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 regular "One for the Future" feature, which began in mid-July, will highlight an Orioles minor leaguer who is on the radar for either prospect status, performance or pedigree.
After two years in the bullpen at UC-Santa Barbara, Tate shot up draft boards after becoming a starter in 2015, when he had a 2.26 ERA and a 0.91 WHIP with 111 strikeouts in 103 innings. Selected fourth overall by the Texas Rangers, Tate carried that success immediately into pro ball before stumbling in his full-season debut in 2016.
Pitching for Low-A Hickory in the South Atlantic League, Tate battled hamstring and shoulder injuries while seemingly not seeing eye to eye with the Rangers on how to adjust him to a professional routine off his once-a-week college routine. He was dealt to the New York Yankees in a trade for Carlos Beltrán barely a year after he was drafted.
Tate found some success in the Yankees system after the trade, thanks in part to health and getting his velocity back. He carried that over into 2017, when he got a late start because of a shoulder injury and compiled a 2.81 ERA with a 1.14 WHIP in 13 starts between High-A Tampa and Double-A Trenton.
Tate’s age-24 season has been another of great change, as he started to miss bats at a level he did as an amateur with 8.17 strikeouts per nine innings and a 3.38 ERA in 15 starts for Trenton. He earned an Eastern League All-Star nod, but missed the game because of a quad strain, and didn’t pitch again before he came to the Orioles as the headliner in a three-player deal for Britton.
He had a long layoff before pitching for an Orioles affiliate, but when he debuted July 29 in Harrisburg, he had to overcome some mound rust before showing a pretty full picture of where he is in his development. Tate’s fastball was 92-94 mph early and 91-92 mph late, with some late hop out of an athletic delivery and a three-quarters arm slot. Tate said one of the things the Yankees cleaned up on him was a tendency to pull his hands away from his body and toward second base as he came set, and he’s settled nicely into a delivery where his hands stay still during his high leg kick.
He complements those with a hard slider and a changeup, both of which have potential to be out pitches at the highest level but aren’t thrown with much consistency at the moment. He’ll throw both secondary pitches to both sides, and can get swinging strikes on the slider presently.
But he’s struggled to miss bats in three starts with Bowie entering Friday’s outing, allowing 14 earned runs on 24 hits in 17 1/3 innings with six strikeouts and four walks in three starts.
At the risk of this section of these reports becoming trite, Tate’s acquisition actually put him in a really good position to continue his development as a starter. He just crossed the 100-inning threshold as a professional for the first time, and even if his embracing of a relatively methodical pace to his development might frustrate teams, what do the Orioles have to be frustrated over?
Tate fits the classic “mid-rotation starter at best, late-inning reliever at worst” profile that is deserving of eye-rolls within evaluation circles, but it’s true here, and the Orioles are in a position to let him do everything possible to get to the higher end of that spectrum.
Like so many of the prospects acquired in this summer’s trades, he’ll have to be added to the 40-man roster this offseason or be exposed to the Rule 5 draft, so the clock will start in that sense. But Tate is young in a pitching sense, and the Orioles have a responsibility not to rush his development to let him reach that ceiling.
There are plenty of young pitchers at an equal level or above him in the system who are closer to major league ready, and can fill whatever need the organization might have on the starting pitching front while the Orioles bring Tate along. But these types of mid-rotation-potential arms don’t come around in Baltimore often, and this is one they should exercise plenty of patience with.
The other side of adding an arm like this is in examining what it can mean for a future bullpen role, if it comes to that. The Orioles have seen mixed early results with some of the relief-only players they added in recent trades, and have a bullpen that’s almost exclusively built on pitchers who have done nothing but relieve in their careers, save for Mike Wright Jr.
That ignores the idea that many of the best relievers have built up their arms and learned to pitch as starters before making that transition. So when someone like Tate is said to have a relief floor, it’s a different relief level than someone who might only feature two pitches and has relieved his entire career. The Orioles will hope it never comes to falling back on that for Tate, and if it does, it will paint the Britton trade in a bit of a different light.
One for the future