by Joe Reisel
Five days after the conclusion of the World Series, all players who (1) are not on forty-man rosters and (2) not under contract for the following season become what are known as “six-year minor league free agents.” Earlier this month, Major League Baseball declared 549 players minor league free agents. Twenty-five of them ended the year in the Orioles’ organization.
Of those twenty-five, nineteen had played for the Norfolk Tides at some time, seventeen in 2012. Most were low-level non-prospects used who played for the Tides when they desperately needed pitching; or long-term veterans who re-entered the minor league baseball with the Tides in mid-season, and who may decide to retire; or players signed as minor-league free agents before the 2012 season and are free agents again. But six were recent prospects who have been squeezed off the roster or have fallen out of favor. I’ll take a look at those six, four of whom were 2012 Norfolk Tides.
Ryan Adams was once considered the Orioles’ best bet to succeed Brian Roberts at second base; after the 2010 season, Baseball America ranked him as the Orioles #8 prospect. He projected to be a .280 hitter with doubles power, but with marginal defense at second base. But Adams had a terrible 2012. After getting off to a slow start at Norfolk, he broke his thumb in a fit of frustration. He came back after the all-star break and rebounded a little, but for the season he hit .224 with a .665 OPS and worse-than-ever defense. After the season he tested positive for amphetamine and was suspended for fifty games. Adams has clearly fallen out of favor with the Orioles, and needs a fresh start in a new organization to restart his career. He’ll be 26 in 2013.
Blake Davis was a lower-tier shortstop prospect who has spent at least part of the last four seasons with the Tides; after the 2008 and 2009 seasons, he was named the best defensive infielder in the Orioles system. He played 25 games with the Orioles in 2011. His glove is steady, rather than spectacular; he’s a .250-range hitter with neither great speed nor real power. Davis’ major-league upside is that of a utility infielder, and at age 29, he’s most likely to be a career AAA middle infielder. The Orioles have apparently decided that he’s replaceable if he leaves the organization.
Brandon Erbe is a right-handed starting pitcher. He was drafted by the Orioles out of a Baltimore high school and was rated the #2 prospect in the system after he struck out 133 in 114 innings in A-ball at age 18. Although it took him two years to work through High Class A Frederick, Erbe was progressing on the normal prospect path (at age 21 in AA) when he got hurt and missed half the season. He started 2010 in the Norfolk rotation and suffered through a terrible half-season – 0-10 with a 5.73 ERA in 14 starts. He was diagnosed with a torn labrum and missed the second half of 2010 and essentially all of 2011. He struggled to regain his control pitching relief at Frederick last season, although he did strike out nearly a batter an inning. Erbe, who’ll be 25 in 2013, has been surpassed by many other pitchers in the Orioles’ system and the Orioles don’t think they need to protect him.
Rhyne Hughes is a first baseman, originally acquired from Tampa in a 2009 trade for Gregg Zaun. In 2009, Hughes hit 25 home runs for three teams, and when he got off to a hot start in 2012 was promoted to the Orioles. He didn’t hit well in the majors and cooled off when he returned to Norfolk. He split time with Brandon Snyder and Michael Aubrey and didn’t establish himself. After the 2011 season he was suspended for fifty games after testing positive for amphetamine use and became a minor-league free agent. He re-signed with the Orioles, served his suspension, and was sent to Bowie. Although Hughes performed well, he didn’t become one of the 75 players on the 2012 the Norfolk Tides -- with Joe Mahoney playing first, there wasn’t a spot for him. Hughes is limited to first base and designated hitter, and doesn’t project to hit well enough for either position. He didn’t have a future with the Orioles and will likely be Triple-A roster filler for the rest of his career.
Zach Phillips is probably the new six-year free agent the Orioles most want to keep. Phillips was acquired from the Rangers in July 2011 for Nick Green in a trade whose circumstances remain murky. Phillips had struggled as a starting pitcher and was converted to the bullpen in 2009. He’s been consistently effective as a relief pitcher, and has a 3.21 ERA in fourteen major-league innings. He’s not just a left-handed one-out guy; he’s consistently averaged over an inning per appearance in the minors. But the Orioles have a lot of pitchers and unproven left-handed relief pitchers are plentiful; the Orioles probably think that even if Phillips goes elsewhere they can pick up a replacement.
Pedro Viola joined the Orioles in early 2010 on waivers from the Reds. Viola is a left-handed pitcher with an outstanding fastball, subpar secondary stuff, and terrible control. He’ll turn 30 next June. In his AAA career (with Louisville and Norfolk) he has walked 7 batters per nine innings, leading to a 7.30 ERA. When you see Pedro Viola throw his fastball, you can dream that if he just figures it out he can be a possible Mitch Williams-type closer. But at some point you have to stop dreaming, face reality, and accept that he’s just not going to figure it out. The Orioles are facing reality.