But that doesn’t mean that AAA players are fully formed. Most of them still have some things to work on before they’re ready for their first big-league opportunity, or even after their first big-league cup of coffee. Many of them don’t develop enough; they become AAA lifers and stars of the Atlantic League. A few of them perfect their games, they become major-league mainstays. And a few of them improve a little; they stay in the majors for a season or two.
The four players below are likely to be at Norfolk this season. They are prospects capable of improving enough to be useful Orioles. Each of them has a specific area that I think needs further development before they can reach their potential. I'll discuss what I'm going to be looking for in 2014 for each.
Mike Wright, starting pitcher – Can he induce more outs on balls in play?
Right now, I see Mike Wright as a Brad Bergesen / Jason Berken pitcher, someone who might give you 100 good major-league innings. He’s 24 now, and he’s had outstanding control in the minor leagues to date – 2.10 BB/9. Until last season, however, his strikeout rate was too low – 6.77 K/9 in full-season ball. In 2013 at Bowie, his strikeout rate rose to a more-adequate 8.52 K/9. Although he improved, he gave up more than one hit per inning pitched, as he has done in every season of his career. He’s not going to have a long career doing that.
I’m going to be looking to see if Mike Wright will maintain his higher strikeout rate while reducing his hits allowed rate. He’s not going to turn into a star, but if he can consistently hover just below the 1 hit-per-inning mark as opposed to being just above it, he’ll start to look like an innings-eating right-handed #4 or #5 starter.
Henry Urrutia, hitter – Can he produce more extra-base hits?
Performance-wise, Henry Urrutia resembles his fellow Cuban defector Leslie Anderson. Both are left-handed batters who can hit .290 - .310, but with limited walks and limited home-run power. Anderson, who played in the Rays’ system, was a few years older than Urrutia when he came to the United States and reached a plateau as a AAA star. Urrutia hit well in the minor leagues, but with fewer walks than you’d like and limited home-run power. He then struggled in a major-league stint.
I want Urrutia to succeed, mainly because I think his hitting approach will add a different dimension to the Orioles all-homers-all-the-time offense. In AA Bowie last season, Urrutia hit .365/.433/.550; in Norfolk, he hit .316/.358/.430. He doesn’t have to hit in Norfolk the way he hit in Bowie – I don’t think anyone can – but he does need to bump up the power some. He’s not going to be a home-run hitter, but if he can hit enough doubles to get his slugging percentage to the .475 range I think he’ll have shown he can help the Orioles.
Mike Belfiore – Will he be more effective pitching in short relief?
One of the challenges of following a AAA team when the major-league team is in contention is accepting that development of young players falls by the wayside. That’s not quite right – it’s more accurate to say that the development of marginal young players falls by the wayside. The key roles in the Norfolk bullpen in 2013 were filled by Jairo Asencio, Adam Russell, and Manny Delcarmen, all of whom were around for their immediate ability rather than their future. There were two young left-handed relief pitchers – Mike Belfiore and Chris Jones – but while Delcarmen averaged 1.13 innings per appearance and Russell 1.4, Belfiore averaged 2.06 and Jones 2.27.
At this point in their careers, it’s clear that Belfiore and Jones are destined for the bullpen. If I were running the Orioles, I’d be using them in one-inning stints, to see if their stuff will play up if they aren’t pitching as many innings. I’d also be using them to get tough left-handers out, to see if they can fill that role on a big-league team.
Like Mike Wright, Belfiore has given up too many hits. Compared to Wright, he’s been more consistent with his strikeouts but his control hasn’t been as good. I’m going to be watching how Belfiore does in his first inning of his appearances. If he is consistently effective, especially against left-handed batters, then I think he can be useful in the role he’d be likely to play.
Steve Johnson, pitcher – Who is the real Steve Johnson?
Johnson had an outstanding 2012 season, both at Norfolk and in Baltimore, before having a lost 2013 because of injuries and the fact that he had minor-league options left. He’s been around forever, but he’s only 26 (he turns 27 on August 31.) His progress has been slow as it’s taken him two tries to get through every minor-league level (His 2011 half-season at Norfolk was awful; his 2012 half-season was outstanding.) In 2013 at Norfolk, he pitched fairly well with a good strikeout rate.
With Johnson recovering from injury, I want to see what his real ability is. Is he the good Steve Johnson (2012), the average Steve Johnson (2013), or the ugly Steve Johnson (2011)? With him, it’s not anything specific I want to see , it’s his overall performance.