In a year when the Orioles used every available pitching option and even added a large group of pitchers from off the 40-man roster to help bolster their major league staff, that left-hander Chris Lee — one of the team's top pitching prospects — spent the whole season in Triple-A without a major league look created a bizarre dynamic.
Lee went from getting a start in spring training as part of the team's fifth starter competition to spending the year in Norfolk with an ERA over five. And with only one minor league option remaining, both he and manager Buck Showalter are of the mind that it's time for Lee to achieve more.
"It's time to upgrade, get to where I need to be and show what my potential is and show them what my hard work is," Lee said last week at the team's three-day pitching minicamp in Sarasota, Fla. "I'm not going to have them sleep on me. I'm going to show them I actually belong up there. That's my main goal."
"It's time for him to graduate," Showalter said. "He needs to graduate from that prospect status to a contributor. He's got the arm to do it. It's time for a lot of these guys entering the last year where they carry options and stuff."
Lee, who remained the 10th-ranked prospect in the Orioles farm system this year according to Baseball America, used 2017 to get back to full health after a lat strain in his left shoulder held him to five starts for Double-A Bowie in 2016, albeit five good ones.
With Norfolk last year, Lee made 27 appearances (20 starts), and went 5-6 with a 5.11 ERA. He had a 6.21 ERA on July 27 when he moved out of the rotation to make room for a rehabbing Mike Wright, and from that point on, Lee thrived. The short stints in the bullpen suited him well (though he went four or more innings three times), and he had a 1.23 ERA the rest of the way.
"The only thing different was I knew I had a shorter stint," he said. "I was only going three innings, so I wouldn't have to face the lineup [more than once]. I just went in there, got in and out and tried to get my team back in there as quick as possible."
Lee, whose success previously came when he pitched to contact and kept the ball on the ground, believes pitching in relief after such struggles jolted him back to that mindset. He knows he needs to improve his slider, but couldn't get hitters to respect it last season and got himself into trouble trying.
His fastball, which sits in the mid-90s, is complemented by an above-average changeup. But a good breaking ball would give him an out pitch that might drive his strikeout rate up and increase his chances of success at the higher level.
Despite that, Lee wants to stay true to himself in 2018 in hopes that it gets him past last year's struggles. He’ll get the chance to do that as a starter as things stand. He's re-imagining his arsenal some in advance of spring training, and wants to build on how he ended 2017 into a big year for him and the Orioles.