As a pair of well-regarded Orioles pitching prospects inch closer to the majors, their path this year has taken them out West for extra work and seasoning in the Arizona Fall League — and they’re already seeing dividends.
Right-hander Dean Kremer and left-hander Alex Wells, who spent most of this year as teammates at Double-A Bowie before Kremer’s August promotion to Triple-A Norfolk, have been standout arms on the Surprise Saguaros team that will play for the AFL championship Saturday.
Kremer, 23, is in Arizona to pad his innings total after starting the season late because of an oblique injury. Wells, 22, is there to get some experience out of the bullpen. Both are there to hone their sliders and changeups.
Doing it on such a stage, against some of the top prospects in the game, makes the success ring a little more loudly.
“The guys here are some of the best up-and-coming players, and I know that I’m going to have to compete regardless when I get out there. But it doesn’t feel like there’s a difference,” Kremer said. “I know that it’s an honor to get brought out here, so I’m grateful to have the opportunity.”
Kremer, who was acquired in July 2018 in the Manny Machado trade with the Los Angeles Dodgers and led the minors in strikeouts that year, was invited to major league spring training this year but was injured early. He went back to Bowie and had a 2.98 ERA in 15 starts, before striking out over a batter per inning but getting hit around in four starts at Norfolk.
He’s always been a four-pitch pitcher, but his fastball and curveball have been the most advanced of the two. His points of emphasis in the fall league are his slider and changeup, which he called a “work in progress,” but the results have been strong. He’s struck out 23 in 19 innings with a 0.895 WHIP and a 2.37 ERA in six appearances (five starts), though he said the beauty of the setting is his stats don’t matter.
“It’s been nice,” Kremer said. “It’s given me the chance to get extra reps, and more reps, in a meaningful environment where the stats don’t necessarily really impact my season. I can tinker with stuff at will and kind of go from outing to outing.”
Wells, who was in the rotation at Bowie with Kremer and has never made a relief appearance in 86 affiliated appearances, is using his time in the fall league to get acquainted with coming out of the bullpen. He has started once in nine appearances, and learned early on when he was summoned into a bases-loaded, one-out situation that it’s a different animal.
“The entire fall league experience, coming out of the bullpen, just makes myself more versatile in the future,” Wells said.
He has prepared for his outings by throwing fewer pitches in the bullpen before entering. But he was never going to be accused of not attacking hitters or working quickly as a starter, so that hasn’t needed much adjustment. But with an 87-91 mph fastball that hasn’t played up much in shorter stints, the bullpen role has been one in which he’s focused on his secondary pitches.
“[Minor league pitching coordinator] Chris Holt asked me to work my slider a lot more, and having that fourth pitch has helped me a lot out here,” Wells said. “I’ve seen the progress in it, and I’m happy with that, and just to continue to work my changeup. Whether it’s throwing it in certain counts or trying to cut down the velocity on it. It’s mainly 4 or 5 mph off my fastball. I’m trying to cut down the velocity on it.
“I’ve seen some pretty good success with it. The slider has come a long way and the changeup has come a long way. Those are two of my most important pitches out here, and I’m excited to see what kind of progress I’ll make in the offseason and coming into next season.”
Wells made what might have been his final relief appearance of the season Wednesday with two innings of scoreless relief. He’s allowed one run on 15 hits with a pair of walks and 15 strikeouts in 15⅔ innings, and considering he’s pitched in relief with three days rest on a consistent basis, Saturday’s AFL championship game might come too soon for him.
Kremer, however, is a candidate to pitch in that game as a Saguaros team also featuring Orioles prospects Rylan Bannon, Mason McCoy, T.J. Nichting, Cody Carroll and David Lebron, plus coach Kyle Moore and athletic trainer Marty Brinker competes for a title against Salt River.
It would be a nice way to end their seasons, but, as a visit earlier this month from Holt and Orioles manager Brandon Hyde reminded them, the group’s time is meant to serve a different purpose.
“It’s nice to know that we’re on their radar still, and showing them what we can do,” Wells said. “Hopefully next year, we’ll be pitching in Camden Yards, pitching for Brandon Hyde.”
And the rest...
While Kremer and Wells carry the prospect cache, all of the Orioles pitchers in Arizona are having success, while the hitters have had a tougher road. Here’s how they’re doing.
Cody Carroll: After missing most of the season with a back injury, the 27-year-old Carroll struggled in his first AFL outing but has only once since; he’s posted zeroes in his past five outings, lowering his ERA to 2.08 with 11 strikeouts in 8⅔ innings.
David Lebron: Lebron, 26, allowed four runs in his first AFL appearance, but had nine scoreless innings over six appearances with just six base runners allowed before he yielded a run Oct. 19. He bounced back with a scoreless inning Thursday.
Mason McCoy: One of the minors’ best hitters in the first half at High-A Frederick and Bowie, the 24-year-old McCoy has shown off his approach in Arizona with 11 walks while batting .230 with a .642 OPS.
Rylan Bannon: A strong start in Arizona has faded for the 23-year-old Bannon, who is batting .202 with a .511 OPS and just two extra-base hits in 84 at-bats.
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T.J. Nichting: Added to the roster in October once it was decided Austin Hays wasn’t going to Arizona, the 24-year-old Nichting has five hits and a walk in 20 at-bats.