The dream of a mostly homegrown Orioles starting rotation has been in Birdland since the days that Andy MacPhail proclaimed “grow the arms, buy the bats” and Dave Trembley said the cavalry was coming. For all the top pitching prospects who came through under MacPhail and later his successor Dan Duquette, it has never quite happened.
It’s been Mike Elias’s team for two-plus years now and we all must tell ourselves it will be different this time. The alternative is unpleasant. Having a prospect like Mike Baumann develop as hoped would be a big step towards things going in the way that O’s fans might hope.
Baumann, a 25-year-old righty who’s listed at 6’4” and 235 lbs., was the Orioles third round pick in the 2017 draft. He was also their third pitcher taken in that draft, following higher-ranked lefty DL Hall and crafty lefty Zac Lowther (covered by Tyler last week). In an “it’s a small world” quirk, the O’s picked Baumann from Jacksonville University exactly one year after their third round pick was outfielder Austin Hays, also from Jacksonville University.
If Baumann’s name is at all familiar to you, that might be because you heard about him when he threw a no-hitter for Double-A Bowie in July 2019. Baumann struck out ten batters in what was just his third outing following a promotion from then-High-A Frederick. That’s a good way to stay on the radar of a new prospect evaluation and development group. Elias and company, after all, had nothing to do with picking Baumann.
Baumann’s 2019 time at Bowie can be celebrated for more than just that no-hitter. In 13 games for the Baysox, Baumann held opponents to a 2.31 ERA and a 0.943 WHIP. At Bowie, Baumann showed the best command he’s shown at any of his stops up the professional ladder, walking just 21 batters in 70 innings.
Fangraphs prospect writer Eric Longenhagen, who put Baumann as the #11 prospect in the O’s system, called the 2019 season “ascendant” for Baumann, moving in his estimation from “a two-pitch relief prospect to a nearly ready, four-pitch rotation piece.” You always want to hear positive news about any Orioles pitching prospect, and when that news is that, apparently, a brand new pitching development program was able to polish Baumann’s off-speed offerings to make him more of a starting pitching candidate, that’s a big plus.
Like every other baseball prospect out there, Baumann’s development had a wrench thrown into the gears by the COVID-19 pandemic and the cancellation of any kind of 2020 minor league season. In an alternate universe where everyone’s go-to idea of a panemic is still the 1918 flu, Baumann might have been ticketed for a first half at Bowie followed by a promotion to Triple-A if all went well for him.
Baumann had to settle for work at the alternate training site instead, where there were no organized games and nothing much going on to provide some public information for an interested fan to judge. Was that environment a good one for him to learn things? This same agonizing question hangs over every prospect whose 2020 consisted of the alternate training site and/or fall instructional league and nothing more.
For Baumann, that alternate site experience wasn’t even a complete one. MLB Pipeline, which had Baumann as the #8 O’s prospect heading into the season, writes that he had his camp cut short by “an elbow strain that did not require surgery.”
Hearing about anything elbow-related for a pitching prospect is not the news you want to get. It seems like there are always those cases where everything is proclaimed fine for a while and then months later, it turns out they need Tommy John surgery. In O’s prospect land, this happened to both Dylan Bundy and Hunter Harvey in different years.
The result for Baumann, for now, is that where Longenhagen says other pitching prospects typically were able to throw 500 to 600 pitches worth of action at the alternate training sites, Baumann threw just 200. That’s less than three games worth of pitches. He did not go to the fall instructional league either. More than most pitchers from 2020, it’s tough to imagine Baumann going from that to anything close to a full season’s workload for 2021.
That may be why Baumann didn’t pitch in a big league spring training game in 2021, and why he was left off of the roster for the alternate training site to start the 2021 season as well. He told The Baltimore Sun’s Jon Meoli in early March that he was cleared to throw in December and that he felt “confident moving forward.”
There are those times in life where no news is good news. That seems to be the case for Baumann’s elbow. If ramping back up starting in December had not gone well, something would have been announced about that by now. Probably.
The Orioles have no need to try to rush Baumann and it’s clear they are not going to do this. He was added to the 40-man roster before last year’s Rule 5 draft. For now, he’s doing work largely hidden away from public eyes. That will change, we can hope, when minor league seasons begin in early May. Baumann will either be on a roster somewhere or he won’t, and if he’s not, the reason why he’s not will tell us something.
In two of the four prospect ranking we used to make a composite list for this series, Baumann was the next-ranked O’s pitching prospect after Grayson Rodriguez and DL Hall. In the other two, he was just behind Dean Kremer. That is not a bad place to be. O’s fans just have to hope that this whole thing turns out better than when the top Orioles pitching prospects were Bundy and Harvey and the next guys were Mike Wright, Tyler Wilson, and David Hess.
Before wrapping up, I want to share my favorite Baumann fact. As a professional, he has given up just 15 home runs in 297 innings. That included a mere four home runs across 124 innings in the 2019 season. The dude has been a ground ball machine. This is no automatic guarantee of big league success. Big league batters are tougher competition. Still, there are a lot of worse things to have as a foundation than that.