It used to be a common thing. After a long season, a ball player would look for extra sharpening of his skills, maybe a little extra money in his pocket, or perhaps enjoy the thrill of playing in his home country. As the money crept up, players began to value rest more and teams preferred to try to have their players train the way they wanted them to train. As such, the Winter Leagues have cratered from their heyday with such historic leagues as the Puerto Rican Winter League having to reduce their operations or even go into hiatus. They are still around, but maybe not as competitive as they once were. In addition to those leagues, MLB has established their own which take on much more of an instructional tone and are designed to give players more experience.
In a series of posts, we will go through the different leagues that the Orioles organization is involved.
- Arizona Fall League: Position Players
- Arizona Fall League: Pitchers
- Venezuela Winter League (10/15)
- Mexican Pacific League and the Dominican Winter League (10/17)
- Australian Baseball League (10/22)
The goal of the Arizona Fall League was for Baseball to devise a league where prospects could get more experience while being closer under the eye of their parent organizations as opposed to being spread out overseas. This enables a club to provide training and game day oversight. Concerns before the AFL included having an upper minors player be overworked on the mound or find himself in completely new positions that have no bearing on how the parent club projects his future. Typically, the players found in this league are up-and-coming prospects in the high minors. It is a mix of solid prospects and guys who might just find themselves exposed in the Rule 5 Draft.
The Orioles send players to the Surprise Saguaros along with the Boston Red Sox, Cleveland Indians, Milwaukee Brewers, and Texas Rangers. Bowie manager Gary Kendall and Aberdeen pitching coach Alan Mills will be overseeing the squad, which includes other teams' notable prospects: Taylor Jungman (MIL), Garin Cecchini (BOS), Ryan Rua (TEX), and Tony Wolters (CLE). You can find all of the information you need about the AFL at their home page here.
In this post, we'll briefly focus on the position players that the Orioles are sending. The collection of players they are sending this year falls fully in the need-more-playing-time camp. They include:
- Michael Ohlman, catcher
- Jonathan Schoop, second baseman
- Henry Urrutia, outfield
- Dariel Alvarez, outfield
Michael Ohlman, catcher
22 yo (12/14/1990)
Ohlman was one of the bonus babies back in the somewhat infamous draft where Joe Jordan selected Matt Hobgood over Zack Wheeler and explained it as a belief in Hobgood's character over Wheeler's potential. Ohlman was a selection in the 11th round who fell due to signability concerns. He profiled as a catcher or corner outfielder depending on how his mechanics behind the plate cleaned up. Ohlman's loud tool was his power which was considered plus to plus-plus. The concern there was that he had some recognition issues.
2010 and 2011 were such difficult years for Ohlman with his defense very much a work in progress and his power not showing up in games that he fell off the radar for more talent evaluators. Last year, however, illustrated that he could bump up her contact rate and showed some secondary power. This season, he moved up a level and maintained that contact rate as well as his walk rate. Even more impressive is that a good number of those doubles turned into home runs.
With his bat breaking out, his defensive position is holding him back. This is similar to his old North Carolina teammate, Wil Myers. In Myers' case, his bat was so advanced that the Royals decided that they should not wait to see if they could teach him to have MLB quality catching skills. Now, Ohlman's bat is not equivalent to Myers', but the Orioles may face a decision like this may shake down this winter, spring, or summer. Arizona will help provide some information to answer that question.
Jonathan Schoop, second baseman
21 yo (10/16/1991)
Schoop worked himself in as a fringe top 100 prospect from his impressive performances in 2010 and 2011 as one of the youngest players in those leagues. That shine wore off a little bit while in Bowie and Norfolk as he struggled this year and last (his 2013 MiL numbers are buoyed by dominating low minors pitching during an injury rehabilitation assignment). Added to the troubles this season was an injury that left him about 120 plate appearances short of a full season.
Schoop was then called up to the majors to bum around with the parent club and learn through osmosis. He managed to find himself in a few games and took advantage of a few poor pitches. His .833 OPS looks better than it actually was in those 15 plate appearances, but gives a lot of hope as he is still short of his 22nd birthday.
Arizona will help determine a primary concern for Schoop's future: where will he play? Is he going to be able to cut it at second base? If Machado is now a third baseman, then is Schoop better suited in right field as an eventual replacement for Nick Markakis?
Henry Urrutia, outfielder
26 yo (2/13/1987)
Urrutia was the first Cuban amateur signed by the Baltimore Orioles. He was largely glossed over by other teams as a player who had filled out (aka no projection) with average contact skills and power. His defensive acumen was described as fitting into right field, but in no way glowing. As such, he was considered by most a fringe MLB player who stood at a disadvantage having sat out for an entire year in Cuba due to a failed defection attempt. Once signing with the Orioles, things did not improve much because visa issues delayed his arrival another year before he was able to take part in a professional league.
Once able to play, AA pitchers beware. Urrutia showed great gap to gap power and a good understanding of strike zone. He also imparted on observers that his outfield defensive play is pretty atrocious. As the Major League club suffered through one of the worst team designated hitters performances in the history of the position, Urrutia was promoted. Once arriving, he maintained his poor defense, but his hitting reverted to slap grounders scooting between the third baseman and shortstop.
Arizona will see him work on his hitting and figuring out if he can truly be an outfielder. As a designated hitter, his bat will need to improve upon what he accomplished last year in the minors and transfer over to the MLB level.
Dariel Alvarez, outfielder
24 yo (11/7/1988)
Alvarez, like Urrutia, is a tweener as well, but for different reasons. Several teams question his ability to be a MLB starter much more so than the questions Urrutia has faced. The reports on him supported that he is capable of being a very solid corner outfielder defensively. However, the concern was brought up about him being a training camp player. Alvarez' power played well in the Cuban league band boxes where lofting the ball can bring a lot of success. However, that is not likely to be the case in the States. There were enough issues with his offense that some teams were looking at him as a pitcher, as reported by Baseball America's Ben Badler.
Alvarez only had 83 plate appearances this season. He appeared to have issues in AA with more advanced pitching. I have not heard much positive about him and that he likely needs to rework his swing in order to better cover the plate. Perhaps, it is scouts reaching back to their earlier assessment as a result of not having much to look at this summer, but there is an expectation that Alvarez will become a relief pitcher for the 2015 season after what is expected to be a poor 2014 season in the field. However, I think it is too early to come to any conclusion.
Arizona for Alvarez will be an exercise for the developmental team to see how Alvarez plays and figure out a solid offseason routine as well as how to handle him coming into Spring Training. There is certainly potential there, but that is a pretty rough probability in achieving something that would significantly aid the Orioles.