By: Ryan Carwile
Molding in manufacturing is the process of taking a raw material, setting it in a mold to give it form, and giving the mold time to harden and become a finished product. Molding an MLB prospect follows the same process: prospects are raw when they are drafted but they fit a certain player mold, the organization develops the player using this mold as a guide, and the prospect is given time to develop and become a finished product. Baseball prospects must be molded precisely because it is just as easy to ruin these prospects careers as it is to turn them into stars. Pitching prospects are especially sensitive to deal with as pitching is a meticulous process and the likelihood of injury is heightened.
Even when taking this into account, the Baltimore Orioles organization has had an especially tough time with pitching prospects in recent years. Many pitchers have been high draft picks and/or regarded as top prospects in the Orioles organization, yet it seems that all of them either never make it to the big leagues or make it and are highly disappointing once they get there.
There are several ways the Orioles organization has failed their pitching prospects including, but not limited to, 1) not developing them enough in the minor leagues, 2) failing to prevent injuries to their pitchers, 3) calling their pitchers up too early and giving them undefined roles, and 4) trading away their pitching prospects more often than they should. All of this points to the fact that the Baltimore Orioles organization mishandles their pitching prospects, setting them up for failure when they reach The Show.
Lack of Development in the Minor Leagues
The Orioles have had many talented young pitchers come through their farm system in the past decade and many of them have failed to reach their immense potential. This points to a problem with player development in the minor leagues, specifically development of pitching prospects.
Radhames Liz was a young, electrifying Dominican pitcher who had a flaming fastball that made people whiff, evidenced by his 149 strikeouts in his first pro season. While in the minors he developed control issues that the Orioles failed to address, leading Liz to struggle when he was pulled up to the majors. He ended up never reaching the vast potential he exhibited in the minor leagues and was waived by the Orioles in 2009.
After the failed Radhames Liz project, the Orioles drafted a tantalizing pitching prospect and former Gatorade National Baseball Player of the Year named Matt Hobgood. He came in with big expectations and drew comparisons to Orioles great Sidney Ponson due to his advanced pitching repertoire. However, he never gained his footing in professional baseball, amassing a career 4.98 ERA in the minors and never advancing past the AA level in the minor leagues.
These two pitchers are prime examples of premium pitching talent that the Orioles failed to capitalize on. The Orioles organization has had a checkered past in regards to its development of pitching prospects which leads one to wonder what they are doing wrong in order for these pitchers to never reach their potential.
Failure to Prevent Injury
Preventing injury is a crucial component of developing young pitchers as injuries are crippling to a pitchers development because it takes away valuable playing time and many of the injuries pitchers sustain are detrimental to their ability to pitch. Injuries happen but it is up to the organization to put pitchers in the best position to avoid injury and this is something the Orioles have failed to do.
Take Adam Loewen for example, he was a high draft pick for the Orioles who was named the Orioles top prospect in 2004 as he breezed through the minor leagues. He was called up to the big league squad after several seasons in the minors and struggled at first to adjust but seemed to turn the corner his second season, pitching to a 3.56 ERA through 6 starts. A stress fracture to his pitching elbow abruptly ended his season and effectively derailed his career as he never fully recovered. He developed control issues and suffered recurring injuries to his pitching elbow and to this point has not regained his pre-injury form.
Years later, the Orioles drafted high school pitching phenom Dylan Bundy who had pitched to a sub-1.00 ERA and 595 strikeouts in his high school career. Bundy boasted superior tools and incredible polish for a pitcher his age, his high school pitching coach even went as far as saying he was at the level of “guys around 23, 24 years old that are throwing pro ball.” He moved quickly through the organization, earning a September call up in 2012 at the tender age of 19. His career hit a bump in the road when he ended up injuring his elbow leading to him needing Tommy John surgery. Bundy has yet to regain his pre-surgery form and has now been relegated to the bullpen in order to avoid further injury.
Loewen and Bundy are two of many examples of pitchers that have succumb to serious injuries while in the Orioles organization, derailing their careers. This illustrates the failure of the Orioles to put their pitching prospects in the right position to avoid injury.
Early Call-Ups with Undefined Roles
The Orioles have a tendency to bring prospects into the fold too early and flip flop them between starting and relieving roles and constantly move them back and forth between the minors and the majors. All of this movement and change gets pitchers out of their rhythm and makes them uncertain of how they need to prepare going forward. This has detrimental effects on the pitchers development and performance.
Brian Matusz is a prime example as he was at one point a highly touted pitching prospect within the Orioles organization. He was drafted in 2008 and moved through the organization abnormally fast, earning a call up to the majors only a year after being drafted. He had struggles adjusting to the major leagues, leading the Orioles to demote and promote him several times before demoting him to the bullpen. Matusz has remained in the bullpen ever since, never realizing his full potential as a starting pitcher.
With Brian Matusz being relegated to the bullpen, the Orioles selected LSU All-American pitcher Kevin Gausman with the 4th overall pick in the 2012 MLB Draft. Gausman promptly cruised through the Orioles organization, reaching the majors in just 2 seasons. After struggling through his first few starts, Gausman was optioned to AAA before being recalled to the majors just 10 days later. Through the next few seasons, Gausman was moved constantly between AAA and the majors while also being shuffled between starting and relieving. This has led to Gausman producing inconsistent results through his first 3 major league seasons while he is still searching to tap his vast potential.
Matusz and Gausman illustrate the Orioles tendency to rush pitching prospects through their system when they are performing well and shuffling their role and location when they are performing poorly. Patience is an important approach when handling young prospects, rushing prospects to the major leagues sets them up for failure as they have not learned all they need and may not be prepared.
Excessive Trading of Pitching Prospects
Many times through the years, the Orioles have traded their hot prospects in order to acquire a player that is more ready to help them in the present. This leaves other prospects with a feeling of uncertainty and insecurity in their job. This uncertainty can distract players from their development and make them unsure of how much the organization values them.
Many know Jake Arrieta as the 2015 NL Cy Young winning pitcher for the Chicago Cubs but Orioles fans remember him as a future ace prospect who struggled to make an imprint when given the opportunity to pitch in the major leagues. Arrieta was selected by the Orioles in the 2007 MLB Draft and immediately showed his potential in the Arizona Fall League where he threw 16 scoreless innings and led his team to the Arizona League Championship. He took off from there, moving through the organization to reach the majors in 2010 where he pitched to a modest 4.66 ERA over 18 starts. His struggles didn’t stop there which led the Orioles shipping him between AAA and the majors for several seasons before shipping him off to the Chicago Cubs and as they say, the rest is history.
Eduardo Rodriguez is another Orioles top pitching prospect who was traded away before he was able to reach his potential. He came to the Orioles via international free agency in 2010 and hit the ground running with a 1.81 ERA through 11 starts in his first pro season. He continued to move up the organization every year, working his way up to being ranked the Orioles 3rd best prospect before the start of the 2014 season. In the midst of a playoff push, the Orioles traded Rodriguez away in the middle of the 2014 season to the Red Sox where he subsequently dominated, earning a call up to the major league team in 2015. He pitched to a 3.85 ERA over 21 starts, earning himself a permanent spot in the Red Sox rotation going forward.
Arrieta and Rodriguez are painful examples of prospects that the Orioles traded away who found extreme success in other organizations, further illustrating the ineptitude of the Orioles management of pitching prospects.
The issue of developing pitchers isn’t local to the Baltimore Orioles, while the Orioles have more trouble than most, many ball clubs have trouble developing young pitchers. Looking at the Orioles struggles and the success of teams like the Rays and Mets can give teams an idea of the approach they should take when developing young pitchers.
First, teams must acquire young pitching talent to develop, whether through the draft or through trades. This allows the team to have a bevy of young arms that they can develop from the beginning of their career so they can be given time to grow within the organization, a strategy that has been employed by the Mets to develop their star-studded rotation. Next, teams have to establish continuity within the organization to keep rhythm and comfort for the prospects. This involves having the same people in scouting, player development, and coaching positions for all levels as well as having every level of the organization be on the same page when it comes to expectations, philosophy, and coaching. Then, the organization has to take preventative and actionable measures when it comes to player injuries. To do so, it is important to not overwork pitching prospects, identify and fix abnormalities in their pitching mechanics that may be conducive to injury, and, if players do get injured, take the player out, treat the injury, and implement a cautious rehab program. Lastly, the organization must be patient with the prospects to give them time to grow. This involves establishing individual developmental timelines with set goals based on how the player is expected to develop. This makes it so a team will stick to the timeline and not rush their prospects, no matter how well they are performing.
Implementing these steps in the management of pitching prospects will go a long way in developing young pitching talent and building a stockpile of promising arms that will succeed at the big league level. Maybe one day the Orioles will take heed to my message and implement the steps necessary to properly develop their pitching prospects. Until then, they will be stuck with a middling rotation full of sub-par free agent acquisitions while their pitching prospects are either pitching elsewhere, stuck in the bullpen, or failing to reach their potential.