Without much to look forward to this year in terms of the major league club, which is on its way to one of the worst seasons in baseball history, the Orioles' focus will shift toward the next generation of players they hope will help reverse that before long.
The twice-weekly "One for the future," which began earlier this week, will highlight an Orioles minor leaguer who is on the radar for either prospect status, performance or pedigree.
For the second installment, we’ll look at Alex Wells, the 21-year-old Australian left-hander who will be the Orioles’ first international prospect to represent them at the All-Star Futures Game this weekend since Cuban outfielder Dariel Álvarez in 2014.
Signed in August 2015 for $300,000 out of Newcastle, Australia, Wells made his professional debut at Short-A Aberdeen the following summer and showed his transition to the United States wouldn't be a difficult one. That year in the New York-Penn League, he made the first of what would be three consecutive midseason All-Star games, and finished the year with a 2.15 ERA over 62 2/3 innings (13 starts), with a 0.91 WHIP and just nine walks against 50 strikeouts.
That would just be a teaser for what he'd do over a full season in 2017. Last year, Wells was named the Orioles' Jim Palmer Minor League Pitcher of the Year for navigating the South Atlantic League with his peerless command.
Wells walked just 10 batters all season, including none in his last 69 innings, en route to 140 innings (25 starts) with a 2.38 ERA and an identical 0.91 WHIP. He was ranked the organization's No. 13 prospect by Baseball America and pitched an inning in major league spring training this year before making the leap to the Carolina League.
Even as he earned another All-Star appearance and was selected to the All-Star Futures Game, Wells has experienced more hardship this summer for High-A Frederick than at any point in his professional career.
In 85 innings over 16 starts, Wells has a 4.13 ERA with a 1.47 WHIP. While there are already 26 walks to his name, that comes out to 2.8 walks per nine innings, which is hardly anything to be ashamed of. His home-road splits indicate the cozy confines of the Keys' home ballpark might be causing him some trouble, too, and things looked much different before the All-Star break, as he's struggled in two of his three starts since.
While the results that made Wells so intriguing up to this point haven't been there, all indications this summer are that not much has changed about the way Wells is pitching. He's still sitting in the high 80s with plus command — one scout had it as a 70 grade, one notch higher than “plus” on the 20-80 evaluation scale — and the makings of average changeups and curveballs are there.
Without the premium velocity that can help him miss bats, Wells fits the profile of someone who has to prove he can be effective at every level. The relatively small Carolina League has its challenges, and he's confronting them now.
That Wells does it all with below-average velocity and needs to be precise with his three-pitch mix means those challenges, and the questions that will stem from them, will dog him throughout his career. It's a back-end starter profile at best, with the ability to possibly eat innings as a change-of-pace reliever as a worst-case scenario, but Wells will need to perform at every step on the ladder to get to either. That's simply the life of pitchers of his profile.
What does that look like at the highest level? The list of big league starters whose fastballs average below 90 mph includes the following: Ty Blach, Gio González, Matthew Boyd, Jaime García, Dallas Keuchel, Ryan Yarbrough, Marco Gonzales, Brent Suter and Wade LeBlanc. Other than the collective ability to give the Orioles fits, those pitchers' defining commonalities are generally the ability to spot their fastball with precision and keep hitters off it with at least one plus secondary pitch. Wells' off-speed pitches aren't there yet, but his changeup could be the better of the two, which will help him against right-handed hitters.
Last year's top pick, DL Hall, is distinguishing himself as probably the class of the organization's left-handed starters at Low-A Delmarva right now. Wells, by virtue of his finesse left-handed profile, is in the next tier with Keegan Akin and Zac Lowther. Akin has probably separated himself with his success at Double-A, but going forward, Wells won't have to look far to see someone else who is having to prove it at every step — and doing it.