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 left-hander Keegan Akin, who has spent the last year-plus being as consistent and steady as any pitching prospect in the organization, and is in line to join the big league conversation next spring.
Akin’s path to the Orioles was the same as many of their college draftees from this decade — he pitched well in the Cape Cod Baseball League the summer before his draft year, dominated in college that spring and ended up in the Orioles farm system soon thereafter. Akin, the team’s second-round draft pick in 2016, played for Orioles scout Harvey Shapiro for Bourne of the Cape Cod League in 2015 alongside Baltimore’s top 2016 pick, Cody Sedlock.
Akin struck out 133 with a 0.94 WHIP and a 1.82 ERA for Western Michigan as a junior and was similarly effective once he got to Short-A Aberdeen after signing for $1.17 million. He struck out 29 and allowed 22 base runners in 26 innings for the IronBirds in his pro debut season before learning the next spring that things weren’t as easy as his introduction made them seem.
He was made to work himself back into pitching shape in spring training, and had a 5.95 ERA in late May when he skipped a start to get some extra work on his delivery and make some tweaks. The Orioles focused on his lower half and keeping him over the mound longer, and he responded by posting a 2.97 ERA with 66 strikeouts and a 1.10 WHIP from the time he returned through early August, when he went out with an oblique strain.
Healthy again this year, Akin has been the picture of consistency for Double-A Bowie by almost any measure. He’s allowed more than three earned runs in just three of his 22 starts, and has 13 quality starts. His ERA hasn’t been above 4.00 since April 19, nor above 3.00 since May 22. After allowing two runs in 5 2/3 innings Tuesday, his ERA settled at 2.92 with a 1.22 WHIP in 123 1/3 innings.
The 23-year-old does it with an arsenal that has graduated from that of a pitchability left-hander who gets by on guile alone. His fastball is still the noted “invisi-ball,” jumping on hitters and playing up faster than the 91-94 mph it’s measured at, though it was up to 95 mph in a recent start.
His low-80s slider can be thrown for called strikes early in the count and thrown tighter to be buried for swinging strikes and ground balls late. Akin has worked hard to bring along his changeup as well, which will be an asset against right-handed-heavy lineups, but he’s shown aptitude to use his slider against opposite-side hitting this season.
Yet even as his stuff has improved to the point that he could have three big league-average pitches, thus giving him a chance to be a starter at the highest level, Akin’s season shows more than just his pitches can get him through. In two looks this year, Akin battled without his best fastball command in one and without much of a changeup in another, and posted quality starts in each. Even when his stuff is diminished later in outings, he’s able to pitch around and out of trouble to give his team a shot every night.
Before the Orioles made a series of trades to restock their high-minors rotations and bring in the likes of Luis Ortiz, Dillon Tate, Dean Kremer, Bruce Zimmermann and Josh Rogers in last month’s trades, Akin was pretty much the class of their upper-level pitching stocks, save for the injured Hunter Harvey. Even with the trades, he’s still as close to ready as anyone they’ve got.
But because so many of the players they added last month need to be added to the 40-man roster, the Orioles are plenty willing to wait until early 2019 to see what they have in Akin at the major league level.
Like many at this stage of his career, Akin is coming along as a starter, with his fluid, repeatable delivery and durable frame fitting that role well. However, the life on his fastball and his tight slider make him, at the very least, a big league left-handed relief candidate.
But the Orioles envision more for Akin. He’s even been in the conversation to fill some of their rotation needs this summer, though their roster situation and that they’re not on any kind of short-term competitive timetable make it a nonstarter to add him to the roster anytime soon.
The Orioles have dedicated their past three drafts to high-end pitching who could fill the rotation so they don’t have to have an offseason like their most recent one, when they spent tens of millions of dollars to fill it out, and it stands to reason Akin will probably be the first of any of those classes to hold down a big league rotation spot.
One for the future