When the best prospects in baseball congregate Sunday in Washington for the Major League Baseball All-Star Futures Game, the Orioles will be sending two of their own — third baseman Ryan Mountcastle and left-hander Alex Wells — to represent the strengths of their farm system.
Mountcastle — a potential impact bat who at 21 is enjoying one of the best offensive seasons in the system at Double-A Bowie — and Wells, the 21-year-old pitcher who is part of the team's fast-moving wave of pitching in the low minors, represent the two prospect archetypes most prevalent in the Orioles farm system as the team's prospect stocks become more important than ever.
Executive vice president Dan Duquette said the Futures Game is a good opportunity for both, in terms of showing their individual talents and representing what he believes is an improved farm system on a big stage.
"We have a couple of left-handed pitchers who are advancing through the system, and Mountcastle is a young ballplayer who has a chance to be an everyday player in the big leagues," Duquette said.
Mountcastle, rated the No. 2 prospect in the organization behind Austin Hays in Baseball America's offseason rankings and No. 65 in all of baseball in the BA midseason rankings, might have the best bat in the entire system. He'll arrive in Washington on Sunday batting .314/.365/.505 having just ended a 13-game hitting streak.
With eight home runs, 12 doubles and three triples, he's had one of the best power outputs of any hitter in the organization when factoring in that he missed the first month of the year with a fractured wrist.
"He has a lot of natural ability to hit, and he's starting to recognize pitches," Duquette said. "He can really do some damage with his swing. He's really strong against left-handed pitching, but he's a natural hitter. He's got a quick bat, he has power to all fields and he likes to play ball. He knows his way around the batter's box."
Mountcastle’s bat distinguishes him from pretty much everyone else in the system, but through no real fault of his own, he finds himself like the rest of them wondering where he could fit in for the Orioles going forward.
"He's working hard to learn his position at third base,” Duquette said. “I've been encouraged by some of the reports we've gotten recently. He's improving his footwork, he's improving his throwing and his awareness of the position.”
While he's played third base for the past year or so after switching from shortstop, many evaluators believe Mountcastle's future isn't at that position, leaving him to play left field or first base at the major league level. The Orioles have first baseman Chris Davis under contract for the next four years, and second-year player Trey Mancini has moved from his natural position of first base to left field since the beginning of 2017.
Factor in Mark Trumbo at designated hitter and right field through the end of next year, and all of Mountcastle, DJ Stewart and even Cedric Mullins — who can play center field but would likely excel at a corner position — will find it tough to crack the major league lineup with any haste or regularity. Top prospect Austin Hays, who has struggled with an ankle injury this year but has the potential to be the Orioles’ everyday right fielder going forward, also will have a say in that equation.
Wells, the No. 12 prospect in the system according to Baseball America, is farther down the development tree in the High-A Carolina League, but he's part of a growing class of low-minors pitching the organization is proud of.
The 21-year-old from Australia, who is the Orioles' first representative on the World squad in the Futures Game since Dariel Álvarez in 2014, was the Jim Palmer Minor League Pitcher of the Year in 2017 after going 11-5 with a 2.38 ERA last season for Low-A Delmarva.
"He got on the prospect radar last year when he had a really good year," Duquette said. "Alex has got a good breaking ball, and he's a smart kid, fields his position. We're glad they chose him for the game, and I'm sure he'll do a good job representing the ballclub."
Wells doesn't possess high-end fastball velocity, sitting around 87-89 mph this year, but makes up for it with elite command of a three-pitch mix including a changeup and a curveball. He's run into the first real challenge of his pro career at Frederick, where he is 3-6 with a 4.13 ERA after a couple rough starts coming out of the All-Star break, but those struggles are relative. Wells walked only 10 batters last year, so his 26 in 2018 seems like a lot only in comparison to his impeccable record a year ago.
Coming up through the system, the pitchers he'll be jostling for opportunities with are all around him. The Orioles' high-minors pitching prospects who haven't gotten a major league shot at this point are Hunter Harvey and Keegan Akin, both in Double-A. Below them is a large group of high-floor pitchers who many evaluators have major league grades on and could easily fill out the back end of a rotation: Zac Lowther, Michael Baumann, Matthias Dietz, DL Hall, Brenan Hanifee and Cameron Bishop.
Wells might be on the lighter end of that group in terms of stuff, but he makes up for it with a feel for pitching and a great makeup. He and many of the others in that group will have to continue to put up results at every level to get an opportunity, even if it's in a rebuilding Orioles rotation.
Nothing will test Wells' progress on that front like an inning Sunday against the game's brightest prospects.