With the Orioles continuing to focus heavily on drafting and development, the major-league roster is ever-changing. A handful of prospects aren’t far from the majors and could make their MLB debuts in 2020. Here are the five I’m looking forward to seeing most:
There’s a lot to like about Kremer. Probably the best arm the O’s picked up from the Dodgers in the Manny Machado trade, Kremer was fantastic for Double-A Bowie after coming over in the deal in 2018. In 45.1 innings, he posted a 2.58 ERA and 3.04 FIP while striking out over 28% of the batters he faced. After an oblique injury pushed back his 2019 debut to May, he dominated in two starts for High-A Frederick before making his way back to Bowie.
Returning to Double-A, Kremer wasn’t quite as good as his eight-start stint the previous year — 2.98 ERA, 3.56 FIP, 25 K% in 84.2 IP — but he was still very good. In mid-August, he was promoted to Triple-A Norfolk and put up some crooked numbers (8.84 ERA) in four starts. Interestingly, his peripherals looked pretty good (3.42 FIP, 23.9 K%, 4.6 BB%), but his BABIP (.459) was very high and his left-on-base percentage (48.1%) was very low. Weird things can happen in 19-plus innings.
The 24-year-old Kremer isn’t necessarily on the cusp of a call-up, but he isn’t far away, either. The 84.2 innings he threw at Bowie last year were the most he’s thrown at any affiliate in a single year, so the O’s would probably like to see him perform well in an extended stretch at Norfolk. If he does that and keeps racking up strikeouts, he could get a shot sometime during the summer.
Assuming he stays healthy, Mountcastle is all but assured of making his major-league debut in 2020. There’s a lot to like about him — the power, his youth (he turns 23 in February) and that he already has a full season at Triple-A under his belt.
In 2019, Triple-A switched to using the major-league baseball. Home runs soared. With that caveat, Mountcastle hit 25 home runs (ninth best in the International League) and slugged .527 (tied for sixth best) — pretty good for a 22-year-old! But his .367 wOBA was 15th best, and his 117 wRC+ was also tied for 15th best. (It’s worth noting that wRC+, as a park-adjusted stat, gives Mountcastle credit for playing half his games in pitcher-friendly Harbor Park.)
Mountcastle’s .344 OBP wasn’t in the top 30, while his 4.3 BB% was the lowest and his 23.5 K% was in the middle of the pack. Whether his power will play isn’t much of a concern; whether he’ll be able to combine that with better-than-average plate discipline and on-base skills is the bigger question mark.
There’s also the concern about where Mountcastle plays. Shortstop is no longer a possibility, and third base seems like a long shot. The most realistic options are now first base, corner outfield and maybe even second base.
To his credit, Mountcastle knows he isn’t a finished product and has plenty to prove: “Every part of my game, I want to work on. Wherever I fit into the lineup, whatever helps the team win, I’m going to do it. And I’m going to work hard.”
Like Mountcastle, Akin is all but a lock to appear on the Orioles’ roster at some point in 2020. He’s spent a single season at each of the O’s highest three affiliates and posted solid but not dominant numbers. Most recently, in 24 starts and 112.1 innings for Triple-A Norfolk, Akin struck out 26% of opposing batters, but he also had a walk percentage of 12.1% (highest among International League pitchers with 100-plus innings) and finished with a 4.73 ERA and 4.13 FIP.
The high number of walks is hard not to notice, but O’s director of pitching Chris Holt brushed aside any worries. In an offseason interview with Steve Melewski of MASN, Holt said, “… [W]ith what I was asking him to do — throw off-speed pitches behind in the count to be able to attack the zone — he took on that work. It did cost him some walks, but really I don’t care. I want him to throw the pitches and get comfortable doing the things he’ll have to do on TV (in the majors).”
Akin projects as a back-end starter, and it’s possible that he could make the major-league club out of spring training. However, the O’s are not in the business of rushing any prospects, and the most likely option is him pitching a little while longer in Triple-A before his promotion. He doesn’t seem to possess the upside of Kremer, but there’s something to be said for having another young, competent starter.
In case you haven’t noticed, the Orioles aren’t exactly loaded with infield prospects. That’s one of the things that make Bannon interesting in 2020, along with the 23-year-old’s relatively quick progression through the minor leagues.
Another prospect acquired in the Machado trade, he was immediately promoted to Double-A Bowie after the trade and came down to earth a bit (95 wRC+) after raking for the Dodgers in High-A (156 wRC+). He began 2019 in Bowie, posting a good-but-not-great 120 wRC+ in 444 plate appearances before advancing to Triple-A. In his brief 20-game stint, Bannon put up an identical 120 wRC+ in 90 plate appearances and will begin the 2020 season looking to improve on those numbers.
With some intriguing power and defensive abilities to perhaps stick at both second base and third base, Bannon could find his way onto the O’s roster in 2020. It wouldn’t be surprising at all to see him promoted if Rio Ruiz continues to struggle or Hanser Alberto gets traded.
These are the Orioles, after all, so of course a Rule 5 pick is in the mix to earn playing time. Unlike the four names above him, Bailey has yet to log any innings in Triple-A. But with the Rule 5 conditions, he’ll have a good chance to make the O’s roster and will have to learn to retire major-league hitters on the fly.
What’s interesting about Bailey is essentially what’s interesting about most players the new O’s braintrust (and plenty of other teams) have their eye on: a four-seam fastball with a high spin rate/vertical movement, a solid curveball (developed with Holt when both were still with the Astros) and the ability to miss bats (26.7 K% in Double-A last year). What Bailey doesn’t possess is elite velocity, so he’ll need to lean on all five of his pitches to keep opposing hitters off balance.
Other O’s prospects who are close:
Yusniel Díaz: A top-five O’s prospect, Díaz may end up being the best player on this list. But he’s no lock to get to the majors this year, and it would be nice to see him stay healthy and post strong numbers at Triple-A after appearing in just 76 games at Bowie last season.
Ryan McKenna: The McKenna hype train slowed considerably after he reached Bowie in 2018. He made slight improvements in 2019, but he has a lot of work to do. Bowie manager Buck Britton also called out McKenna’s occasional lack of focus near the end of the season.
Bruce Zimmermann: An intriguing 2019 may have changed Zimmermann’s trajectory. Holt praised him immensely — “… [Zimmermann] made as much improvement as anyone in the organization” — and it wouldn’t be shocking to see him in a swingman-type role in the near future.
Zac Lowther: Frankly, all Lowther does is get outs. The lefty has yet to post an ERA above 2.55 in the minors, and it should be fascinating to see what he’s able to do at Norfolk this season.
Michael Baumann: A dominant 2019 in both Frederick and Bowie (including a no-hitter) did wonders for Baumann’s future stock. He jumped from No. 21 to No. 9 on MLB Pipeline’s Top 30 O’s prospects list and should be in the mix with several other promising pitchers in Norfolk’s rotation (many mentioned above, plus Alex Wells and Cody Sedlock).
Photo Credit: William Vaughan/Bowie Baysox