It’s easy to get excited about an Orioles prospect who every mainstream prospect writer puts in top 100 lists. These are the guys with the best chance of playing big roles for the team in the future. There’s another group of fun prospects to root for as a fan. They are the grinders, the ones who just keep achieving at each new level of the minor leagues even as they lack the flashy tools of higher-ranked prospects.
My personal favorite one of these guys in the system is the Australian lefty, Alexander Wells. The rare O’s international amateur signing from the Dan Duquette era, Wells joined the organization for the 2016 season and as a result is eligible for the Rule 5 draft next month. That means that the Orioles are going to have to make the decision about whether or not to put Wells on their 40-man roster.
Wells has performed at every level of the minor leagues where the Orioles have sent him. That started with his 2.15 ERA in 13 starts for short-season Aberdeen in 2016, and continued with a 2.38 ERA and only 10 walks in 140 innings for Delmarva in 2017. Last year, Wells spent the whole season at Double-A Bowie, posting a 2.95 ERA and 1.070 WHIP in 24 starts. The O’s sent him to the Arizona Fall League, where Wells allowed one run in 15.2 innings.
Looking only at results, these sorts of things might make him seem like he should be one of the top prospects. The challenge for Wells is that he fits into the class of player who, if they are going to find any MLB success, will end up being called a “crafty lefty.” They have to be crafty because they don’t throw the ball very hard. Fangraphs, which ranked Wells as the #24 O’s prospect heading into 2020, puts his fastball in the 86-89mph range.
There are a not a lot of pitchers out there who are able to make it work when that is their velocity. In the 2020 season, there were 111 pitchers who threw at least 40 innings. Of those pitchers, 97 averaged at least 90mph on their fastballs and only four of them sat below 88. When it comes to time-traveling DeLoreans, hitting 88 may be some serious shit, but for a pitcher, it is not.
For the would-be crafty lefties of the world, the assumption is there that the next level is the one where the hitters will be so good that the pitcher’s fortunes will sink. Wells has not hit this ceiling yet. Heading into 2020, he was going to have to prove himself at Triple-A Norfolk in order to get a chance to be a part of the future of the Orioles. That surely was the original plan.
The reality of 2020, as we all know, was not so accommodating to everything happening more or less exactly the way as scheduled, minus a rain postponement here or there. The ongoing pandemic that has killed at least 235,000 Americans and over 1.2 million people worldwide had its impact on the baseball world as well. At the MLB level, they played only 60 games, and there was no Triple-A season whatsoever.
Many Orioles prospects were still able to get in some work as members of the team’s extended 60-man player pool. This special designation for the 2020 season allowed teams to have some game-ready veterans in case of players coming down with the virus, and was also used for prospects. At the O’s alternate training site in Bowie, a lot of prospects both high- and low-ranked were there.
Wells was not one of the prospects added to this player pool. After the season ended and over 50 Orioles minor leaguers were invited to an October instructional camp at Sarasota, Wells was not in that group either.
It is possible that these two things are a sign that the Mike Elias-led front office doesn’t have much hope of Wells being in the cards for the next good Orioles team. On the other hand, with Wells being Australian, it’s possible that there were some added hurdles for him, brought on by the pandemic, to even get into the country in either July or October to make it to either Bowie during the season or Sarasota afterwards.
Because Wells is one of my favorites of the lesser prospects, I hope that his absence was more connected to logistical issues resulting from the pandemic than his being in the discard pile. I think it would be fun to randomly have an Australian on the Orioles. It’d be fun to have one of those funky soft-tossers be one of our guys.
The deck is stacked against Wells. At Frederick two years ago and Bowie last year, he did not top a K/9 of 7.0. At Norfolk, it’s likely that strikeout rate would have fallen farther still and in MLB it would be even lower. In today’s exit velocity game, strikeouts are big because every one you get is like one fewer hard-hit ball in play. Wells, again, would be an outlier if he makes it.
After a flurry of early offseason roster maintenance by the Orioles, they have 34 players on their 40-man roster. They can add up to six prospects ahead of the November 20 deadline to protect Rule 5-eligible players from this year’s edition of the draft. If they want to make a selection themselves, they’d have to leave an open spot, though they could get one later by trading a player or not tendering an arbitration-eligible one a 2021 contract.
If the Orioles don’t think that another team will choose Wells, they could leave him off the roster. After all, Wells, if he was selected, would have to jump right to the MLB roster without the benefit of that Triple-A experience, and since he was not involved in any of the 2020 activities, no other team knows what he’s looking like this year.
If the Orioles don’t want to take any chances and they believe Wells is worth protecting, there’s room for him. We’ll know where they come down in two weeks. I’m hoping to see Wells get onto the roster and I’ll be rooting for him to keep succeeding wherever he gets assigned next season.