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.
Next, a look at right-hander Jimmy Yacabonis, whose trajectory was changed some this year when the team tried to convert him from a hard-throwing reliever to a starter.
A three-year reliever at Saint Joseph’s in Philadelphia, Yacabonis was the Orioles 13th-round draft pick in 2013 and made a strong debut at Short-A Aberdeen that summer before getting off to an impeccable start the next year at Low-A Delmarva. Yacabonis didn’t allow a run — earned or unearned — in 24 innings over 19 appearances to start the season before that streak was halted June 10.
From there, he went to High-A Frederick and had almost the exact opposite results for the remainder of the season. He ended that Carolina League season with an 8.58 ERA and a 2.19 WHIP as his lack of command was exposed at the higher level, and would continue to be exposed in 2015, when he posted a 4.02 ERA for the Keys.
That meant Yacabonis was back for a third year at High-A before he earned a midseason promotion in 2016 to Double-A Bowie, where things seemed to improve dramatically. He finished that year with a 2.03 ERA at Bowie and brought his season walk rate down from 4.74 per nine innings in 2015 to 2.78 in 2016.
That was enough to put him and his big fastball on the major league radar — he ended up pitching often in major league spring training games in 2017 and earned his first call-up last June. It was a rough go in the majors until he finished strong in September and ended with a 4.35 ERA, all while dominating Triple-A Norfolk to the tune of a 1.32 ERA when he wasn’t up.
During the Orioles’ pitching minicamp in January, manager Buck Showalter started hinting at the team’s plan to try Yacabonis, 26, as a starter in 2018. The reasoning had as much to do with Yacabonis himself as it did the team’s circumstances — they hadn’t signed Alex Cobb, Andrew Cashner or Chris Tillman to that point, and their rotation stocks in the high minors were uncomfortably bare.
But Yacabonis also had the prototypical body for a durable starting pitcher, and Showalter often remarked at the size of his hands as a way of inferring that he could develop the secondary pitches required for the role. Vice president of baseball operations Brady Anderson was also a major proponent of the idea. And considering the success the Orioles had in developing Tanner Scott as a future reliever on a similar plan, once the idea got traction, it seems like it took on an air of “Why not?” in the organization.
Yacabonis had to build his arm strength earlier in the season, and had his progress stunted a bit by a pair of major league relief outings that didn’t go well. But once he settled in, he got into a groove. By the time the team handed him his first start June 28 against the Seattle Mariners, he had a 3.23 ERA in 13 starts, including a 1.99 ERA in seven starts without the interruption of a call-up.
He pitched four innings and allowed two runs that game, and allowed three runs in five innings July 9 against the New York Yankees.
Yacabonis hit a rough patch leading into this most recent spot start, one of Saturday’s games against Boston. He’s allowed 10 earned runs on nine hits with five walks over 4 1/3 innings over two starts, the second one abbreviated so he could be ready for Saturday.
Where all this will take Yacabonis going forward is a bit unclear — and the Orioles’ current situation doesn’t exactly lend itself to urgency to deciding it. They seem happy to summon him for doubleheaders or whenever the need for a starter crops up, especially now that he’s the only healthy starter available on the 40-man roster. Starting through the end of the minor league season on Labor Day and possibly into the playoffs for Norfolk will bring him well past the 82 innings he threw last season, albeit in different circumstances, but it’ll probably be best if this plan is executed all the way through this season regardless of the long-term plans.
Once it comes time to decide, the factors are clear. Chiefly, can someone with such a high-effort delivery start at the major league level and pitch as deep into games as the job requires? And can the command of his mid-90s fastball, plus the consistency of his slider and changeup, sustain enough to make them effective?
If so, Yacabonis is exactly the type of starter for a club looking to drive down costs and fill roles internally while waiting for the next wave of competitive baseball to arrive. He’ll be cost-controlled well into whatever their next competitive window is. And even if it’s still a stretch for him to be a viable starter long-term, the state of the high-minors starting pitching — even with the additions of Luis Ortiz, Dillon Tate, Josh Rogers, Bruce Zimmermann and Dean Kremer in their recent trades — means he’ll be a prime candidate to fill any future openings in the rotation.
Yet if none of that works out, he’ll have spent a year (or more) honing his control and secondary pitches in a rotation role, having shown he can go multiple innings, and can harness that in a relief role to much better results than he’s had for parts of his major league career. Of course, taking him off the Norfolk shuttle could help that, too. He had a 3.21 ERA with eight scoreless outings in 10 appearances in September once rosters expanded, but hasn’t had much security otherwise. Yacabonis has pitched in seven of the nine games he’s been active in the bullpen at the major league level outside of last September. As much as some clarity on his future might help, so might a little bit of rope when he’s up.
One for the future