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With Tommy John surgery behind him, will the Orioles take a flyer on Zach Pop?

The 2018 acquisition has an electric arm and a talent for drawing ground balls, but he has to prove he’s healthy first.

MLB: Baltimore Orioles-Media Day Butch Dill-USA TODAY Sports

Zach Pop has been an Oriole since July 18th, 2018. Now, the question is: how long will he stay one?

After coming over from Los Angeles in the Manny Machado deal (along with Yusniel Díaz, Dean Kremer and Rylan Bannon), the 6’4” righty immediately slid into the No. 28 spot on the Orioles’ top prospects list and reported for duty to Bowie. His tenure with the team has been short, though, since he was shut down for Tommy John surgery in early May 2019.

As a seventh-round draftee in 2017, the Ontario native (Canada’s top high school pitching prospect in 2014, which is cool) drew raves for his upper-90s sinking fastball and solid breaking ball. Pop struggled with wildness in college, when as a Kentucky Wildcat his powerful arm was used mostly out of the bullpen. Then a forearm strain hurt his draft placement. But he shot up through the Dodgers organization, posting a 0.33 ERA in 19 games in High-A, thanks to a 64% ground-ball rate and a .168 batting-average-against.

It certainly feels like the Dodgers cut ties with Pop before getting to see what he was all about. Just after he joined the O’s, FanGraphs ran a profile on Pop that touted his “electric arm” and compared him to “a right-handed version of Zach Britton.” Nice. Then again, maybe LA didn’t see much ceiling in a two-pitch right-hander with control problems.

As a new arm for Bowie in 2018, Pop flashed the same tools he’d shown in college: a sinker-slider combination that played well against righties, although MLB Pipeline still felt the slider lacked sharpness: Pop could profile as a potential closer, they wrote, “if he can further improve his breaking ball and refine his command.” The righty posted a 2.95 ERA in 14 appearances with Bowie in 2018, but even more intriguing was his ground-ball rate of 65.8%, sixth-best among all Minor League pitchers, and the measly .162/.243/.200 batting line righties put up against him.

By 2019, Pop had inched up a spot in the Orioles Top-30 list. But in his first Spring Training with the O’s, a drop in fastball velocity raised some eyebrows. Pop began the season on schedule, but after eight appearances (10.2 innings), his elbow kept bothering him, and he was shut down for Tommy John surgery. He’d been quite efficient to that point, with a 0.84 ERA and a .184 average-against with the Baysox.

You. didn’t hear a lot from Zach Pop in 2020, for obvious reasons. It was a huge shame for him, because according to a March interview with MASN’s Steve Melewski, Pop was scheduled to be back to game form around May-June. And because, although Tommy John is more and more common and less and less a death sentence for a pitcher, when it comes to what kind of a return Pop will make, as even he told Melewski, “No one really knows until we take the field.”

Pop did not get an invite to the Orioles’ alternate training site or to fall instructional league, so he’s been continuing to work out at his home in Canada. In early September, Pop told MASN’s Roch Kubatko that he was back to “full-go” and throwing 94 mph during his bullpen sessions.

Pop remains an intriguing prospect for the Orioles, but it’s not clear if the Orioles are ready to burn a roster spot on a guy who’s appeared in a total of 22 minor-league games for them and who they haven’t really seen in action since Tommy John surgery. Unlike lefty Zac Lowther, who’s likely pitched his way onto the 40-man roster, whether Pop will or won’t be protected from the Rule 5 draft seems to depend on continued roster fiddling, who else the Orioles feel they need to keep, whether another team appears ready to take a gamble on an unproven reliever recovering from Tommy John, and what the Orioles seem to see in the righty when they peer into their crystal ball.

Personally, I’d like to see more of the righty with the catchy name, and I hope his time with the Orioles won’t become another casualty of Covid-19. Pop may be an unproven commodity, but he certainly seems to have the raw stuff needed to stake out a future role in the Orioles bullpen.