Can The Farm System Improve?
A lot has been said over the last few weeks about the Baltimore Orioles’ farm system, and virtually none of it has been positive. Analysts across the baseball spectrum—including on our own pages—have bemoaned the system’s lack of depth, and questioned the logic behind forfeiting one, or maybe even two, draft picks to fill holes on the Opening Day roster.
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None of the stories have come as a major surprise. Pundits were down on the Orioles’ minor league system heading into the offseason, which has been shaped by moves geared towards 2016. As a result, it has seemed inevitable that the Orioles will give up their top draft pick to sign free agent starter Yovani Gallardo. It is also increasingly likely that they will give up their second draft choice—the 29th overall selection—to sign outfielder Dexter Fowler. If they do not land Fowler, the club might trade prospects to acquire Jay Bruce from the Cincinnati Reds.
It remains to be seen if that strategy pays off at the major league level, but what will be clear is that one of the game’s lowest-ranked farm systems will have either lost prospects through a trade, or will not have a chance to be significantly improved through the draft. Some have said that the Orioles should up their spending on international free agents, but early reports indicate that the market will be flooded with teams willing to make significant spending increases.
In essence, this all adds to something that was already true, which is that 2016 is a big year for the existing crop of prospects. Either the Orioles hush the doubts with better health from some prospects and the accelerated development of others, or some disturbing trends continue and the criticisms only grow.
The obvious place to start is with Dylan Bundy and Hunter Harvey, promising pitchers who lost significant time in 2015—and in Harvey’s case, the whole season—to injury. If Bundy regains his health this year, he will likely make the major league bullpen, as he enters the season out of options.
For many insiders, Harvey is the system’s unquestioned top prospect, but concerns remain after he missed all of last year with arm problems. The Orioles did just reward the 21 year old with a non-roster invite to spring training, and while most reports indicate that he will be healthy for camp, it will take time to build back his strength.
In the best-case scenario, the Orioles get a healthy season from Harvey and limit his innings. That probably means that he does not see major league action this year, but it would go towards easing concerns about his durability, thereby returning the focus to the fact that he projects to be a pitcher that will anchor a major league rotation.
Among the position players, I think Chance Sisco will silence some of his doubters. I agree with my colleague Reggie Yinger’s assessment of Sisco’s defense, which is that it improved in 2015 and will only get better with more repetition. If he stays behind the plate, his solid contact-oriented approach and strike zone judgement as a hitter will only add to his value. Of all the Oriole prospects, he is the one that I am most certain will have a productive minor league season and become a viable candidate for the 2017 major league roster.
Beyond Sisco, numerous question marks arise. When healthy, Jomar Reyes stands out as a legitimate power-hitting prospect, but he will only be 19 on Opening Day. The Orioles also have to decide if he can stick at third base or will need to move across the diamond, though the re-signing of Chris Davis gives them more time to make that decision.
Ryan Mountcastle delivered promising returns upon being drafted in the first round last year. However, like Reyes, he will probably change positions at some point—likely moving from shortstop to either third base or the outfield—and may be several years away. Fellow first-round draft pick D.J. Stewart will look to bounce back after a sluggish debut. If he approaches something closer to his production at Florida State, it gives the system a solid power hitter.
First basemen Trey Mancini and Christian Walker are both in the prospect picture, but neither player has convinced observers that their respective offensive successes in the minors will translate to the majors. Both are also now blocked by Davis, so the Orioles might best suited to see if one of them could make a successful transition to the outfield.
It should be noted, too, that the Orioles will try to get some steps forward from the crop of hurlers beyond Bundy and Harvey. With Mychal Givens likely to graduate this year, that leaves Chris Lee, Mike Wright, and Tyler Wilson among the other notable minor league arms. Keep a particularly close eye on Lee, a left-hander who made nice strides last year and may take another step forward this season if he continues to improve his command and solidifies his change up. With a 40-man roster spot locked down and an Opening Day assignment at Double-A Bowie or Triple-A Norfolk likely, he could find his way to Baltimore by year’s end.
Ultimately, it is not impossible that the Orioles’ farm system improves by seeing better performances from its current crop of players. However, that will depend on a lot of unknown variables going their way, and better success when it comes to keeping players healthy. Until they get another chance to restock the system, it is the best the Orioles can hope for.
A graduate of the University of Massachusetts, and Loyola University; Spedden has previously spent time in the Washington Nationals organization as a videographer for the Hagerstown Suns. As a blogger, Spedden is an Editor / Writer for the Suns fan club. Additionally, he contributes to The Nats Blog as a prospect writer, and Ballpark Digest. For BSL, Spedden covers the Orioles Minor Leagues.