10 December 2014

The Cavalry - Six Starting Pitchers for the Orioles' Future

In an earlier piece, I looked at the six current members of the Orioles starting rotation and shared my opinion that, while five of them are good pitchers capable of contributing to a championship team, none are likely to be an ace that pulls a team to a pennant or are likely to win a postseason game on his own. In this article, I will look at six starting pitcher prospects in the Orioles system and share my opinion on how they might fit. Two are highly-touted former first-round draft picks whom many project as potential aces - Dylan Bundy and Hunter Harvey. Two are pitchers who have already reached AAA and therefore could pitch in the majors as soon as next season - Mike Wright and Tyler Wilson. And two are pitchers who have progressed through the minors and pitched at AA Bowie last season; they could possibly be ready in the second half of 2015 but 2016 is a more realistic possibility - Tim Berry and Zach Davies.

I have not personally seen Bundy, Harvey, or Berry pitch. I've seen Mike Wright once in 2013 at Bowie, once in 2013 at Norfolk, and nine times in 2014 at Norfolk. I've seen Tyler Wilson once in 2013 at Bowie (I saw one 2013 Bowie doubleheader; Wright pitched the first game and Wilson the second) and five times in 2014 at Norfolk. I've seen Zach Davies pitch once, in 2013 at Frederick.

The Future Aces - Dylan Bundy and Hunter Harvey

Of all the pitchers in the Orioles' farm system, two have been mentioned as potential future aces. Dylan Bundy has, according to Baseball America, been the Orioles #1 prospect for the past three seasons and remains their #1 prospect today. Bundy has also been among BA's top fifteen prospects in all of baseball for the past three seasons, peaking at #2 after 2012. Hunter Harvey was the Orioles #4 prospect after the 2013 season (behind Bundy, Kevin Gausman, and since-dealt Eduardo Rodriguez) and has moved up to #2 today. Although Baseball America hasn't released their top 100 prospects for 2015, both Bundy and Harvey are likely to be on the list. Bundy and Harvey do have the potential to be aces, but their chances to become aces have been reduced by injuries.

It is important to appreciate that 99% of all prospects who begin playing professional baseball as teenagers look worse after a couple of minor league seasons than they do when we first hear of them. Analysts and scouts haven't seen the weaknesses that can be exposed by a higher level of competition. Projected physical development either doesn't occur or occurs in a sub-optimal way. Players either get complacent with big money or discouraged by failure. It's a rare player - a Mike Trout or a Miguel Cabrera - who is every bit as good as we think they will be when they are first signed. So it's not a major disappointment that Dylan Bundy and Hunter Harvey appear less likely to be stars than they did two years ago.

Dylan Bundy was drafted #4 overall in the 2011 draft, out of high school. As most of us know, Bundy was considered to not only have premium stuff but also advanced pitching skills. He made his debut in 2012 and dominated both levels of Class A before "merely" pitching well in three Double-A starts. He even made a couple of appearances with the Orioles, and fans were looking forward to him being a key member of the 2013 staff, perhaps after a half season in the minor leagues.

Unfortunately, as we know, Bundy experienced elbow discomfort in spring training 2013; he elected to try rest and rehab before finally undergoing Tommy John surgery in June. He missed all of 2013 and most of 2014 recovering. When he pitched in 2014, he was dominant in 3 Summer Class A starts and so-so in 6 Advanced Class A starts.

While most prospect watchers still consider Dylan Bundy a top prospect, based on his amateur pedigree and 2012 season, the fact is that we have absolutely no idea what he will become. Some pitchers recover completely from Tommy John surgery; other recover partially; and still others don't recover at all. And there is really no way to predict who will recover and who won't. The biggest question I have is whether or not the way Bundy pitched before his surgery - what's generally called mechanics - will work with the post-surgery Bundy. He's dealing with two years - ten percent of his life - of changes and has to suddenly adapt to them. We won't know if he can become the ace the Orioles staff lacks until we see how he performs in 2015.

Hunter Harvey is further away; he was the Orioles #1 draft pick in 2013. He pitched very well in short-season ball after signing and began 2014 pitching brilliantly in Class A Delmarva. He leveled off but still was having a very good season until he suffered an injury in a late-July start. It was diagnosed as a strained flexor mass in his elbow. The Orioles have been monitoring his injury and so far rest and rehabilitation seem to be working; surgery hasn't yet been necessary. I have no reason to believe that surgery will be necessary except that more often than not surgery is required to heal elbow injuries.

Hunter Harvey is not as good a prospect as Dylan Bundy was at the same age and level. At age 19, in his first full season, Dylan Bundy pitched better than Hunter Harvey and did so at a higher level, even reaching the major leagues. Bundy was a once-in-a-decade talent; he's the only teenager to have pitched in the major leagues since 2006. Hunter Harvey pitched well, but every season there's a 19-year-old pitcher who does what he does - pitch well in Class A. Harvey's 2014 season was probably not the best 2014 by a teenaged pitcher in the South Atlantic League; 19-year-old Nationals farmhand Lucas Giolito was better.

In 2010 Arodys Vizcaino, aged 19, had a season comparable to Hunter Harvey's 2014. Vizcaino has battled injuries and now is trying to make it as a relief pitcher; he still has the chance to be a closer. In 2009, several teenaged pitchers had years not too different from Harvey - Jordan Lyles, Wilmer Font, Stolmy Pimentel. It's too early too completely write any of them off, but none project to be aces. Before that, things get more complicated because teams were less protective of teenaged pitchers and often allowed them to pitch more innings than Hunter Harvey. The point is not that Hunter Harvey won't be good; it's that he's a long way from the major leagues and we shouldn't expect him to be an ace, based on what he's done so far.

The Immediate Help - Mike Wright and Tyler Wilson

I've written before (here, and here) about Mike Wright. In brief, I thought Wright was very unlikely to have much of a big-league career because he lacked a put-away pitch. Wright's final seven 2014 starts were outstanding; he pitched 47 1/3 innings with a 0.95 ERA. But even then, he didn't pitch as well as his ERA - in those 47 1/3 innings he allowed 35 hits and had an 8-37 walk-to-strikeout ratio. Good numbers to be sure, but not as impressive as a 0.95 ERA. It should also be noted that among those two starts were back-to-back one-hitters against the Durham Bulls. So, basically, my opinion of Mike Wright hasn't changed much - his upside appears to be that of an innings eater at the back of the rotation, and probably one who won't last more than a couple of seasons.

Two points about Mike Wright are worth noting. He's been very durable, pitching more than 140 innings in each of the last two seasons. And he may have a problem with concentration - I've seen him pitch two games in which he was given a large early lead (7-0 after 1, 6-0 after two) and in each game he gave it back and his team lost. 

I also wrote about Tyler Wilson and felt that his upside was similar to Mike Wright's - back of the rotation starter. Wilson doesn't have great stuff, but he was effective because he commands it so well. While most pitchers who have great command of ordinary stuff don't develop into consistent major league pitchers, there are exceptions such as Doug Fister. Wilson seems to be an intelligent young man who knows his limits, and I can see him becoming a contributor to a championship team.

Both Wright and Wilson give the Orioles flexibility to trade one of their current starting pitchers, say Miguel Gonzalez or Bud Norris. While I think both Wright and Wilson need another couple of months at Norfolk to finish their development, it's easy to see either of them starting the year in the Baltimore rotation if they impress in spring training.

The Next Tier - Tim Berry and Zach Davies

While neither Tim Berry nor Zach Davies have the draft pedigree or the hype of Dylan Bundy and Hunter Harvey, both have progressed consistently through the Orioles system and are close to being ready for the major-league rotation. Berry, the only left-handed pitcher among the six discussed in this article, was signed to a six-figure bonus as a 50th-round draft pick on 2009. He underwent Tommy John surgery after signing and didn't really pitch until 2011. He struggled in 2011; he then regained his control in 2012 and for the last three seasons has been consistently around 2.7 walks and 7.3 strikeouts per nine innings. He's maintained his results as he's moved up the organizational ladder, pitching at Advanced Class A Frederick in 2013 and AA Bowie in 2014. He's been solid rather than spectacular.

So far, Tim Berry has pitched in the minor leagues with similar BB/9, K/9. and H/9 ratios as Zach Britton had in the minor leagues and Wei-Yin Chen has in the major leagues. Berry turns 24 in March and will likely pitch in AAA Norfolk. Berry would benefit from a full 2015 in the Norfolk rotation; with Mike Wright and Tyler Wilson the Orioles should be able to do so. I can see Berry replacing Chen in the Orioles 2016 rotation if Chen goes elsewhere as a free agent.

Zach Davies, like Tim Berry, was a late-round draft pick signed to a six-figure bonues. When I saw him  pitch for Frederick in 2013, I was unimpressed. He was a slightly-built righthander who relied on control to get batters out. Pitchers with that profile typically don't succeed at higher levels. But in 2014 Davies improved at AA. His strikeout rate increased from 8 to 9 strikeouts per nine innings. More interestingly, his walk rate increased slightly, which in his case is a good sign - he was getting his increased strikeouts with improved stuff, rather than tricking less experienced hitters. Despite that, most scouts don't project Davies to improve his fastball, and so he doesn't project to be an ace but rather as a potential middle-to-back-of-the rotation starting pitcher.

In summary, the Orioles look to be well equipped to continue the success they've enjoyed in the last three seasons with their starting pitchers. Not all six of these pitchers will develop as we hope, but the Orioles have four advanced pitchers with success at higher levels and two prospects with top-of-the-rotation potential but some question marks. There's no reason to expect the Orioles to struggle because the starting pitching falls apart.


Erik said...

A pitcher who can reliably eat innings at replacement level performance has value in MLB. So I would not give up on a pitcher who cannot get strikeouts if he can find the control to avoid walks and induce ground balls. Long relief or rotation work in replacement of injured starters is a role in MLB.

That is not a lot of trade value, but it is some if you can establish the player. Some team gets a lot of injured starters in a season.

Anonymous said...

Nice summary, thanks.

Lefty said...

Hard not to be a cynic about Oriole pitching prospects when I've been hearing about great prospects for years with little results. Les

Unknown said...

For sure!! How many first round draft choices have failed!!!

Unknown said...

#erik - I agree with you up to a point. Pitchers who can eat innings are at lot like tableware is to a restaurant. If a restaurant doesn't have enough tableware, it's in big trouble, but there's rarely a need for a restaurant to be paying a lot for tableware. Innings-eating starters may make a nice sweetener, but they aren't centerpieces.

#Lefty, #Charles - There's nothing wrong with being skeptical if that allows to enjoy baseball the most. I'm trying to be neither too optimistic nor too pessimistic. I am trying to identify realistic expectations. There will be pleasant surprises, like Miguel Gonzalez; some unpleasant surprises, like Brian Matusz; and some for which our initial judgments will be wrong, like Chris Tillman and Zach Britton.

Anonymous said...

It reminds me of being an economist. Some people are much better at it than others, and those people become quite valuable. But the best of them is wrong a lot of the time. Injuries take a toll, and what appears to be potential at low levels just doesn't translate at the higher ones. A Top 20 Prospects list from 2002 might have included Dennis Tankersley, Boof Bonser, and Brandon Claussen. It's just not as easy as it looks. Much will hinge on the O's making the right calls on their up-and-coming arms as they mature.

Unknown said...

Zach Davies was a student of mine. His best attribute is he is very intelligent.