There were so many great things taking place in the Orioles farm system this year that it was easy to overlook the emergence of several O’s pitching prospects into contenders for the 2024 roster. It’s known that this Orioles organization drafts bats high, but prefers its pitching prospects, er, a little on the dark-horsey side.
Such was the case of Justin Armbruester, a 12th-round pick in the 2021 MLB Draft who graduated from the Seattle prep school ranks and started his collegiate career down in Division III Pacific Lutheran. After being named conference pitcher of the year in 2019, Armbruester made the leap to the DI New Mexico Lobos, winning the equivalent award in 2021. That same year, the Orioles signed him for the unflashy sum of $100,000.
Not the splashiest pick, but as MASN’s Steve Melewski put it, “maybe he was the perfect pick for the Orioles organization and its pitching development program.” O’s director of player development Matt Blood explains, “You have a scouting, player acquisition department very in tune with the player development side and what we are able to do developmentally with players.” Orioles scouts had ID’d Armbruester as a guy with “the right stuff and the right potential.”
Part of that potential, it seems like, is a good head on his shoulders. Armbruester has been called “a cerebral pitcher who loves to soak up the data and analytics.” The righty told MASN back in April, “The Orioles have every gadget we could ever want.” A massive fan of the Edgertronic high-speed camera and TrackMan data, he apparently keeps his own notebook on ballpark factors and every hitter he’s ever faced.
After a brief professional debut in ‘21, Armbruester made his way in his first full year of pro ball from High-A Aberdeen to Double-A Bowie, helping the Baysox make a late-season postseason run. Over 117 innings, the 24-year-old posted a 4.02 ERA and 1.12 WHIP in 53 2/3 frames for Aberdeen, then a 3.69 ERA and a 1.03 WHIP in 63 1/3 innings for Bowie. The ‘Sox were much improved in the second half, and Bowie manager Kyle Moore explained that pitching promotions from Aberdeen—Noah Denoyer and Armbruester—were a big reason.
Armbruester, who soaks up data like a sponge, says he clicked immediately with his pitching coaches—Forrest Herrmann in Aberdeen and Josh Conway in Bowie—who helped him work on “attack plans” and develop a solid pitch mix. Over the ’22 offseason, he sharpened up some pitches (especially his cutter) and added a new one (a curveball, which he hopes will help him “play to a lefty”).
2023 was another year of growth for the righty—not perfect, but with some good signs. Over 12 starts for Double-A Bowie, he went 3-2 with a 2.47 ERA, allowing 52 hits over 62 innings with 19 walks and 43 strikeouts, for a 1.15 WHIP. It was good enough for a call-up to Triple-A Norfolk on June 18.
Triple-A proved a bit of a struggle, however, as the 6’5 righty posted a 4.70 ERA in 13 starts, including a 6.20 mark in September. There was seemingly some bad luck involved, as he allowed a .192 opponent average that month and a 1.33 WHIP. Walks were an issue this season (possibly a result of the new pitch mix), rising to 3.78 per nine innings from 2.62 in 2022.
The O’s No. 18 prospect per MLBPipeline, Armbruester “throws everything from a deceptive arm slot and with strong command.” His fastball sits at 93, 94 mph and can touch 97, and he complements it with a cutter, slider and changeup. Baseball America grades him 55 on the 20-80 scouting scale for his fastball, cutter and control and 60 for his slider. MLB Pipeline gives his fastball a 55, his “sweepy” slider and cutter a 50, and his “work-in-progress” changeup a 40. The latter is a pitch, the publication says, that he’ll “need to improve to give him a primary weapon against left-handed hitters at the upper levels.”
Despite the absence of a big curveball, the 6’5, 250-lb. righty gives me vague Tyler Wells vibes. Anyone else see it?
Per his scouting report, if Armbruester can continue developing his secondary pitches, he has a chance to fit into the back end of a big league rotation, or at least to parlay his strike-throwing ability into a relief role “in some capacity at the highest level.” “He is just a fierce competitor,” Blood said of Armbruester. “He has big league stuff and he throws a ton of strikes. That usually plays.” Not bad.
Armbruester himself is ready to make a big push in 2024. As he says, “The process we go through is really intense, but I like that. I try to learn as much as I can.”
Will Armbruester be on the Major League Roster in 2024? There’s a chance! If Elias & Co. are listening to the armchair jockeys who concluded that the Orioles’ quick ALDS exit was for lack of a top-flight starter, this could look like a very different rotation next year. That probably means free agent signings, not call-ups, and Armbruester doesn’t seem rotation-ready, not yet. But he will get an invite to spring training, and could make a strong case for himself.
Tuesday: Max Wagner