One of the bigger questions whose answer will determine how long until the Orioles rebuilding project turns into something else is: How many of the starting pitching prospects who were in Double-A and Triple-A in 2019 will be able to be solid MLB starting pitchers?
Our ongoing community Orioles prospect poll has been sorting out how O’s fans feel about that group of pitchers for the last several spots. After choosing Dean Kremer at #8 and Michael Baumann at #9, Keegan Akin has just narrowly edged out Zac Lowther for the #10 spot in the just-concluded poll.
Akin had an edge of one single vote over Lowther. Don’t let anyone tell you that your vote doesn’t count. The two of these guys accounted for more than 80% of votes between the two of them. This would be more exciting if Akin hadn’t managed to give up three runs in an inning in his first spring training outing on Monday. Results don’t start really counting until the regular season, so hopefully the next game he pitches is better. Well, it’s hard to be worse.
The also-rans who are carrying over to the poll for #11 are infielder Adam Hall, and outfielders Ryan McKenna and Kyle Stowers. They’ll be joined by another infielder, Cadyn Grenier, who hasn’t hit much since being drafted by the Dan Duquette front office in 2018.
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.
Whichever player has the most votes in this poll will be the choice for #11, whether they have a majority or not. The next poll, to be posted Friday, will have the four players who carry over from this poll plus the next-highest-ranked prospect on the Fangraphs list who’s yet to appear on the poll. That’s reliever Zach Pop, part of the Manny Machado trade return, who’s working his way back from Tommy John surgery.
Top prospects so far
- Adley Rutschman
- Austin Hays
- Grayson Rodriguez
- DL Hall
- Ryan Mountcastle
- Yusniel Diaz
- Gunnar Henderson
- Dean Kremer
- Michael Baumann
- Keegan Akin
Today’s choices for #11
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. They chose to add him to the 40-man roster to protect him from the most recent Rule 5 draft.
Acquired: 2019 draft (2nd round/comp. balance, 71st 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.
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.
Acquired: 2017 draft (2nd round, 60th overall)
2020 age: 21 (turns 21 in May)
2019 highest level: Low-A Delmarva
A stat that is good to keep an eye on is BABIP - batting average on balls in play. If a player suddenly has better or worse batted ball luck, that’s often a sign that they’re due for some regression to the mean. Adam Hall posted a .386 BABIP for Aberdeen in 2018 and a .387 BABIP for Delmarva in 2019. This is because he is fast, rating 60 speed on the 20-80 scouting scale in the FG scouting report. That speed is also seen in his having stolen 56 bases since being drafted.
If a player is fast, that’s good. It’s a useful skill to have. If it’s the best baseball skill they have, that’s less interesting. Better-caliber defenses than what he’s faced in the South Atlantic League will turn more of his infield grounders into outs. Every level closer to MLB, and especially in MLB itself, the players will be better in the field. They won’t be fazed by a fast runner. They’ll just field the ball and throw it to first base.
Hall batted .298/.385/.395 for the Shorebirds last season. That’s a good average and great OBP, but along with the BABIP-fueled average, the OBP is boosted by Hall being hit by pitch 22 times. This is also unlikely to continue as he creeps up the minor league ranks. And for a guy to have an isolated slugging under .100 already at Low-A, well... FG’s capsule on Hall says he’s “tracking as an Everth Cabrera type player.”
Cabrera unmemorably appeared in 29 games for the 2015 Orioles, the last MLB action of his career. Over seven MLB seasons, Cabrera batted a combined .246/.315/.328. That’s any sensible lineup’s #8 or #9 hitter. Cabrera peaked at 44 stolen bases in 2012. A crummy hitter who’s not 2018-19 Chris Davis-level bad, can play shortstop and second base, and steal a bunch of bases, has a place on a good team.
It’s a long way from where Hall is to MLB, but he’ll get a chance to keep showing what he can do at Frederick this season.
Acquired: 2018 draft (1st round/comp. balance, 37th overall)
2020 age: 23
2019 highest level: High-A Frederick
Between Delmarva and Frederick last season, Cadyn Grenier came to the plate 456 times and struck out 138 times. That is a strikeout in 30.3% of his plate appearances. Among qualified batters at the MLB level in 2019, just two players had a higher K%. It is very, very hard to become a successful player when are already striking out that much in A-ball. Most of the ones who achieve some kind of success hit a lot of dingers. Grenier had eight homers last season.
Whatever the Duquette group hoped the O’s might get out of Grenier hasn’t materialized yet. It would be unfair to act like there was no reason to believe in Grenier. His defensive skills at Oregon State were praised, with Grenier’s glove ability and arm pushing his better-hitting teammate Nick Madrigal, the #4 pick in that same draft, to second base.
That matters. If you can get a guy who can definitely play shortstop and just get him to hit a little bit, that’s a success. Unfortunately, that hasn’t happened with Grenier yet in the pro ranks; he’s batted .236/.339/.369 in two pro seasons. It’s a hard climb to MLB if that’s already how you hit against A-ball pitchers. Things aren’t getting any easier.
FG’s Longenhagen mentions in his capsule on Grenier that he was “always a swing change candidate in pro ball,” so maybe the new development people will be better able to help him in his second full pro season. Grenier, according to Longenhagen, is not the only prospect being instructed on a “Donaldsonesque” swing, and if it clicks, he could be an MLB shortstop. Until it clicks, Grenier is not one of the names in the system that excites me.
If the last poll was any indication, the last of this tier of upper minors starting pitching prospects will go up on the list next, but the choice is yours. Are you getting Lowther in there or does one of the position players excite you more? Let us know in the comments, and don’t forget to actually vote in the poll.
Who is the #11 prospect in the Orioles system for 2020?
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