Prospects highlighted with 2019 age/projected assignment: RHP Yefry Ramirez (25, MLB), SS Adam Hall (20, A), LHP Cameron Bishop (23, A+), LHP Zac Lowther (23, AA), RHP Branden Kline (27, AAA), LHP Keegan Akin (24, AAA), RHP Dean Kremer (23, AA), 2B/3B Rylan Bannon (23, AA), RHP Zach Pop (22, AA), LHP Drew Rom (19, R-SS)
This is the third installment of a look at sleeper prospects for all thirty MLB teams. There is no sense in covering the Orioles’ top prospects, such as Ryan McKenna, Ryan Mountcastle, Yusniel Diaz and DL Hall, because you’re already going to hear a lot about those players this winter and throughout the season ahead.
For our purposes, we’re going to consider prospects as young players who have not yet become established MLB players, rather than ignoring young, unestablished players once they have exhausted their rookie eligibility.
Baltimore Orioles Minor League Affiliates (2018)
AAA: Norfolk Tides, International League (Norfolk, VA; since 2007)
AA: Bowie Baysox, Eastern League (Bowie, MD; since 1989)
A+: Frederick Keys, Carolina League (Frederick, MD; since 1982)
A: Delmarva Shorebirds, South Atlantic League (Salisbury, MD; since 1997)
R-SS: Aberdeen IronBirds, New York-Penn League (Aberdeen, MD; since 2002)
GCL: GCL Orioles / DSL: DSL Orioles
RHP Yefry Ramirez – signed as IFA: Jan. 2011, Dominican Republic, n/a
2019 Age: 25
2019 Projected Assignment: MLB
Today I learned that Ramirez signed with Arizona as an infielder. He played as a 17-year-old third baseman in the DSL and hit a meager .169/.301/.213. He began pitching the next season, and as early as his second professional year as a DSL pitcher, he had already begun to build a body of evidence demonstrating strikeout potential and plus walk rates.
2013 (19) – R (DSL) – .3 HR/9, 2.4 BB/9, 9.3 K/9 (60 IP)
2014 (20) – R (AZL, PIO) – AZL, Missoula (MT) – 1.1 HR/9, 1.5 BB/9, 8.6 K/9 (67.2 IP)
2015 (21) – R (PIO) – Missoula (MT) – 1.4 HR/9, 2.7 BB/9, 8 K/9 (69 IP)
Ramirez only became homer prone in the thin mountain air of the Pioneer League. His walk and strikeout rates continued to look very healthy across multiple rookie levels. Despite this, Arizona left him exposed to the minor league portion of the Rule 5 draft, and the Yankees were able to look past a 5.35 ERA from a not-especially-young arm, relative to summer ball rookie leagues, to see more than no potential.
They were rewarded for their no-risk flier, as Ramirez knocked his full season, age-22 debut out of the park. He capitalized on very generous run environments across New York’s South Atlantic League (Charleston, SC) and Florida State League (Tampa, FL) affiliates, but even so, you can’t negate that he performed very well against much more challenging hitters than he had ever faced before. Striking out more than four batters to every walk, Ramirez limited opponents to a 2.82 ERA across 124.1 IP.
After consolidating some of his gains with less eye-popping but still promising results across 18 AA starts, Baltimore picked him up for international bonus pool money, which can be traded to a team that wishes to spend more on amateur international players than it has been allocated. So, New York turned basically nothing into the ability to spend more on top end international talent, and Baltimore capitalized off of New York being better than just about any organization when it comes to developing pitching, but lacking the roster spots to hoard every last interesting pitcher who has passed their AA transition test.
A 24-year-old Ramirez began the year at Norfolk, Virginia, of the International League, and he was almost as good across his first 14 AAA starts (72 IP) as he was in his breakout 2016 in A ball. A 7.8 H/9, .9 HR/9, 9 K/9, and 2.8 BB/9 are all strong marks and characteristic of more potential than the 5th starter Ramirez is typically dismissed as.
Yefry received the call to the big leagues in June and held his own against the most dangerous offense in the league in Camden Yards, a power-happy ballpark. Good luck, kid. He held his own. Through his first 65.1 MLB innings he pitched to an ugly 5.92 ERA, but he had his moments. He struck out five or more batters in five of his twelve starts, including a pair of five inning shutouts among his first five MLB starts.
Despite getting knocked around as the calendar turned to August and he crossed the 100 IP threshold, he struck out almost a batter per inning: a 24-year-old striking out 62 batters in 65.1 MLB innings with all of a half season of AAA under his belt isn’t a bust. This year, I learned that although no one compliments Ramirez’s stuff, he clearly has enough present stuff and perhaps deception in his delivery to fool MLB hitters in the strike zone.
Ramirez ranged between 88-96 on his fastball, but after a brief reprieve in the bullpen, his highest peak velocities (96.8) were recorded in his final two starts of the season, and the lowest velocity he’d posted in any given game gradually crawled up across the entire MLB trial, from a minimum of 88.3 MPH to 91 and change. Ramirez’s average velocity in 2018 was slightly below the MLB average, but there is clearly something extra in the tank where Ramirez can comfortably push into 94-95, touching nearly 97.
If Ramirez is unable to make it as a starting pitcher at the highest level, you’ve got to like the beginning of his reliever profile. Many pitchers see their velocity tick up in a one inning bullpen role where they can go all out for only a few batters. If, as a reliever, he could maintain his late season velocity gains and sit 94-95 t97-in short appearances, his fastball could turn into a strong pitch to pair with the only one in his arsenal that played as above average in 2018, his slider.
Ramirez generated swinging strikes at exactly the league average rate (10.7%), and opposing hitters swung at five percent more of his pitches in the strike zone than average. He was most hurt by a disappointing walk rate that would ideally not play in an MLB rotation if he can’t reduce it going forward, surrendering nearly five free passes per nine. His walk rate previously crept up a bit in AA in 2016, but his MLB rate was over a full walk per nine higher than anything on his track record. Steamer weights recent performance most heavily and sees him with a 3.9 BB/9 next year, which would be both a big improvement on 2018, but also higher than any walk rate across his entire minor league career.
Let’s take a look at the other metric that torpedoes algorithmic projections of Ramirez in 2019: his home run rate. Ramirez surrendered 11 home runs in 65.1 MLB innings, a 1.52 clip. This is not a strong rate, but it doesn’t preclude success as a back end MLB starting pitcher. 2018 seasons with a ~1.5 HR/9 include Rockies lefty Tyler Anderson (1.53 HR/9, 4.55 ERA, 2 WAR), veteran righty “Big Game” James Shields (1.5 HR/9, 4.53 ERA, 0.8 WAR) and Luis Castillo’s sophomore effort in Cincinnati (1.49 HR/9, 4.30 ERA, 1.9 WAR). Note that both two win pitchers are credited for staying afloat while surrendering a bunch of dingers in dinger-happy home parks. Yefry also calls one home and will have to tighten up the rest of his profile to survive the inevitable long balls.
What’s confusing to me is that Steamer has projected Yefry for an even higher HR/9 in 2019 of 1.72, which in 2018 would have been second in the majors behind only O’s teammate Dylan Bundy, who was well over two per nine. Ramirez has never had a home run problem outside of the Pinball Machines of the Pioneer League years ago. Again, the most recent result will be weighted most heavily by an algorithm, but I’m unsure why it generated an even higher projected rate than he showed in his first MLB sample.
I also poked around on Yefry’s game logs and realized that he surrendered 4 of 11 MLB home runs in his final two outings of the season, every inning of which represented a new career high for innings thrown in a season. So, you can go through almost any player’s game logs, pick some arbitrary endpoints, toss out data that doesn’t support what you want to see, and make almost anyone look good.
That said, let’s pretend Ramirez was hitting an innings limit he maybe could have used, and say he got shut down before he surrendered four home runs in his last two games (9 ER in 9.2 IP). That drops his HR/9 all the way to a fine enough 1.13 per nine. It was surprising to me that algorithms see his HR rate as a bigger problem than his BB rate, which is the factor I’m concerned about. Ramirez showed control over the home run ball all the way up.
Ramirez can strike out MLB hitters. He’s an MLB pitcher. If he can successfully mitigate both walks and home runs, he’s a #4 starter, whatever that means, but probably a bit better, a pitcher who could in a best case scenario successfully approach the 3 WAR threshold a couple times at peak, with a few 2 WAR seasons scattered on either side of the peak. His walk rates in rookie ball through extremely pitcher friendly A ball parks were excellent, but control looks like the biggest question mark in his profile, as he hasn’t shown an ability to mitigate walks at an above average rate in either the high minors or in MLB thus far.
If he can successfully mitigate only walks or home runs, he’s an acceptable #4/#5 starting pitcher, or an excellent candidate for a late inning relief role. If he can successfully mitigate neither walks nor home runs at the MLB level, he is a low leverage up-and-down reliever for a couple years, who would probably only start a single game or two in a pinch, like when a doubleheader comes up.
I’d bet on a mid to late inning relief arm, but because Baltimore didn’t want to pay Kevin Gausman, a comfortably 2-3 WAR 27-year-old starting pitcher, what he’d be awarded in arbitration this offseason, Baltimore fans can instead enjoy watching Ramirez and a slew of other, probably lesser 4A pitchers be stubbornly jammed into rotation spots that they probably will prove they don’t belong in. Hey, at least that Lamar Jackson guy looks pretty darn good.
SS Adam Hall – 2017 2nd round (60th overall), AB Lucas Secondary (London, Canada)2019 Age: 20
2019 Projected Assignment: A (Delmarva Shorebirds, South Atlantic League)
Hall is a shortstop who demonstrated a broad set of skills as the starting shortstop for the Aberdeen (MD) IronBirds in the New York-Penn League, a short season summer league that is full of recent college graduates who became June draftees. He was nearly two full years younger than the average NYPL player.
He made 13 errors in 58 starts at short, and he picked up an additional four starts at second. He’ll continue to start at short unless he’s a true butcher there, because Baltimore does not appear to have anyone remotely prospect-y occupying shortstop at any of the four minor league levels above him. Fantastic.
Before I get Orioles fans too excited, Hall’s .293/.368/.374 line at Aberdeen may look like that of a pretty good leadoff hitter for a pretty bad team, but the data driving it is too noisy to read much into this particular performance. Hall showed little power with an .081 ISO, and his walk rate was middling while he struck out over 20% of the time. This means that Hall’s strong on base percentage was almost entirely the product of hitting singles, which is borne out by his .386 BABIP.
This isn’t entirely a bad thing: Hall showed potentially above average contact skills in his professional debut against older competition. Hall is clearly a speedy player, and he was 22 of 27 on stolen base attempts (81.5%). Opposition defense improves as a player ascends the minor league ladder, but a strong contact rate and above average speed is a good foundation for a middle infielder, especially if he is able to develop into a solid defensive shortstop.
It’s just important to keep in mind that Hall’s triple slash line looks a lot less interesting if he bats, say, .260/.330/.330. He could run a line like that in his full season debut next year, yet be relatively unchanged as a talent. It’s a bloop falling in one day, catching the third baseman asleep for an easy bunt single twelve days later. A small, small handful of the entire season of outcomes sway triple slash lines, and they’re spread out over the course of a few months. We need to see Hall run close to a .400 BABIP a couple more times before deciding his contact skill and quality of contact is strong enough for it to be his carrying tool. More than not, this metric bounces around a lot, and it may have little to do with the talent of the player. I trust the rare < 10% K/9 types running high BABIPs over ones striking out > 20%. I feel cognitive dissonance in articulating a contact profile that isn’t limiting strikeouts, the anti-contact. Oh well.
Hall was hit by a pitch 4.3% of the time, about once every five or six games. This was merely indicative of the quality of competition until/unless another year or two of data indicates otherwise. Gradually reducing his strikeout rate from 22.7% to allow his contact/speed combo to play up at higher levels would be a big plus for Hall’s path to becoming a regular shortstop. It’s way too early to worry about that, and his current K rate isn’t too high to prohibit him from success at higher levels. Maybe he can bump his double rate some over time and buy some breathing room.
Overall, Hall had a successful professional debut, and he’ll head to the South Atlantic League next spring. He’s immediately the best shortstop prospect in the entire organization after one summer in rookie ball. Cold weather players don’t get to play baseball year round like in California and Florida. Hall held his own for a demographic of player that tends to be more raw, and youth and projection are on his side.
LHP Cameron Bishop – 2017 26th round (788th overall), UC Irvine
2019 Age: 23
2019 Projected Assignment: A+ (Frederick Keys, Carolina League)
Bishop is a recent college graduate who threw 125.2 innings, working nearly six innings per start. There are things here that don’t excite me: namely, that it’s a 22-year-old carving up inexperienced low A hitters up to three years younger than him in a very favorable pitching environment. Another is that by the 26th round, there may be only a player or two taken in the entire round that even gets a cup of coffee in the bigs. This upside fishing pond has an algal bloom in it.
There are things that warrant mentioning, though. Even in a positive run environment, striking out nearly five batters per walk is reason enough to keep tabs on a pitcher, even if he isn’t getting any younger. Another thing worth mentioning is that Bishop is a southpaw. Lefty pitching has nine lives. It’s hard to find any, among the revolving door of freely available lefty retreads signed to minor league contracts for a few consecutive years, who don’t tend to walk five or six guys per nine.
Bishop’s strikeout rate might degrade as he advances without elite stuff and begins facing more age-appropriate hitters, so the walk rate is going to be the key with this pitcher. He’s headed to an environment in Frederick, Maryland, that is about neutral on run scoring, yet sees about 50% more home runs than Coors Field. Colorado has several thousand feet of altitude on central Maryland, so you can blame I-70 running behind center and right field for hot pockets of auto exhaust, which surely carry baseballs up, up and away, like scavenging bird wings floating on thermals.
You can expect a higher home run rate for Bishop in 2019 at hi A. It’s ideal if Bishop moves quicker than not, and I’d hope he’s successful enough to be able to get a half season of AA exposure. A 1-2 BB/9 and 7-8 K/9 paired with generating grounders on nearly half of balls in play is a basic formula for the good version of Wade Miley. That’s not a cornerstone, but it is a lefty starting pitcher who, across the final five of his six years of cost control, accumulated 11.5 wins while starting at least 29 games per season, highlighted by a superb 4+ WAR season for Arizona at age 25.
There’s a lot of 22-year-old college lefties who look alright before they hit full season ball. The ones of that pool that turn into MLB pitchers often do so from the bullpen. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that Bishop could surface with a trial by the end of 2020 and as a 5th starter by the end of 2021, but this pitcher doesn’t have much margin for error, and you can punt if he can’t hold onto the impressively low walk rate at high A and especially AA.
LHP Zac Lowther – 2017 CBB Round (74th overall), Xavier
2019 Age: 23
2019 Projected Assignment: AA (Bowie Baysox, Eastern League)
Lowther could return to high A to begin 2019, but he made 16 starts there and showed mastery of the level. At 23, I’d rather push him to AA. He doesn’t need to be added to the 40-man roster until after the 2020 season concludes. He could push to debut late in 2019, but if he doesn’t, it may be in part to save the 40-man roster spot for someone else.
Lowther began his year with a bang, allowing just a single walk while striking out thirteen across six no hit innings against some sort of Audubonesque cult called the “Down East Wood Ducks”, the apparent Rangers affiliate in Kinston, North Carolina. For an encore, he shut out Washington’s affiliate (Potomac Nationals; Woodbridge, Virginia) in his next start, surrendering three harmless hits while striking out seven. It was immediately clear how stupid it was to be wasting Lowther’s development time at this level.
Nonetheless, he made four more starts anyway before finally being permitted to give hi A a try. This was due to the Wood Ducks petitioning the Carolina League office after flailing away against Lowther for a third time before the end of May. Lowther faced 65 Wood Ducks and struck out 31 of them (47.7% – !). Nine of them reached base (.138 OBP against – !).
Lowther didn’t slow down at all upon promotion. He allowed two earned runs total across his first five starts at the level, covering 25.1 IP. In fact, combined between the two levels, he allowed two or more runs only seven times in 22 starts, and he allowed four or more runs only three times. That’s exceptional pitching, regardless of age, context or anything else. Lowther looks like a very exciting starting pitching prospect to me and he is easily the best player mentioned on this list so far.
Across the two levels, Lowther limited hits and home runs while running a 2.5 BB/9 and 11 K/9. All four rates are excellent. If he’s anything like this across three months of AA next year, he belongs on a top 100 prospect list. Based on the absurd H/9 and K/9 numbers, especially at Aberdeen in 2017 and his six starts for low A Delmarva, it’s clear younger hitters were totally overmatched at the plate.
As such, AA is data we’re really waiting on, but I see enough already to push some chips in on this pitching prospect despite the inferior competition. He belonged in high A from the beginning of the year, but he also pitched very well once he finally got there. I’m curious how much of his low H and HR rates are a product of environment, a product of poor competition and/or a product of Lowther’s skill as a pitcher. The first two of the three are easier statements to make, because they are skeptical of success, rather than suggesting skill behind high end performance. I don’t doubt that both contextual factors played a role in Lowther’s big 2018, but in this pitcher’s case, I also hesitate to entirely dismiss potentially repeatable hit and home run prevention skill.
Lowther has shown no issues against opposite handed batters, and he generates an awful lot of infield flies, peaking at 29.8% in his three months of high A. Lowther’s now allowed nine total home runs in 178 professional innings. That rate could double in the upper minors or across a full MLB season and not seriously threaten Lowther’s ability to be a valuable starting pitcher.
You’d learn a lot about Zac with three months of AA transition. The pitcher who showed up last year looked consistently dominant enough to have been able to succeed in less favorable conditions. It’s exciting for O’s fans that even if the finished product falls short of the high A statistical profile, he projects into filling some role on an MLB staff nonetheless.
How did Lowther’s season conclude? How else: eight strikeouts over five innings. The damage? One harmless single, no walks. Looking at his game logs, he allowed zero runs in nine of his 22 starts (40.9%). That’s unreal. Challenge this guy already.
RHP Branden Kline – 2012 2nd round (65th overall), Virginia
2019 Age: 27
2019 Projected Assignment: AAA (Norfolk Tides, International League)
Kline was drafted way back when some of us were awaiting the apocalypse, because Mayan calendar and cultural appropriation, and almost all 27-year-old players are not prospects. Kline hasn’t been struggling to conquer an A ball level on his third try, though. He underwent Tommy John surgery in fall 2015 and it was a mess getting back to the mound. He needed two additional procedures on his elbow, and he also broke his leg. All in all, he missed two and a half full years of development time and returned this season as a 26-year-old with 11 AA starts under his belt. Credit him for persevering through all the setbacks to even get back on a mound at all.
Kline returned and got his feet wet with Frederick, striking out more than ten per nine and walking just three batters in 20.2 innings. He returned to Bowie for the first time in three full years in mid May and became the team’s closer, recording weaker contact and holding opponents to just a .194 BAA while maintaining encouraging walk and strikeout rates.
Per this article (Richmond Times-Dispatch, 6/24/18, Jacob Myers), Kline works 93-97 with a slider and changeup as secondaries. He’s going to stay in the pen at this point, and consistency with his slider will determine whether he can turn into a reliable bullpen arm at the highest level. The samples are fairly small, but Kline was actually better against lefty batters by over .150 OPS. He held lefties to a .179/.227/.252 line, striking out 41 of the 132 batters he faced (31.1%). I’m encouraged by this because pitchers who struggle when hitters have the platoon advantage are typically relegated to the low leverage end of the bullpen. You can’t change relievers every other batter, game after game, even though some of today’s managers attempt to. While you still optimize to try to hold the platoon advantage in key matchups, a setup arm who is less vulnerable to pinch hitters and the like is ideal.
Kline pitched 65.2 innings at a 1.64 ERA between his two assignments, and his peripherals were all strong (7.1 H/9, .4 HR/9, 2.5 BB/9, 9.7 K/9). His command wavered a bit at AA, but he compensated by inducing weaker contact and limiting home runs, surrendering only three for the season. He also showed some evidence to suggest he’s got a legitimate chance of being able to handle LHB in hi lev situations.
Kline is already on the 40-man roster and ready for AAA, and I think the only relievers I’d have ahead of him in the entire organization are Paul Fry and Mychal Givens, who are all but guaranteed to be working the 8th and 9th innings in Camden this season pending other additions. Kline should be proud of returning to the mound at all, much less putting himself back on the prospect radar with an excellent 2018 season. Baltimore has a lot of bullpen candidates to sort through, and Kline finally has a lot of things going right for him in his quest to lock one of them down by the time Baltimore is 45 games out of first place.
LHP Keegan Akin – 2016 2nd round (54th overall), Western Michigan
2019 Age: 24
2019 Projected Assignment: AAA (Norfolk Tides, International League)
Akin was dominant in the NYPL in a small sample after being drafted, but that’s what a polished college arm is supposed to do. He followed up the performance with full years at A+ Frederick in 2017 and AA Bowie in 2018. At Frederick, he had an alrightish 4.14 ERA in 100 innings, striking out exactly ten batters per nine but walking more than four. He then was sent to the Arizona Fall League, a prospect showcase of hitting talent in a high run environment with fewer future MLB pitchers in the mix on account of regular season workload. He appeared in nine games and allowed less than one baserunner per inning, striking out 13 in 16.1 IP. That’s a tough place to pitch and he did well as a reliever.
Promoted to Bowie for his age 23 season, he posted a sexier 3.27 ERA in 25 starts totaling 137.2 IP (5.5 IP/GS). However, his profile looks exactly the same as it did a year ago. He runs a nice strikeout rate, but he’s got to tighten up his control to hit his upside, an okayish < 2 WAR fifth starter. His walk rate didn’t top four per nine in Bowie, but it was close enough to call it that. He doesn’t have hit or home run problems, but he also doesn’t demonstrate skill to suppress either at an above average rate that would make his dubious walk rate play better in a rotation.
Akin probably is what he is. He’s ready for AAA exposure at 24, and if he is able to tighten up his control, there are rotation vacancies for the taking without stiff competition in the way. It would be in the O’s interest to give him a trial this year, even if it’s just a spot start, or pitching a couple mop up innings in appearances a week apart from one another while waiting for someone to come off the DL. Akin will need to be added to the 40-man roster after the 2019 season if Baltimore is concerned about losing him in the Rule 5 draft, and he both has a heartbeat and a left arm, so some team will at least consider it.
I don’t see a full time starting pitcher here, but based on where Baltimore is at and how weak the back end of its 40-man is, I’d be more surprised than not if Akin doesn’t grab three or four one-off starts at some point in 2019. There’s no downside to seeing what he is, but I think it’s probably just a middle reliever, and ideally the second or third best lefty in a bullpen rather than someone sniffing important spots.
RHP Dean Kremer – 2016 14th round (431st overall), UNLV
2019 Age: 23
2019 Projected Assignment: AA (Bowie Baysox, Eastern League)
Kremer’s professional career got off to an uneven start, but he took off in 2018 as he repeated hi A as a 22-year-old. He got the opportunity to start full time for Rancho Cucamonga, California, after pitching almost exclusively out of the pen in his first try at conquering the level the prior season. He dropped his FIP over a full point, driven by cutting his walk rate to three per nine and running an elite 13 K/9.
The first exclamation point of Kremer’s CAL league stint came in late May. He threw six no-hit innings with ten strikeouts against the Angels’ affiliate, Inland Empire. In his next start, he threw five one-hit innings with nine strikeouts against the Rockies’ affiliate, Lancaster.
The second exclamation point came when the Dodgers promoted Kremer to make his AA debut just before the All-Star break and with less than a month until the MLB trade deadline, giving him the opportunity to show the whole wide world of baseball what a cromulent prospect he had quickly developed into. Kremer carpe’d the diem, scattering six harmless baserunners over seven shutout innings, striking out 11 Midland, Texas (Oakland) hitters.
Before long, he was the second most well regarded prospect of a package of five headed to Baltimore in exchange for a pending free agent, superstar infielder Manny Machado. He started eight times for AA Bowie during the last few weeks of minor league baseball. He held the opposition scoreless three times, allowed only one run a fourth time, and he allowed even so many as four runs only once. In a fairly small sample of just under fifty innings, Kremer saw his K/9 fall to a still great but more human 10.5. His hit rate gains were sticky at AA, but his BABIP also hasn’t fallen below .300 in any of this prospect’s sizable samples. We’ll see where the hit rate goes from here.
At first glance, Kremer looked like a prospect the Dodgers probably sold high on after a hot start in 2018. He may have legitimately improved, however. A walk rate that ranges between three and four per nine is the yellow flag on his profile, but the walk rate isn’t so bad to exclude him from staying in the rotation going forward. The strikeout rate has always been his strength, but the total package is working a lot better than it was when he let a batter and a half reach for every inning pitched in 2017. Like Kline, he was actually more effective against LHB than righties. Batters with the platoon advantage managed only a .191/.266/.284 triple slash while striking out 31.4% of the time.
He’s primarily a fastball/curveball pitcher. Reducing walks or developing a better changeup will be keys to his ability to develop into a productive MLB starting pitcher. There’s a potential #3 starter here if he is able to build on his big 2018. If the walk rate continues to creep back up towards and over four, and/or he ends up with three pitches in name only, you’ll see him head to the bullpen instead.
For as exciting as Lowther looks, Kremer is a year younger and has already survived the AA transition. He will return there to begin 2019 with only nine AA starts under his belt, but he could quickly earn a promotion to AAA Norfolk. Like Akin, Kremer needs to be added to the 40-man after the 2019 season to guarantee that the team can keep him around. If it’s down to one roster spot between the two, you pick Kremer and lose no sleep over it.
2B/3B Rylan Bannon – 2017 8th round (250th overall), Xavier
2019 Age: 23
2019 Projected Assignment: AA (Bowie Baysox, Eastern League)
Bannon is a RHH infielder who can’t play shortstop, which gives him a lower floor than other utility or platoon types. In today’s game, there’s room for only three or four position players on a team’s bench, and one needs to play catcher, and another (or a starter at a different position) needs to play shortstop. That’s a limiting factor on Bannon, regardless of what affiliate he played for this past season.
Speaking of which: Bannon began the year as a 22-year-old mashing in the CAL league, and while 22 isn’t too old, younger players than him have fooled us before, in this league full of bandboxes. As a college draftee, Bannon needed to be mashing in short season ball and hi A to maybe be viewed as a solid prospect.
He did exactly that. He mashed 43 extra base hits and walked in nearly 15% of his plate appearances, fueling a tremendous .296/.402/.559 batting line in just over 400 PA. This was a fantastic season, and we can’t take that away from Bannon. However, given age and league context and defensive position, he basically needed to produce as he did to be regarded as something beyond organizational filler. Expectations need to be tempered. Baltimore bit anyway, and so he was also a part of the Machado trade.
Bannon struggled to a .204/.344/.327 line in his first taste of AA once he became a part of his new organization, although his trial consisted of only 32 games. Bannon played almost exclusively at second base after the Dodgers gave him only about a third of his time there. LA preferred to use him at third where there’s going to need to be quite a bit more bat for him to become something beyond an up-and-down 4A player. Bannon’s not as bad as his triple slash at Bowie in limited time, but he is probably a lot closer to that player than a .300/.400/.500 infielder, which would be a top prospect if there was much reason to believe that his hi A production reflects his true talent level.
Bannon needs a full season in AA to consolidate his gains and attempt to hit his way out of arguably the biggest level-to-level transition in the minors. In his small Bowie sample, he struck out only two more times than he walked, working an excellent 18 BB% and solid 19.7 K%. I would be more inclined to give Bannon more credit for his hi A work in 2018 had he run a K rate several points below his 25.6% mark, which was a product of striking out more than 100 times in two thirds of a season. Because I don’t believe Bannon is a 50 XBH power bat or anything especially close to it in a more neutral environment, he can’t afford to run a high K rate: he doesn’t have carrying power. It was encouraging to see him cut it to under twenty upon promotion, but keep an eye on his strikeouts. I’d give him a full year of AA that, if successful, culminates with an August trial in AAA. Then I’d give him four months of AAA in 2020 before calling the 24-year-old up and giving him 200 second half PA with the parent club to try to convince me to protect him from the Rule 5 draft.
I’m pretty sure this isn’t a starting infielder, and Bannon will have to prove me wrong against better pitchers working in much less unfavorable environments than the two he played in as a Dodger. With his walk rate, consolidating last year’s exclamation point into carrying modest power up the ladder could make him rosterable, even as a bench bat that can’t handle shortstop. Baltimore’s infield picture has so many question marks today that he may get a year or two as something just short of a full time starter almost by default. In general, though, the 2B/3B/LF profile ends up in the prospect graveyard more than it doesn’t, because it takes either a lot of bat, or the perfect storm of depth chart fortune and injuries, for most Bannons to get extended looks.
RHP Zach Pop – 2017 7th round (220th overall), Kentucky
2019 Age: 22
2019 Projected Assignment: AA (Bowie Baysox, Eastern League)
Pop essentially made his professional debut this year, because I arbitrarily feel like tossing out five AZL appearances in 2017. He began in the Midwest League, where he struck out 24 batters in 11 relief appearances and quickly earned a promotion to – stop me if you’ve heard this one – Rancho Cucamonga. He was filthy while serving as the Quakes’ closer, surrendering a single run in 27 innings of relief and only 19 baserunners.
Meanwhile, on Eutaw Street, former GM Dan Duquette fired up the ol’ Dell, and once Microsoft Works finally loaded, he poked around on Excel’s grandpa and figured that someone with a 0.33 ERA as a 21-year-old in hi A must be pretty darn good. Luckily for the new administration, Duquette guessed right to settle on Pop as one of the five players sent across the country for Machado.
Pop allowed a single home run all year and generates groundballs at a very impressive rate, handily over 60%. Because he also showed strong walk (2.6 per 9) and strikeout rates (8.9 per 9), there are a lot of ways this pitcher could debut by the end of 2019 and emerge as a valuable relief arm by the end of 2020. He doesn’t need to be added to the 40-man until after 2020, but it’s hard to see him not debuting before then if he stays healthy.
In fairness, his strikeout rate was inflated by his brief time in the Midwest League, where he beat up on little kids trying to hit in between April snow flurries. The groundball tendency gives him margin for error, however. If he can repeat his elite home run rate – generating few fly balls logically supports low home run rates – it’s not a problem that his true talent strikeout rate in the upper minors/MLB is going to be a lot closer to 6 or 7 per nine, well below MLB average, but above plenty of groundball pitchers who had successful careers. Despite what you see out of playoff bullpens, relief pitchers didn’t always have to throw six hundred thousand miles an hour to generate weak contact and pile up outs, and they still don’t. Outs are outs.
LHP Drew Rom – 2018 4th round (115th overall), Highlands HS (Fort Thomas, KY)
2019 Age: 19
2019 Projected Level: R-SS (Aberdeen IronBirds, New York-Penn League)
I noticed this list contained exactly one player under age 22. That’s generally not a good sign when scouring the low minors of a system for interesting players, and it’s also not a good sign for a franchise that lost 115 games last season and has little in the way of MLB players with any trade value. Rom was drafted this year and threw 30.2 innings across ten appearances for the Orioles’ Gulf Coast League team. These numbers are noisy. Consider this little more than a bookmarked player to look out for at Aberdeen in 2019.
Now that I’ve told you that 30 GCL innings comprises noisy data, let’s enjoy contradiction and point out that Rom struck out 28 in 30.2 innings while walking only six batters (although he did hit another four). He also generated groundballs about half the time a ball was put in play.
Rom is four full years away, minimum, from the majors. It’s not that you can read into 30 GCL innings and declare someone, anyone, the next big thing. It’s that even though there would be no immediate cause for concern if an 18-year-old struggled in his first taste of professional ball, it’s not bad news that he handled it just fine. I like seeing a young, raw player that’s given me no reason to believe, yet, that he has a control problem, because that’s a baseball skill that can be incredibly hard to correct, and sometimes it’s there forever. If he runs the same component ratios as a 19-year-old in the NYPL next summer, I’ll become less cautiously interested in this pitcher.