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Jud Fabian showed plenty of tools but too much swing-and-miss in 2023

The 2022 second-round pick flashed power, defense, and speed, but hit a wall in Double-A when his strikeouts caught up with him.

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Bowie Baysox v Akron RubberDucks Photo by Nick Cammett/Diamond Images via Getty Images

You know why it would be great to see Jud Fabian succeed with the Orioles?

I mean, it’s great to see any prospect succeed with the Orioles. But it’d be extra sweet in Fabian’s case. Because before the O’s selected him in the second round of the 2022 draft, the Boston Red Sox selected him in the second round of the 2021 draft, where his intriguing power bat and defensive prowess would have made him one of their top prospects. Instead, Fabian spurned the Red Sox, returned for a fourth year at the University of Florida, and ended up with the Orioles.

So if Fabian were to become a productive big leaguer in Baltimore, it’d be an extra twist of the knife to the Red Sox organization for letting him slip away. You love to see it.

Still, let’s not count our chickens before they hatch. Fabian, the Orioles’ #13 prospect on MLB Pipeline, certainly has plenty of potential, but his 2023 season proved that he’s still a ways from reaching it. As Pipeline’s bio explains, “Everywhere he’s played, Fabian has shown serious offensive upside as well as the holes in his game.”

Let’s start with the good news. Fabian, in his first full professional season, showed off the legit power that led him to back-to-back 20-homer seasons for the Gators, where his 56 total home runs ranked third in school history. Fabian swatted 24 home runs this year between High-A Aberdeen and Double-A Bowie. He slugged .490 in 56 games for the IronBirds before his late June promotion.

Fabian also added a new wrinkle to his game: stolen bases. He swiped 31 bags in 39 attempts this season, more than he’d stolen in his entire four-year collegiate career (24). Pipeline notes that Fabian “isn’t a burner” but has “above-average wheels and excellent instincts.”

Those skills have also helped Fabian stand out in center field. The Athletic’s Keith Law, in his preseason O’s prospect rankings, tabbed Fabian as “at least a 60 defender in center” on the 20-to-80 scouting scale. A well above-average glove at a premium position will earn a player a lot of leeway even if he doesn’t hit, which Fabian has.

With so many skills on display for the 23-year-old, what’s keeping him from being considered one of the Orioles’ — and baseball’s — elite prospects? Three words: strikeouts, strikeouts, strikeouts.

Even in college, Fabian had a lot of swing-and-miss in his game, whiffing in about one-quarter of his plate appearances. That issue has only grown worse as a professional. In 120 games this year, Fabian racked up an absurd 32% strikeout rate, including 37.5% at Double-A, where the pitching is noticeably better than anything he’s faced before. For context, the highest strikeout rate of any qualified major leaguer this year was 32.7% by Oakland’s Brent Rooker. True, Rooker made the All-Star team, but in general a hitter who’s getting punched out that often — while still two levels away from the bigs — is usually going to stall out well before he ever arrives there.

Indeed, Fabian had a rude awakening at Bowie after tearing up Aberdeen. In 64 games for the Baysox, he batted just .177 with a .713 OPS and 108 strikeouts. His first full month at Double-A was a particularly rough adjustment, as he slashed .130/.239/.351 in 20 games in July. Those numbers, at least, steadily improved as the weeks went on, and in September he posted a .233/.393/.385 line in 12 games, perhaps a sign that he was starting to get acclimated to the level.

Fabian may be one of the most boom-or-bust types of prospects in the Orioles’ system, capable of either being a regular big league contributor or petering out in the minors, with little in between. FanGraphs’ Eric Longenhagen, in his preseason assessment, wrote of Fabian, “There’s definitely bust risk associated with the strikeouts, but there’s also clearly everyday ability.” Adds Law: “He has star-level tools, just with low probability.”

The 2024 season will be a pivotal one for Fabian. He’ll almost certainly begin the season with Bowie, hoping to build on the progress he made late in 2023, and it’s obvious which one particular area of his game needs the most improvement. The more he’s able to cut down the K rate, the better his chances of reaching his sky-high ceiling.

Will Fabian be on the 2024 Orioles? Probably not in any meaningful sense. He’s got things to work on in the minors and the O’s will give him the time he needs to do so, especially since the Orioles’ outfield is currently overcrowded as is. But could Fabian move up to Triple-A Norfolk during the season and squeak out a cup of coffee in the bigs late in the year? It’s possible. Let’s hope he does, because it means something will have gone very right for him.

2023 prospect reviews: Alex Pham/Trace Bright, Billy Cook/John Rhodes, International Prospects, Carter Baumler/Seth Johnson, Creed Willems, Justin Armbruester, Max Wagner

Tomorrow: Mac Horvath