We’ve entered the part of our Orioles prospect poll where we’re running through the near-future hopefuls for the Orioles rotation. After waiting out a few polls, pitcher Dean Kremer is the choice for the #8 spot. He beats out fellow pitching prospect Michael Baumann by 12 votes, with lefty Keegan Akin and outfielders Ryan McKenna also carrying over.
Joining the poll as a possible choice for #9 is another pitcher who came into the organization in the Dan Duquette days, lefty starter Zac Lowther, who is in Orioles camp as a non-roster invite at the beginning of spring training.
What makes one guy a better prospect than others? Is it a high ceiling? A respectable floor? A track record of performance at higher minor league levels? It’s for you to decide what matters the most. None of us are professional prospect watchers, and that’s OK. We can all still read some lists and look at stats and decide who seems exciting and who doesn’t.
You might find it helpful to consult some of the scouting reports on these players. I like MLB Pipeline and Fangraphs because they’re thorough, they update over the course of a season, and they’re free. Fangraphs has updated it’s O’s list for 2020; Pipeline’s O’s update is still forthcoming. Some other publications have put out their league-wide 2020 top prospect lists, including Baseball America, MLB Pipeline, and Baseball Prospectus.
Whoever gets the most votes in this poll will be the #9 prospect on our list, whether or not they receive a majority. The next poll, to be posted Friday, will include the four not picked here plus infielder Adam Hall, the highest-ranked prospect on the O’s Fangraphs list who has yet to appear on the poll.
Top prospects so far
- Adley Rutschman
- Austin Hays
- Grayson Rodriguez
- DL Hall
- Ryan Mountcastle
- Yusniel Diaz
- Gunnar Henderson
- Dean Kremer
Today’s choices for #9
Acquired: 2016 draft (2nd round, 54th overall)
2020 age: 25 (turns 25 in April)
2019 highest level: Triple-A Norfolk
One way or another, Akin probably won’t still be appearing on Orioles top prospect lists next year. Either he makes it to MLB and sticks there, or he never pushes his way up and finds himself on the list of O’s pitching prospects who couldn’t quite make it.
It’s still a bit of a surprise to me that Akin didn’t get a shot at the end of last season, when the O’s were instead giving out starts to the likes of Aaron Brooks, Ty Blach, and Chandler Shepherd. The publicly-offered reason - and hopefully the true one - is that they didn’t want to rush anybody, like the last front office surely would have done. We will find out this season whether that full year at Triple-A helped out.
I get nervous about pitchers who issue a lot of walks. All praise of them is couched with, “If he can cut the walk rate...” and it seems like they mostly don’t cut the walk rate. Or maybe I’ve just absorbed too many failures from the Duquette regime’s days. Akin walked 61 batters in 112.1 innings last year.
That’s bad, even if it comes with some interesting numbers like his 131 strikeouts. Akin also only allowed ten home runs on the season, which isn’t bad considering the juiced balls being used in Triple-A. Was Akin just working on something all year?
If he can slash that walk rate by 25% while still keeping up the strikeouts and keeping the home run rate down, that’s an interesting pitcher. But it’s a big if. Akin, like Kremer, dropped from 45 to 40+ on the FG future value from 2019 to 2020, with Longenhagen projecting him as “an inefficient No. 4/5 starter who taxes the bullpen, or a four- or five-out reliever.”
Acquired: 2015 draft (4th round, 133rd overall)
2020 age: 23 (turns 23 on Feb. 14)
2019 highest level: Double-A Bowie
If you’re going purely on 2019 results, McKenna might be a bit of a surprising inclusion so early in this process, as his most recent campaign for Bowie saw him bat .232/.321/.365 over 135 games. One thing to like right away is that he walked in more than 10% of his plate appearances, but overall it’s tough to muster excitement from that batting line.
Something to keep in mind when judging prospects is that their most recent performance is not the only thing to be said about their overall potential for how they’ll play as a big leaguer. Here’s Longenhagen on McKenna from his O’s top prospects list:
McKenna can fly and he has all-fields, doubles power, peppering the right-center gap with inside-out swings. Some of the power production is speed-driven, but McKenna has enough strength to deal with big league velo. His walk rates may come down as pitchers attack him in parts of the zone where they don’t think he can hurt them, but he has a shot to be a league average hitter who also plays a good center field.
The O’s drafted McKenna out of the New Hampshire high school ranks in 2015. The prospect-industrial complex considers players from more northern latitudes as “cold weather players” - meaning they probably have fewer reps with baseball and more raw tools that could develop slower in the pro ranks than players from states like Florida.
McKenna had a nice breakout in the 2018 season, when he posted a 1.023 OPS for High-A Frederick before a midseason promotion. He also did very well in the Arizona Fall League that year. If things start to come together for him, the O’s are going to have to decide what to do with their plethora of young outfielders.
Acquired: 2017 draft (3rd round, 98th overall)
2020 age: 24
2019 highest level: Double-A Bowie
Baumann was selected from Jacksonville University one year after the Orioles also chose Austin Hays, our poll’s #2 prospect, in the third round from that same place. While Hays raced his way up to the bigs, Baumann has gone a bit slower through the minors. The Duquette regime didn’t give him the “skip Delmarva” treatment it gave some of its other college picks, and Elias’s people kept Baumann at Frederick to start 2019 even though he’d started 17 games there in 2018.
There’s a whole Triple-A rotation presumably lined up already just based on guys who had success at Bowie in 2019: Akin, Lowther, Dean Kremer, Alex Wells, Bruce Zimmermann. It’ll be interesting to see when Baumann gets a bump up to Triple-A, assuming one of those players is either promoted to Baltimore or gets hurt and falls out of the picture at some point.
Baumann has his fans in the prospect-writing world, and that’s not only because he shares a name with baseball writer Michael Baumann. Fangraphs’ Longenhagen saw progress from Baumann in 2019 that answered concerns about whether he’d stick as a starter or have to convert to relief:
In a year, Baumann transformed from what many clubs considered a two-pitch relief prospect to a nearly ready, four-pitch rotation piece. His upper-80s slider is terse and cuttery, the type of pitch that induces weak contact rather than whiffs, and when mixed with a more shapely curveball, keeps hitters sufficiently perplexed. The mealticket offering, though, is Baumann’s fastball, which has huge carry.
Developing off-speed stuff was not the specialty of the Duquette regime. Perhaps this is the kind of analytics-based improvement that Elias has brought in. Some of these scouting observations are evident in Baumann’s 2019 stats, particularly the weak contact: he allowed just four home runs total in 124 innings between Frederick and Bowie. The MLB juiced balls don’t reach down that far yet, but still, that’s impressive.
Baumann even fired off a sub-1.00 WHIP in 70 Bowie innings. That’s impressive. If improved command from that Bowie stint carries over into 2020 - he went from a 3.9 BB/9 at Frederick in 2018 to a 2.7 BB/9 in Bowie in 2019 - that’ll be a guy who fans will be glad to see pitching in Baltimore.
Acquired: 2019 draft (2nd round/comp. balance, #71 overall)
2020 age: 22
2019 highest level: Short-season Aberdeen
One of my personal rules for deciding which prospects are worth getting a little more excited about is that I’d rather have to tell myself to pump the brakes over good numbers than come up with reasons why bad numbers will get better. In his 55-game professional debut with Aberdeen after getting drafted last June, Stowers batted .216/.286/.377, putting him squarely in that second category.
Fangraphs on Stowers, where he’s ranked as the #10 prospect in the system:
Stowers swings so hard that he looks like he’s going to corkscrew himself into the ground. The Bellingerian cut makes Stowers’ whiffs seem worse than they are, and also make his dingers aesthetically pleasing. ... ultimately, there’s rare ability to rotate here and a chance for big, in-game power production, enough to profile in right field.
Once you get this far down onto a prospect list, you’re almost always going to be dealing with chance rather than certainty. So while Stowers struck out in 23.2% of his plate appearances and that seems bad, he also walked 8.8% of the time, and he rates well enough at running, fielding, and throwing that he shouldn’t end up on the first base/DH pile.
Stowers’s college pedigree shouldn’t be forgotten either. He was drafted out of Stanford, so he was getting real action against a bunch of players who were future pros like himself, not just swatting down scrubs. Elias and company liked the offense of that Stanford team so much that they also drafted its catcher, Maverick Handley, in the sixth round, and first baseman Andrew Daschbach in the 11th round.
It’s enough for Longenhagen to believe in the chance of the aesthetically pleasing dingers coming through all the way up the minors. He’s probably headed for Delmarva to start the 2020 season. If you find yourself on Maryland’s Eastern Shore this year, maybe you can go see Stowers and see if he has a “corkscrew himself into the ground” kind of night or an “ooh and ahh at home runs” kind of night.
Acquired: 2017 draft (2nd round/comp. balance, 74th overall)
2020 age: 24 (turns 24 in April)
2019 highest level: Double-A Bowie
Modern baseball thinking has moved on from the days when a pitcher’s earned run average were all anyone cared about when deciding how good he was or wasn’t. Even when ERA might have been more in vogue, minor league ERA could only tell you so much. Still, there’s something satisfying about looking at a guy after many years of crummy Orioles rotations and these were his ERAs by season:
- 2017: 1.66 (Aberdeen)
- 2018: 2.18 (Delmarva/Frederick)
- 2019: 2.55 (Bowie)
This is the other side of what I wrote about Stowers above. It feels better to have these low ERA numbers and know that I shouldn’t get TOO excited than if Lowther had been posting a 4 ERA at every level and the prospect-industrial complex was still telling me the results don’t matter.
The thing to make you pump the brakes on excitement about Lowther is how his walk rates have increased and his strikeout rates have decreased as he’s climbed the ladder. The BB/9 went from 1.8 with Aberdeen in 2017 to 2.5 in 2018 and 3.8 in 2019. The K/9 went from 12.4 with Aberdeen to 11.0 in 2018 and 9.4 with Bowie in 2019. This isn’t shocking. Every level you go up in the minors, the players are that much better.
If the walk rate from 2019 stays the same or increases as Lowther hits Norfolk in 2020 and faces that closer-to-MLB competition, and if the strikeout rate continues to decline, reality may halt anyone’s hype on Lowther in a hurry. I hope he’s up for the challenge. If a couple of the starters in the Kremer/Akin/Baumann/Lowther tier become useful big league rotation pieces, it’s a little easier to start imagining the Orioles being good again.
One more exciting number from Lowther in 2019: He gave up just eight home runs all season in 148 innings. That’ll be another thing to keep an eye on as he faces better Triple-A hitters with the juiced MLB baseballs.
Most of the votes in the #8 poll went to starting pitching prospects. That figures to be the same in this poll for #9. Are you an Akin fan hoping his turn comes next, or are you more of a believer in Baumann? Maybe you even like Lowther better than either of those guys. Let us know in the comments below, and don’t forget to vote.
Who is the #9 prospect in the Orioles system for 2020?
This poll is closed