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Cade Povich showed promise and also stuff to work on across two levels this year

The 5+ ERA after getting promoted to Triple-A isn’t so fun, but maybe it’s not as bad as it looks

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Baltimore Orioles Photo Day
Cade Povich early in spring training this year.
Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

Essentially no one was happy when the Orioles traded their All-Star closer Jorge López to the Twins at last year’s trade deadline. Evaluating that trade now is a lot more kind for the O’s given the 2023 performance of López and this year’s All-Star Yennier Cano. At the time, the headliner of the deal - who may still be the best of the bunch - was lefty pitching prospect Cade Povich.

Now 23, Povich split this season between Double-A Bowie and Triple-A Norfolk, showing that there was promising potential in there but still work to be done to have that potential impacting an Orioles rotation. Between these two levels, he continued the strikeout prowess that probably had him on the O’s radar in the first place, racking up 171 strikeouts in 126.2 innings between both levels. He also showed some command problems beyond anything he had before the O’s acquired him, walking 66 batters over that time.

Along with that elevated walk rate were results that do not create much excitement. Povich made 18 starts with Bowie before being promoted from there, in which he had a 4.87 ERA and 1.365 WHIP. The Orioles moved him up to Norfolk, where he finished the year with a 5.36 ERA and 1.346 WHIP across ten starts there. Not every pitching prospect is going to dominate Triple-A to the degree that Grayson Rodriguez did, but there’s a lot of room between domination and an ERA that rounds to 5.

It is always worth remembering that the Orioles are not going to be evaluating Povich on his minor league ERA. Box scores and stat lines that accumulate from box scores are all that fans have. That’s not what teams are worried about. Good results will matter eventually but there are a variety of reasons in the minors why bad results are less of a concern than they look. They promoted him from Bowie despite that high ERA because they thought the best place for his further development was Norfolk.

That said, my basic rule of thumb is that I’d always rather have to have great results where I know I need to pump the brakes of excitement, than results that aren’t so great and you have to come up with reasons for why the bad-looking numbers aren’t actually that bad. For Povich, it’s the latter, so let’s try to make ourselves feel better.

First and foremost, bear in mind that in 2023, the Triple-A leagues and MLB were literally not playing by the same rules. The experiment with automated balls and strikes half of the time and a challenge system another half of the time produced drastically different conditions from weekdays to weekends and neither of those sets of conditions exist in MLB.

It feels like it is related that offense exploded in the league. International League teams averaged 5.50 runs per game, an increase from 4.98 runs per game last year. Walk rates certainly increased: 2022 IL batters walked 10.1% of plate appearances. In 2023, that was up to 11.8%.

We can’t know that Povich’s new walk problems are connected to the automated balls and strikes, but this does line up. In Triple-A where that system was being used, four of his ten starts saw him walk at least four batters. Two of those high walk starts were short ones of fewer than three innings. He is, at a minimum, probably going to have to work on bouncing back after setbacks within a game to avoid disaster.

Strikeouts were very similar between the two years, so Povich’s positive of a 10.5 K/9 at Norfolk comes with less of a grain of salt. That’s something the Orioles must have seen in him in making sure he was a part of that López trade. He’d struck out 107 batters in 78.2 innings in High-A at the time of the trade last year. There are certainly some positives here even as there seem to be things to that will take work.

At FanGraphs, where Povich was the #8 prospect in the Orioles system before the season, they wrote:

His wiry, broad-shouldered build and mechanical fluidity are both characteristics associated with innings-eaters, and with pitchers who continue to refine their secondary stuff and maybe even add velocity deeper into their 20s. ... It’s a great lefty pitchability foundation with several late-bloomer traits, like Povich’s age and the development he lost due to the pandemic.

Not every prospect writer was as sunny about Povich’s potential as FanGraphs. Keith Law of The Athletic had Povich at #13 before the season, noting:

A lot of the hard contact (Povich) allowed came on the fastball, so he’s going to have pitch backwards if he can’t gain velocity at some point. He was much worse with men on base last year as well, which isn’t great if he has to move to relief, but right now I’d start him given the assortment of weapons, with the slider and cutter probably both 55s and the chance his command is good enough to keep him out of danger in the heart of the zone.

Law’s comment about the problems with men on base was prompted by 2022 results in which Povich allowed a .587 OPS with the bases empty and a .777 OPS with any runners on. You don’t want pitchers in that 2023 Adam Frazier territory. Against the higher-level competition he faced this year, Povich had batters at a .643 OPS with no one on and a .786 OPS with anyone on.

For comparison, here’s how Orioles starting pitchers were in these splits this season:

  • Grayson Rodriguez: .746 OPS empty / .728 men on
  • Kyle Bradish: .606 / .604
  • Kyle Gibson: .737 / .793
  • Dean Kremer: .721 / .746
  • Tyler Wells: .674 / .661

Povich having splits of .190 last year and .143 this year against minor league competition certainly stands out against these numbers. Even the worst pitcher of this group, Gibson, held the gap to 56 points. Povich is probably going to need to do better with this aspect of his game as well before we see him in Baltimore.

The Orioles can certainly afford to be patient with Povich at this juncture. Although it would be nice if he was in the 2024 Opening Day roster mix based on his development up to this point, they don’t need that to happen. There is nothing rushing him onto the 40-man roster, either. As a player who was 21 years old when drafted in 2021, Povich does not need to be placed onto the 40-man until after next season.

How much the Orioles don’t need that to get Povich big league rotation ready quickly depends on your optimism about the health and performance of the incumbent rotation group. Whether the Orioles might sign or acquire an experienced big league pitcher who actually belongs in a contender’s big league rotation is also a factor there. The next time Elias does this will be the first time.

Will Povich make it onto the 2024 Orioles? When I had a blank page and thought about this question at the end, I thought, of course he’ll make the 2024 Orioles. He’s the next pitching prospect people are excited about.

I’ve talked myself out of it over the course of researching and writing this. Povich has work to do with command and with performing out of the stretch and the Orioles don’t seem like they will need to rush him, so they shouldn’t. It won’t surprise me if he does make it, but that just doesn’t seem to be the trajectory he was on when the season wrapped up.

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

Monday: Chayce McDermott