All across baseball this summer, minor leaguers who played little or no organized baseball in 2020 got back into it with a five-month season to bring their development back up to speed and resume their climbs to the majors.
For some who missed time because of injury, that chance continued in the Arizona Fall League, where the Orioles’ participants have had an uneven experience, to say the least.
On one end of the spectrum, the top prospect they sent west — outfielder Kyle Stowers — developed a back issue early on and played just three games before he was shut down. More recently, that fate befell former top prospect Yusniel Diaz, who with each passing day seems less and less likely to be able to be healthy enough to deliver on the promise that made him the centerpiece of the 2018 Manny Machado trade. This time, it was shoulder soreness that shut him down.
With those two big names out, left-handed pitcher Nick Vespi was chosen as the Orioles’ representative for Saturday night’s Fall Stars Game, a showcase event on MLB Network for the top performers in the AFL.
Vespi pitched in relief this year at Double-A Bowie and Triple-A Norfolk but missed most of the year because of injury. He struck out 26 batters with a 0.95 WHIP in 19 innings on either side of his IL stint with the Baysox, but a similar 25 strikeouts in 19 ⅔ innings for the Tides was accompanied by some challenges. He allowed six home runs and 15 earned runs on 22 hits with a 1.53 WHIP at Norfolk.
In the fall league, Vespi entered Wednesday with a 1.14 WHIP and 14 strikeouts in 12 1/3 innings for a 2.19 ERA. His career path has been a unique one to this point. He got a chance to start in 2019 after years bouncing around in relief roles and had a 3.16 ERA in 23 games (16 starts) for Low-A Delmarva, striking out 100 in 91 innings with a 1.12 WHIP.
Even back in the bullpen this year, Vespi still has an effective pitch mix, and the Orioles showed they’re interested in keeping him around when they quickly re-signed him as a minor league free agent at the end of the season.
His success on the larger stage in the AFL could put him on the Rule 5 draft radar, but there’s a chance the Orioles will still take that risk and leave him exposed. Even if that happens, he’ll be high on the left-handed relief depth chart if he isn’t selected by another team.
Vespi isn’t the only player impressing in Arizona. Infielder Greg Cullen, one of two players acquired from the Atlanta Braves in a 2020 trade for Tommy Milone, entered Wednesday batting .294 with a .925 OPS as he looks to make up lost time from a hamstring injury.
The other three Orioles pitchers in Arizona — left-hander Cameron Bishop and right-handers Conner Loeprich and Logan Gillaspie — have struggled as they look to build up their inning base. Catcher Ramón Rodriguez rounds out the Orioles’ delegation and is batting .273 in three games.
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Without Stowers or Diaz, there’s certainly a lack of star power in the Orioles’ group of AFL players. In Vespi and Cullen, though, the extended season seems to be serving its purpose.