By valuing hitting as much as they do in the draft, the Orioles have created a unique circumstance when it comes to their low-minors pitching.
Their staffs at High-A Aberdeen and Low-A Delmarva, especially in the second half of the season, have been largely populated by pitchers who were targeted for their traits but don’t have the eye-catching stuff or pedigree to put them on the national prospect radar.
It’s unassuming on the surface, and without the typical indicators of draft status or signing bonus to draw attention to the top players, it’s been difficult to distinguish at times just who the best of the bunch is.
The Orioles don’t bog themselves down in those details. Instead, this crucial development year has been about helping their pitchers in the low minors hone their stuff and command to fit the organization’s philosophy.
“With the guys we have drafted, we’ve drafted them for specific reasons — they either possessed a certain quality of pitch or a certain acumen for using breaking balls, or their projections are in one way or another very favorable,” Orioles pitching coach and director of pitching Chris Holt said. “For each guy, the markers of success could be a little bit different, as you might expect. But in terms of the guys that we do have, I think we do have some really encouraging young arms.”
Said Delmarva pitching coach Robbie Aviles: “We’re all looking for the weapons. I think they have a good idea of what weapons they want in their pitchers … I think they do a really good job of being talent evaluators. I think they know what they want, and I think with the philosophies in place, how we can make it better, and they can achieve that major league weaponry that we’re after.”
Identifying those high performers in the low minors wasn’t as difficult at the start of the season. The Aberdeen rotation featured top pitching prospect Grayson Rodriguez plus standouts Drew Rom and Blaine Knight and trade acquisitions Garrett Stallings and Kyle Brnovich. They all started well there and moved up to Double-A Bowie, many of them quickly, leaving the low minors the domain of the pitchers who are a product of the Orioles’ new philosophy on drafting and developing.
In the simplest form, that philosophy has meant not selecting many pitchers high in the draft, supplementing the ranks with targeted trade acquisitions and banking on the pitchers’ ability to develop in a specific mold as best as possible.
Their one significant investment was high school right-hander Carter Baumler, who as a fifth-round pick in 2020 signed for $1.5 million and impressed at the fall instructional camp before injuring his elbow, requiring Tommy John surgery.
Otherwise, the Orioles under executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias have used second-day picks sparingly on pitchers, leaving them to sign on the third day of the draft in 2019 and 2021. In the five-round draft in 2020, they signed a handful of pitchers as free agents as well, with a maximum bonus of $20,000. Even including Baumler, the Orioles have put their resources elsewhere when it comes to signing amateur pitchers. The entire group of 18 pitchers they signed in 2019 did so for a combined $1.285 million, according to MLB.com. Carlos Tavera, a 2021 fifth-rounder, received the second-highest signing bonus they gave to a pitcher under this front office at $375,000.
That the Orioles view hitters as much more valuable and surer bets with their draft picks is part of the strategy, but so too is the idea that they know what they’re looking for. Zach Peek, a 2019 draftee of the Los Angeles Angels who the Orioles acquired in December for starting pitcher Dylan Bundy, said all the pitchers he’s gotten to know have similarities, even if they’re not the same.
“We all pitch with a hoppy fastball and we all pitch with plus off-speed,” Peek said.
Tavera said that became clear from the moment he got to know his fellow recent draftees. They spent some time in Florida, and a group of them went to the Wake Forest Pitching Lab for motion-capture analysis of their deliveries before the first wave got to Delmarva last month.
“I think the Orioles did a really good job of getting guys with hop,” said Tavera, who taught himself many of the modern-day pitching tools and practices that the Orioles now value. “That’s kind of the new wave of baseball. Hop is having ride on your fastball, induced vertical break, spin rate, that sort of stuff. I think a lot of us have the same similarities. Obviously, our secondary stuff varies between guys, but I think electric fastball is what I would say the Orioles got this year.”
Still, the lack of a premier drafted pitcher in the low minors this year, combined with the organization’s efforts to limit innings after last year’s shutdown, has made it feel as if there’s a void in performance at the Class-A levels. The fact that the entire Aberdeen rotation moved quickly to Bowie, and that right-hander Jean Pinto is among several pitchers who joined Delmarva late but are finding success, mitigates that feeling somewhat.
But collectively, there’s been plenty to focus on in terms of promise. Sixteen pitchers have worked at least 40 innings between Delmarva and Aberdeen this summer, including Rom and Stallings, who are now at Double-A. Ten of those pitches have ERAs below 4.00 at those two levels, 10 have a WHIP below 1.30 and 11 are striking out more than a batter per inning.
The influx of productive, highly-touted hitters in the system means the pitchers won’t top the prospect lists this winter, but several notable arms have already emerged. Brnovich, another pitcher from the Bundy trade, dominated Aberdeen in May and was quickly moved up. Rom built on his standout 2019 season at Delmarva by recording a 2.79 ERA at Aberdeen before being promoted last month.
Peek used a low-90s fastball, a high-spin curveball and a changeup he can throw to both right- and left-handers to strike out 102 batters in 75 innings with a 4.20 ERA and a 1.41 WHIP between Delmarva and Aberdeen. Brandon Young, an undrafted free agent from 2020, has struck out 12.39 batters per nine innings with a 1.26 WHIP and a 3.65 ERA.
Those two are among a handful of pitchers who made it to Aberdeen this year and have been pushed to elevate their execution at the new level. IronBirds manager Kyle Moore said the jump in level puts an emphasis on fastball command and being able to throw a secondary pitch for strikes.
“There’s some guys who have gotten a tremendous amount better since they’ve been here,” Moore said.
None of the pitchers in the low minors are on the fast-track to the majors, nor do the Orioles need them to be. They have elite arms in Rodriguez and DL Hall in the high minors, and behind a full rotation’s worth of high-minors pitchers on the 40-man roster looking to stick in the big leagues, there’s another wave that could soon get a chance headlined by Kyle Bradish, Kevin Smith, Knight and 2016 first-round pick Cody Sedlock.
Those pitchers, based on their minor league track records and proximity to the majors, will get plenty of attention in the next year or so as possible solutions to the Orioles’ desperate pitching situation. In the meantime, Holt believes “there’s going to be some surprises coming” from the low minors.
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“It just takes a little more time to develop guys that don’t come from the top of the draft,” Holt said. “They need to continue to get their reps, they need to continue to have normal workloads over the course of this year and next, and I think you’ll start to see some nice surprises coming up our way.”