05 April 2014

The Help - A Look at the 2014 Norfolk Tides

The Norfolk Tides, the AAA affiliate of the Orioles, opened their season last Thursday, April 3. As usual, the AAA affiliate exists first to provide players to the Orioles as needed and second to complete the development of young players. In recent years, both young players like Matt Wieters, veteran minor leaguers like Miguel Gonzalez, and comeback major leaguers like Danny Valencia have contributed to the Orioles after beginning the season at Norfolk.

The 2014 Tides are a very unusual AAA team in that there isn't a single player in his thirties on the opening-day roster, although if Luis Ayala or Johan Santana are activated from the disabled list that will change. On the other hand, the Tides do have a lot of players with substantial AAA and major-league experience; only Mike Wright, Caleb Joseph, and the special case of Suk-Min Yoon have had no more than a cup of coffee in AAA. Only three players - Kevin Gausman, T.J. McFarland, and Wright - are under 25.

Who are the 2014 Tides? What roles will they play on the team? Who is most likely to be promoted to Baltimore? Unlike most previews of minor-league teams, which focus on the best prospects, I will be looking at the Tides to see who is most likely to join the Orioles in 2014.

Starting Rotation: Kevin Gausman (40-man), Steve Johnson (40-man), T.J. McFarland (40-man), Mike Wright, Suk-Min Yoon (40-man).

This is a very interesting rotation. Gausman is the top prospect, a hard thrower who needs some refinement. Johnson has had an up-and-down career in the minors; he's also had some success as a relief pitcher. McFarland, the only lefthander, was a starter in the minor leagues but spent all 2013 as a long reliever in Baltimore. Wright is in the second tier of Orioles prospects and is essentially reaching AAA for the first time. And Yoon was just signed out of the Korean major leagues; he's adjusting to U.S. baseball.

Gausman was scheduled to start on opening day but was held back a day in case the Orioles needed a starting pitcher because of projected bad weather in Detroit. It's clear that if the Orioles need a starting pitcher for anything more than an emergency appearance, Gausman will be the first choice. Of course, for emergencies, the Orioles will recall whichever one is properly rested.

It's interesting that McFarland is in the rotation because last season, his Rule 5 season, he was in the Orioles' bullpen. The Orioles think McFarland still has a chance to become a starting pitcher and it will be interesting to see how he does.

Bullpen: Nick Additon (L), Tim Alderson, Brad Brach (40-man), Kelvin de la Cruz (L), Eddie Gamboa, Brock Huntzinger, Chris Jones (L)

Unlike in many seasons, there is no obvious closer candidate on this Tides team. Usually, a AAA closer is either a former major-league setup man or a veteran pitcher with a lot of closing experience. Gamboa is the first choice as a spot starter; indeed, when Gausman was held out of opening day, Gamboa made the start. It wouldn't surprise me if Gamboa eventually moved into the starting rotation when a spot opens up.

The Orioles haven't recalled many of their Norfolk bullpen arms over the past couple of seasons, and if they need a relief pitcher Steve Johnson or T.J. McFarland are likely to be the first choices. Of these pitchers, Brad Brach may the most likely to be recalled if only because he's already on the 40-man roster.

Catcher: Caleb Joseph, Johnny Monell

Caleb Joseph was the Tides' opening-day catcher, but it's not clear whether he'll be the regular catcher or he and Monell will split the job. Both Joseph and Monell are power-hitting catchers with questionable defense. Most teams with a Matt Wieters as the regular catcher would want a strong defensive catcher as his backup; neither Joseph nor Monell fit that description. And it's unusual that the Orioles would stock Norfolk with two catchers who are basically identical.

Infield: David Adams (40-man), Alexi Casilla, Ivan DeJesus, Chris Marrero, Cord Phelps, Brett Wallace, Jemile Weeks (40-man)

AAA infield roster construction is determined by the third basemen. Sometimes, as with David Adams with the 2014 Tides, the third baseman is a converted middle infielder, capable of playing there in emergencies. That means there is room on the roster for another first base/corner outfield/designated hitter type. Otherwise, the third baseman is a slower player who can play corner outfield or first base in emergencies. Because Adams can be an emergency middle infielder, the Tides can carry both Chris Marrero and Brett Wallace, both of whom are limited to first base and left field.

For the Tides, I'd expect Casilla and Weeks to be the regular middle infielders, with both probably playing second and short to increase their versatility. Adams will be the regular third baseman. Cord Phelps should be the primary utility infielder, playing primarily second and third. Marrero and Wallace will be in a four-men-for-three spots (first base, designated hitter, right field) job-share with outfielders Xavier Paul and Henry Urrutia. These four players will join Caleb Joseph as the middle of the order. I know nothing about Ivan DeJesus and so can't begin to predict how he'll fit in.

All things being equal, Weeks will likely be recalled if Jonathan Schoop and Steve Lombardozzi struggle at second base. If Ryan Flaherty struggles at third, Adams will likely be recalled. Casilla will likely be recalled if J.J. Hardy goes down with injury. I don't see any of the other infielders as likely to become Orioles.

Outfield: Quintin Berry, Julio Borbon, Xavier Paul, Henry Urrutia (40-man)

It's strange. The Orioles kept two right-handed hitting offense-oriented outfield reserves in Steve Pearce and Delmon Young, while sending down two left-handed hitting offense-oriented outfielders in Paul and Urrutia and two left-handed hitting speed-and-defense outfielders in Berry and Borbon. It might have made more sense to have more balance on the teams.

I've mentioned Xavier Paul and Henry Urrutia when discussing Chris Marrero and Brett Wallace; they'll share right field. They'll also play left field and designated hitter on occasion. Quintin Berry will be the primary left fielder; he has great speed but a not-very-good arm and so isn't a center fielder long-term. Julio Borbon will be the main center fielder. Borbon and Berry will be the team's primary leadoff hitters; with the other most likely batting ninth.

If the Orioles need an offensive-oriented outfielder, expect Henry Urrutia to be the most-likely callup, assuming he's performing reasonably well. Although Julio Borbon is the better defender, I think Quintin Berry is more likely to be promoted if the Orioles need a speed-and-defense outfielder. Berry has more major-league experience, is close to Borbon defensively, and is probably better offensively.

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