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Orioles organization depth report: Questions surround starting pitchers in high minors

Baltimore Orioles relief pitcher Gabriel Ynoa will be out of minor league options next year and likely be a major player in the Orioles' rotation competition in spring training.
Baltimore Orioles relief pitcher Gabriel Ynoa will be out of minor league options next year and likely be a major player in the Orioles' rotation competition in spring training. (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun)

With baseball transitioning into the offseason this month and the hot stove season beginning to simmer, it's time to revisit the Orioles' organizational depth across the diamond as a means to establish where they're strong and which areas they'll need to address, both this offseason and going forward.

Last week, we assessed the position player depth with the catchers, corner infielders, middle infielders, and outfielders. This week, we'll assess the Orioles' present and future on the mound, beginning with the high-minors starting pitching depth — perennially the most important and heavily scrutinized part of their system.

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The Orioles' rotation was the worst in the majors in 2017, a fact that's been well-worn in season-end analysis over the last month and requires little more dissection. With a 5.70 ERA among them and four of the men culpable for that — Chris Tillman, Wade Miley, Ubaldo Jiménez, and Jeremy Hellickson — all presently free agents and only really Tillman a candidate to return, there's an overhaul on tap and thus, potential for improvement.

The present

Former first-round picks Dylan Bundy and Kevin Gausman will form the foundation of the Orioles' rotation going forward, with Bundy showing potential in his first full season as a starter and Gausman disappointing in the first half but pitching well in the second half yet again.

Both entered the organization in 2011 and 2012, respectively, as potential front-line starting pitchers. Bundy lost three years to elbow and shoulder injuries and required extra rest to be at his best in 2017, but had many moments better than his 13-9 record and 4.24 ERA may indicate.

Gausman failed to really build on a phenomenal end to 2016 as this year's Opening Day starter, and another second-half resurgence could only bring him to 11-12 with a 4.68 ERA for the year. However, a mechanical adjustment that got his delivery more on line in mid-June sparked much of his late success and made his slider more effective, which bodes well for the coming years.

The future

For the purpose of giving both facets of the Orioles' starting pitching stocks — the high minors and low minors — their proper due, today's focus is mainly on the Double-A and Triple-A pitchers from which any reinforcements next year would come.

In September, the only pitcher the Orioles brought up from Triple-A to be a starter was Gabriel Ynoa, a right-hander acquired in the offseason from the New York Mets. He never found a groove at Triple-A Norfolk, where he made 21 starts and had a 5.65 ERA and a 1.44 WHIP, but held his own in four September starts and ended with a 4.15 ERA in the majors. Ynoa, 24, will be out of minor league options next year and likely be a major player in the Orioles' rotation competition in spring training.

The same will be said for right-hander Miguel Castro, who pitched in long relief for the major league club after an April trade from the Colorado Rockies and pitched phenomenally before tiring down the stretch and ending the year with a 3.29 ERA. The team plans to work him as a starter in 2018, but the fact that he won't have an option and is valuable in the long relief role could mean the leash on that project is short.

It's fair to put right-hander Mike Wright in that same category. He'll be out of options in 2018 and didn't make a start for the major league club this year despite a decent year in Triple-A, where he had a 3.69 ERA when he wasn't in the Orioles' bullpen or on the disabled list with a shoulder strain. The club seems resigned to using Wright as a reliever in 2018, though he seems a prime candidate to thrive with another organization if the team is forced to designate him for assignment.

The only Triple-A starter who didn't get a look in Baltimore this year is left-hander Chris Lee, who despite a 5.11 ERA for Norfolk remains one of their most promising pitching prospects. Despite a fastball that sits in the mid-90s and a strong changeup, Lee's major league future rides on the ability to develop a quality breaking ball to help him miss more bats. The pitch is presently below-average and contributed to Lee striking out just 54 in 116 1/3 innings with a 1.70 WHIP. Even without it, he has a major league future as a reliever, but the club will continue giving him the opportunity to make it work as a starter as he brings that pitch along.

Other mainstays in the Triple-A rotation, Jayson Aquino and Tyler Wilson, are minor league free agents.

While the Double-A Bowie rotation featured Tanner Scott and Jesus Liranzo on three-inning programs every day, they'll be dealt with for this series' purpose as relievers and addressed Wednesday. That leaves two main attractions in the Bowie rotation — right-handers David Hess and Yefry Ramírez.

Hess, 24, had to repeat the level after a disappointing 2016 but bounced back with a 3.85 ERA and a 1.23 WHIP with 123 strikeouts and 53 walks in 154 1/3 innings. He features a mid-90s fastball that he can carry deep into games and three secondary pitches, the effectiveness of which will determine whether he can be a starter at the major league level. Rival evaluators are interested in Hess as a power reliever long-term, which should lead the Orioles to at least consider adding him to the 40-man roster and protecting him from the Rule 5 draft this offseason.

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Ramírez is already on the 40-man roster and was acquired in a July 31 trade with the New York Yankees for international bonus money. He went 5-0 with a 3.66 ERA for the Baysox to give him a 3.47 ERA for the season. Ramírez has a big fastball but struggles to control it at times, and gets outs with an above-average changeup. His addition to the organization greatly bolstered the high-minors pitching depth.

Elsewhere in Bowie, left-hander John Means had a 4.11 ERA for the Baysox and remains a sleeper of sorts as he steadily climbs through the system, while right-hander Brandon Barker battled injuries all year after a breakout 2016.

What now?

The Orioles will take great pains to address their rotation in the free agent market and with trades this offseason, but it's a fair assumption to think that at least one spot will be left open for an internal candidate of the Ynoa/Castro/Wright group to seize a spot.

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But as all the focus was on the pending free agents in the major league rotation in 2017, the Orioles also had an eye on the huge stable of arms that would be without minor league options in 2018 and thus would make for a difficult spring training. That's why Wilson and Aquino were designated for assignment, though it still leaves plenty of decisions on the remaining option-less arms.

The presence of Lee and Ynoa means there's some promise in the high minors, and Hess is an underrated arm who will make a major league impact. But with such a promising Triple-A rotation entering the season, a general lack of progress among that group means the Orioles will have to look outside more than they'd like to for rotation help, at least in the near future.

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