Triple-A Norfolk pitching staff, but there are players, including some of these 2017 draftees, who so far this year look like they’ve taken steps forward under the Elias regime. If O’s fans are lucky, that improvement will push these guys up to being a part of the next good Orioles team.
Although DL Hall still has some developing to do, the O’s seem to have made a successful pick in grabbing him. Getting a guy at #21 and having him be in the top 100 prospects in the game a couple of years later is a plus. This is no guarantee of success - 2013 draftee Hunter Harvey was also in this “drafted in the mid-late first round and quickly a top 100 prospect” category and it didn’t ward off any misfortune.
Add to that the seeming steps forward taken by Adam Hall and Baumann this year, plus the ongoing interest as Lowther holds his own while climbing the rungs, and the 2017 Orioles draft still looks like it could bear some fruit in the Elias era. Hopefully the new philosophies and new people can develop some talent that the Duquette/Showalter people and philosophies could not.