Opinions on pitching prospects are like snowflakes; each one is unique and possibly moments away from evaporating. Even once a young arm gets a considerable number of professional innings under their belt, it is conceivable that everything comes crumbling down if/when they make the jump to the major leagues.
That said, the Orioles find themselves in a somewhat envious position when it comes to high-end young pitchers. Currently with Double-A Bowie, 21-year-old righty Grayson Rodriguez has become recognized by two outlets (MLB Pipeline and Baseball America) as the top pitching prospect in all of minor league baseball. Then they have D.L. Hall, a 22-year-old southpaw also at Bowie, that keeps hitters equally as uncomfortable but comes with added risk due to a history of control issues and an elbow injury that ended his 2021 season after only 31.2 innings.
Both pitchers are revered as “Top 100” talents in the sport by multiple outlets, for whatever that is worth. As we know, that distinction is not a guarantee of future success (see: Matusz, Brian), but it is a fair indication of how the baseballing world, at large, sees them. To that end, it is encouraging for the Orioles to employ a pair of well-regarded hurlers down on the farm.
At the same time, two pitchers does not an entire farm system make, as Dan Connolly from The Athletic articulated in a column last week titled “The dirty little secret of the Orioles’ rebuild is the pitching cupboard’s nearly bare.”
Yep, we are going to talk about it!
Connolly’s criticism of the Orioles’ farm system is straightforward. With an assist from two unnamed scouts, the column explains that “Both [scouts] love Rodriguez...And both think Hall will be in a big-league rotation, too, assuming he can stay healthy. Beyond that, though, the praise isn’t as effusive.”
It goes on to discuss just about every noteworthy arm up and down the system along with notes on their potential ceiling and how poorly many of the more senior members have performed this summer.
That is followed by Connolly’s conclusion that the Orioles organizational pitching depth is top-heavy and too thin overall. It is his view that there isn’t enough there to lift this team from its current low point to being a competitor in the next two or three seasons as the plan seems to be.
This article enflamed some emotions from many on Orioles Twitter (myself included) immediately after it was posted. It came in the midst of what has been a weeks-long battering of the organization in the national media and just days after both Baseball America and MLB Pipeline published updated minor league rankings that each reflected favorably on the club. Being an Orioles fan this month has felt like somehow surviving a 10-round bout with a heavyweight boxer that keeps landing haymakers, and just when we had gotten to our feet, a jab catches us right on the chin.
And that is completely fine. It’s not Connolly’s job to make the fanbase feel good, or to praise the Orioles for ranking well on a prospect list. He provides his perspective on the team, which is informed by talking with sources. We, as the fanbase, tell him whether we think it’s lame or not. And the world keeps spinning.
As someone with no scouting experience myself, I’m not about to counter the evaluations of individual players laid out in Connolly’s piece. Some of the players will outplay expectations, and others will disappoint. That is the nature of the sport.
What I do think deserves further discussion, however, is the estimation of the Orioles’ minor league pitching staff overall and what sort of barring that has on the future success of the club.
Back in February, Baseball America put together an effort to examine just how deep the average minor league system is at any one point in time. So, they looked at every team’s farm system from 1998 through 2012 and calculated the average number of future big leaguers (obtained any amount of major league playing time), future big league regulars (spend at least three full seasons in the big leagues), and future big league all-stars.
They found that, on average, a single major league farm system in that time period had 35 players that would reach the big leagues, 11 big league regulars, and 3-4 big league all-stars.
Now, those estimations cover both hitters and pitchers, but we can be crude about it, cut the numbers in half, and say that an average minor league system has 5-6 future big league regular pitchers and two future big league all-stars on the staff.
The Orioles appear to be right in that ballpark. Nothing is certain, but it’s reasonable enough to consider Rodriguez and Hall as potential all-stars while the gaggle of Kyle Bradish, Mike Baumann, Kevin Smith, Zac Lowther, Alexander Wells, Drew Rom, Kyle Brnovich, Blaine Knight, and Garrett Stallings have all made their way to at least Double-A and have a decent-enough chance to, at the very least, make it to the majors and eventually be given an extended period of time to figure things out.
Necessary caveats apply, but at the very least the depth of the Orioles minor league pitching is on par with the rest of the league and far from “bare.” To Connolly’s point, though, the Orioles need more than an average amount of talent injected into the club. Given the state of the major league pitching staff, the young guys will need to be superlative. Maybe they will be, but it is fair to say that, as it stands, they do not have an obvious future five-man rotation marching their way through the farm.
But modern teams are not built on internal talent alone. Free agency and trades are not only a potential avenue to seek significant upgrades, but a probable one.
Many folks have referenced the 2016 Chicago Cubs when discussing the Orioles’ rebuild. Their main starting pitchers that season were Jon Lester, Jake Arrieta, Kyle Hendricks, John Lackey, and Jason Hammel. Lester was a big free agent signing, Arrieta was a successful reclamation project acquired in a trade. Hendricks was largely homegrown after coming over in a trade as a minor leaguer. And both Lackey and Hammels were mid-tier free agents signed to bolster the back of the rotation.
The 2017 Astros always feel relevant when examining a Mike Elias-led organization. Their rotation ended up as Justin Verlander, Charlie Morton, Dallas Keuchel, Lance McCullers Jr, and Brad Peacock. Verlander was traded for during the season, Morton was an affordable free agent signing, Keuchel and McCullers were homegrown while Peacock was a swingman type that turned in the best season of his career.
We could do this all day with just about every interesting pitching staff in baseball. Developing players that turn into impactful major league pitchers is great, and it should be a focus for every organization. But if anything in baseball is a crapshoot, it is depending on talented 20-year-olds turning into productive, 25-year-old big leaguers. That’s why it often takes at least two (and usually more) prospects to acquire even two or three months of service time of an established major league player. Prospects are far from a guarantee while veterans are significantly closer.
It should not be a question of if Elias and his crew will pull off a number of significant deals aimed at improving the Orioles pitching staff, but when. Teams that feel they are ready to compete don’t often hoard prospects. Look at the deal the Blue Jays pulled off to acquire José Berríos, or the one done by the Dodgers to add Max Scherzer and Trea Turner, both involving significant youngsters going the other way.
Sporting a minor league pitching staff that is loaded to the brim with promising arms would be fantastic. Some would argue that the Orioles have exactly that. But it wouldn’t guarantee future success, just as any perceived deficiency does not doom the organization’s ambitions of returning to relevance.