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Orioles organizational depth report: Pitching-heavy draft classes leave low minors full of promising starters

Jon Meoli
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun

With baseball transitioning into the offseason this month and the hot stove season beginning to simmer, it's time to revisit the Orioles' organizational depth across the diamond as a means to establish where they're strong and which areas they'll need to address, both this offseason and going forward.

Last week, we assessed the position player depth with the catchers, corner infielders, middle infielders, and outfielders. This week, we'll assess the Orioles' present and future on the mound, continuing with the low-minors starting pitching depth — perennially the most important and heavily scrutinized part of their system.

Over the last few years, the Orioles' front office has realized a significant truth about how it needs to operate. It's hard to persuade pitchers to come to Baltimore in free agency to compete in a tough division and a hitter's ballpark. So the Orioles have dedicated significant draft capital toward starting pitchers. The result is as promising a crop of pitching depth in the low minors as the Orioles have had in years — even if it's far away.

The present: The Orioles have plenty to sort out in the major league rotation when it comes to homegrown depth for 2018, which was addressed Monday, and the consequences of which are going to cost millions of dollars in free agency this winter, no matter how they go about filling out their rotation.

None of these pitchers in the low minors can make a true impact in 2018 (or should in good conscience), but a good season for any of them can put them on the doorstep of the majors in 2019.

The future: One of the more significant developments of 2017 in the Orioles minors was the decision to skip the top two picks of 2016 — right-hander Cody Sedlock and left-hander Keegan Akin — straight to High-A Frederick after they got a taste of professional ball for Short-A Aberdeen in their draft years. Neither player's season, however, went as planned.

Sedlock showed up in spring training with a change in his delivery that he undertook in the offseason to add more velocity, but it complicated his pitching motion and reduced his effectiveness in a year during which he landed on the disabled list twice with elbow soreness and ended with a 5.90 ERA in 90 innings. The team expects him healthy and back to his old delivery in 2018, and if he's back to being the pitcher with a heavy fastball in the mid-90s and the potential for three above-average secondary pitches, he could quickly get back on track.

Akin, meanwhile, endured a slow start and was skipped in the rotation two months into the season to make a lower-half adjustment, which worked wonders. He had a 2.97 ERA from that point on and is shining in the Arizona Fall League, where he's struck out 12 in 12 1/3 innings while allowing two runs with a 0.73 WHIP.

The Frederick rotation also featured 20-year-old right-hander Ofelky Peralta, who continues to tantalize with a fastball that tops out in the mid-90s but lacks the command or feel for his secondary pitches to be effective at this point. He had a 5.42 ERA in 26 starts. Left-hander Brian Gonzalez didn't build on a strong 2016, and ended up with a 4.91 ERA in 21 starts.

The Low-A Delmarva rotation featured the Orioles' Minor League Pitcher of the Year, left-hander Alex Wells. The 20-year-old Australian walked just 10 batters all season and went 11-5 with a 2.38 ERA. While he doesn't have top-end fastball velocity, Wells has two strong secondary pitches and the best control in the system. He'll have to prove it level-by-level, but is off to a strong start in his career.

Right-handers Lucas Humpal and Matthias Dietz got a year of experience under their belt and remain intriguing, as does right-hander Jhon Peluffo, but the main attraction late in the year at Delmarva was right-hander Hunter Harvey.

The 2013 first-round pick was a revelation there in 2014, but three years of elbow injuries and other various disabled list stints prevented him from building on it. Now recovered from Tommy John elbow reconstruction and enjoying a restful offseason, Harvey had a 0.96 ERA in 18 2/3 rehab innings and showed a live fastball up to 97 mph in his final start for the Shorebirds. His breaking ball was a plus pitch before the surgery and showed flashes of that this year, while his changeup is still developing. If Harvey can stay healthy, he immediately regains his post as the top prospect in the organization.

Buoyed mostly by the 2017 draft class, there was also a strong contingent of starters at Aberdeen this year. Left-handers Zac Lowther and Cameron Bishop joined right-hander Mike Baumann as this year's college starters there, and all found quick success. Baumann, a third-round pick and former teammate of outfielder Austin Hays at Jacksonville, had a 1.31 ERA with 41 strikeouts and 19 walks in 41 1/3 innings, while Lowther, a sandwich-round pick, fanned 75 and walked just 11 in 54 1/3 innings with a 1.66 ERA.

Baumann is a prototypical right-handed power pitcher whose success long term relies on fastball command and the ability to add a third pitch, while Lowther uses elite extension to keep hitters off his fastball and off balance with strong command. Bishop was a 26th-round pick who lost his whole junior season to an oblique injury but features an above-average fastball and is still learning to harness it.

Most intriguing out of the whole Aberdeen rotation, however, might have been 2016 sixth-round pick Brenan Hanifee. The 19-year-old has a heavy sinker and the type of projectable frame scouts dream of, posting a 2.75 ERA and a 1.12 WHIP in 12 starts this year.

Below them in the Gulf Coast League, the headliner was 2017 first-round pick DL Hall. The left-hander struggled some in the GCL, posting a 6.97 ERA in five starts, but settled down in the Instructional League and showed the Orioles the easy, repeatable delivery and plus fastball that makes him such a promising left-handed prospect. He entered the draft as a player considered to have tremendous upside, and the Orioles have seen that the past few months.

Another Tommy John rehabber, right-hander Gray Fenter, also drew scouts' attention in the complex league. He's regained his 92-96 mph fastball and teases a good curveball when he stays behind it, though he was on a strictly regimented pitch count and selection while rehabilitating this year. Left-hander Willie Rios, 21, was the club's best statistical starter after beginning the season with Aberdeen.

What now: Without much immediate major league impact on the horizon, save for the packaging of one or two of these arms for a trade, the only real task when considering this crop of young arms is to start stashing away gas money to drive out to Salisbury. A rotation led by Hall, Baumann, Lowther and Bishop with Hanifee, Dietz and Fenter also in the mix will be worth the trip. Sedlock and Akin's assignments for 2018 will be interesting, as will Harvey's, as he'll be in major league camp after the Orioles add him to the 40-man roster.

Wells will be in Frederick, where a small Carolina League will challenge him, while Peralta will be back as well.

There's a long way to go for any of these arms to be major league contributors, but the sheer volume of promising arms in the Orioles' low minors is a sight not recently seen in this organization.

jmeoli@baltsun.com

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