If you are going to build and sustain a good baseball team, one thing that you need is lots of prospects. Good prospects are great to have, but it’s also good to just have lots of prospects, for one simple reason: Most prospects are going to run into the ceiling for their talent somewhere before they get to “good player for the next good MLB team.”
That’s a sad fact for anyone outside of the top tier of prospects. Odds are he won’t make it. The only question is what level he’s at when he bumps into that ceiling. It doesn’t matter how much he’s your favorite lower-tier prospect, how many years you’ve followed his ascent through the minors. Maybe he will make it. Probably he won’t, and there’s nothing you can do about it.
For me, that prospect been Alexander Wells for quite some time. His being an Australian in an organization with no other Aussies and a league with few others makes him noteworthy enough. What got me interested in him as a player, though, was his age 20 season in Low-A when he walked just ten batters in 140 innings.
From there, Wells climbed a level each year, always keeping the walk rate low, if never that low, and in 2019 he posted a 2.95 ERA and 1.070 WHIP in 24 starts for Double-A Bowie, then added a 0.57 ERA in nine Arizona Fall League games on top of that.
What makes him even more interesting, even if it is something that if anything was a negative on his prospect stock, is that he inhabits the “crafty lefty” mold. That is to say that his success, if he finds success, will be atypical in today’s game for achieving it without big velocity. As Fangraphs put it prior to this season in labeling Wells as the #32 prospect in the Orioles system:
How good does one’s secondary stuff and command need to be to succeed in today’s game with an upper-80s fastball? ... His fastball only sits 87-89 but it has plus-plus vertical movement. This is also a lefty with a good changeup, and those tend to outperform projections. If Wells can find a breaking ball (his slow curveball has some utility, and he has a newly-developed slider), then he’ll pitch toward the back of a rotation for a long time.
The farther down a prospect list you go, the bigger the “if” you will find, and the less exciting a “then” you get after the “if”. Here, that’s not a small ask with upside of being a #5 starter. The Orioles were never counting on Wells to be Grayson Rodriguez or DL Hall.
Had there been no pandemic in 2020, Wells might have gotten his chance towards the end of last season. Instead, like so many others, his development was knocked a bit off course, with Wells probably off more than most because he could not make it to the United States to get work in and be seen at the alternate training site. He had to wait until 2021 to get to the Triple-A level, and then he had to wait until either the Orioles thought he had done enough, or were desperate enough, for a call-up.
The season brought a number of rides on the Norfolk-Baltimore shuttle. Wells got to make his MLB debut on June 26, but only stayed for two games of relief before being sent back down to the minors. After the All-Star break, they brought him back and put him in the rotation for a few games, one of which saw him knocked out in the third inning with six runs allowed. Wells was then in the minors for most of August and brought back for a September audition where he stayed in the rotation for the whole month.
When the dust settled on the 2021 season, Wells finished with a 6.75 ERA and 6.33 FIP in 42.2 innings. This included an unsightly WHIP of 1.617, with batters hammering him for more than two home runs per nine innings. He walked more batters (16) than he did in the entirety of that 2017 season for Delmarva, and his strikeout rate was below even the already-low benchmark he’d established in the minors.
This was not a case where Wells was demolished initially and then got better as the season went along. He had some rough outings in his June and July stints, but September added up to a 6.00 ERA in five starts. The Yankees got him for another five runs in four innings. The Red Sox got him for another five runs in five innings.
Wells did at least get a good final start in to hang his hat on headed into the offseason, holding those same Red Sox, desperately needing a win to preserve their postseason position, to one run in six innings in the season’s 159th game. So he’s got that going for him.
One other thing in Wells’s favor, even if it’s less noteworthy than his MLB results, is that he did well with Triple-A Norfolk this year when he wasn’t pitching in Baltimore. As will be seen as this series rolls along this month, a number of pitching prospects who arrived at or passed through Norfolk in 2021 did not do nearly so well. Wells pitched in 13 games for the Tides and both his results and his rate stats were better there: 3.29 ERA, 1.024 WHIP, 1.0 HR/9, 1.2 BB/9, 7.9 K/9.
A guy can probably get by in MLB if he can bring those ratios to the big league level. That, too, is a big “if.” There is a whole category of player, the so-called “Quad-A” player, who are good enough to succeed in Triple-A but not good enough to succeed in MLB. Perhaps it’s Wells’s fate to end up in that group of player, no matter how much he’s been my favorite less-heralded prospect for several years.
One thing working in Wells’s favor is that the only player who was in the 2021 Orioles rotation who looks to be set in stone is John Means. Everyone else who shuffled through getting starts for Baltimore this season did about as bad as or worse than Wells. The only other player with 8+ starts and an ERA under 6.00 was Bruce Zimmermann. Pitchers who made it to Triple-A but not Baltimore also did not cover themselves in glory while trying to show they belong in the big league rotation in 2022.
So there’s a lot of room for Wells to keep getting chances. I mean, what’s Mike Elias going to do, sign multiple free agent starting pitchers to big league contracts? The same guys in the mix in 2021 will probably be in the mix again in 2022. Some of them will pitch well enough to hang around. Others will perhaps find themselves displaced by subsequent waves of prospects who’ve yet to disappoint us.
Which of these groups will Wells end up in? I guess we’ll see next year. Maybe he can take the big league experience he got this year and apply himself to improving what worked, and maybe his natural talent can be expanded upon by that improvement to make him at least worthy of the #5 spot in a half-decent team’s rotation. Since he is my long-time favorite lower-tier prospect, I will be rooting for him to do this. I also won’t be holding my breath.
Previous 2021 Orioles prospect reviews: Ryan McKenna
Tomorrow: Rising prospects Kyle Brnovich, Zach Peek, Jean Pinto