Eduardo Rodriguez has gone from afterthought to top prospect in just three seasons.
In all fairness, Walker's inclusion wasn't because he is considered one of the top first base prospects in the game, but rather because of the lack of true first base prospects in baseball right now. Still, it's not like that matters to Walker, who has had a whirlwind ride since signing with the O's last summer after being selected in the fourth round.
After a 22-game cameo with Aberdeen late last summer, Walker began the 2013 season with Low-A Delmarva. It only took 31 games for him to hit his way to High-A where he has continued to impress with a polished hitting approach and great power. In 81 combined games this season, Walker has posted a .312/.375/.476 line and has rapped 21 doubles, slugged 10 homers and driven in 50 runs.
For those who aren't familiar with the event, the Futures Game is an undercard for the All-Star game, a contest pitting the best prospects from all over the world against the top farmhands from the United States.
This year's contests features some of the top prospects in baseball, including Byron Buxton (Minnesota), Carlos Correa (Houston), Nick Castellanos (Detroit), Oscar Taveras (St. Louis), Taijuan Walker (Seattle) and Billy Hamilton (Cincinnati).
The game also features two other Baltimore prospects, outfielder Henry Urrutia and left-hander Eduardo Rodriguez, both of whom will suit up for the World Team.
While Walker, Urrutia and Rodriguez are three of the top prospects in the farm system, they aren't as well known as Dylan Bundy, Kevin Gausman or Jonathan Schoop, so it only seems fair to take some time to get to know this threesome and take a look at what their strengths and weaknesses are, and when we might see them in Baltimore.
Urrutia's story is well-known among O's fans. Checking in at an impressive 6'5'' and 200 pounds, Urrutia was a highly sought after prospect after defecting from Cuba in 2010. He got on the O's radar and they doggedly pursued him, finally getting him to sign to a deal that included a $775K signing bonus, the largest ever given out to a Caribbean player by the organization.
The O's waited patiently while Urrutia waited for clearance to enter the country from Haiti. That process took longer than anyone expected and by the time he arrived in spring camp, he hadn't played competitively in more than two years.
So obviously the O's challenged him with an aggressive promotion to Double-A Bowie. Fortunately, the 26-year-old Urrutia responded, hitting a league-leading .365 with 16 doubles, seven homers and 37 RBI in 52 games. He finally received a long-awaited promotion to Triple-A, where he has rapped three doubles and driven in two runs in just eight games so far.
The book on Urrutia is that he's a polished hitter who has a decent bit of pop. Here's some scoop from Baseball America's Ben Badler (h/t Steve Melewski of masnsports.com):
"(Urrutia) played in Cuba for several years and was one of the better hitters in that league. He hit for a high average and showed some solid power. He has more of a level line drive kind of swing and is a switch-hitter that has some solid contact skills.
There is no one tool that you would call a carrying tool. There is no 70 or plus-plus tool for him. But he didn't strike out much when he was in Cuba. He's got a pretty level bat path and the hit tool with him is pretty solid. I would say he has solid contact skills that are going to help him. He probably has a better swing plane from the left side than the right side. But the ability to make contact is one of his better skills.
He'll be solid (on defense). That is one of the hardest thing to gauge for a Cuban player because you don't see him as much. He's got solid speed. I don't think he will be a Gold Glove winner, but he won't be a liability either. I think he could be an average defender in a corner spot."
A few notes: Urrutia has since given up switch-hitting and now hits full-time from the left-side. As for his days in Cuba? He hit .350 with 33 homers and 219 RBI over the course of five seasons in the Cuban League, including a .397 mark during his final season.
From what we've seen so far of Urrutia here in the States, it's clear that his bat is too polished for the minor leagues. He might not have the ceiling of a Yasiel Puig, but he should be a good hitter at the big league level, possibly in the .275-.290 range. He'll rack up his fair share of doubles and has 15-20 home run power. The easiest way to think of him is as a poor man's Nick Markakis, with less speed and fielding ability and worse plate discipline.
The O's have a plan to see Urrutia in Baltimore by the end of this season. Whether that's when rosters expand in September or earlier is up to how well he performs at Norfolk, as well as the health of the Orioles' current crop of outfielders. With Markakis, Adam Jones and Nate McLouth all playing well, there's no sense bringing him up to ride the pine when he could be playing every day in Triple-A.
Eduardo Rodriguez, 20, signed with the O's out of Venezuela for a fraction ($175K) of what they spent on Urrutia back in early 2010. He came to his first camp as a soft-tossing lefty who rarely touched higher than 85 mph on the radar gun.
Three years later, the 6'2'', 200-pound southpaw is arguably the Orioles' top (healthy) pitching prospect, and he now cranks his fastball up to 94 mph. He complements the pitch with a slider and a changeup, neither of which are polished offerings, although both look above average at times. His fastball gets a ton of movement, and as a result gets him a ton of ground balls.
After a solid full-season debut with Delmarva last season, Rodriguez was aggressively bumped to High-A Frederick, where he thrived, posting a 2.85 ERA in 14 starts while holding down a 66/25 K/BB and a .245 opponent batting average.
He received a promotion to Double-A Bowie on the same day that Urrutia was bumped to Norfolk, and in his first start he got hit pretty hard, surrendering five runs on seven hits. He showed some impressive composure, however, leading many to believe he'll have no problem adjusting to the Eastern League despite being one of the youngest players on the circuit.
While it would be unreasonable and completely unnecessary for the Orioles to rush Rodriguez to the majors anytime before the end of next season, don't put it past him to once again outperform expectations and arrive sooner than expected.
Baseball America tabbed Rodriguez before the season as a "No. 4 starter on a good team," and while that might be under-selling him a little bit, the O's would be happy if that's what they end up getting out of him, especially for $175K.
The main risk with Rodriguez comes in the fact that he's still so young. He's gone through dramatic physical changes since signing with the club, and who's to say he's done growing. He could be a very different pitcher three years from now, just like he is now from three years ago. That could be good or it could be bad.
Signed out of South Carolina after one of the most impressive collegiate careers in recent memory, a run that included back-to-back national championships and back-to-back selections to the All-CWS squad for his individual performance, Walker set to work destroying low-level pitching.
As noted above, he's already reached High-A Frederick and the way he's hitting for the Keys (.297/.349/.466), there's no reason to think he won't end the season with Double-A Bowie. Unfortunately, Walker has come along at just the wrong time. For so many years, the O's have been searching for a long-term solution at first base and it appears they have finally found one in Chris Davis, making Walker an unnecessary asset.
While he may or may not end up as trade bait, there's no denying the O's love what they're seeing out of him at the plate and in the field.
At 6'0'' and 220 pounds, Walker looks the part of a slugging first baseman. He's always shown a polished hitting ability that is made to look even better by his great eye at the plate. His power is true "light-tower power" and for anyone who needs proof, just remember that this is the guy who once out-homered Bryce Harper in a high school home run derby.
He has yet to truly tap into that power, although there have been some flashes. He has just 12 home runs since turning pro in close to 400 at-bats. Still, that's more than most Orioles prospects have, so let's not get too greedy. Walker took some time to grow into his power at South Carolina and there's a chance that could happen in the minors as well.
Defensively, Walker isn't much of an asset, but he isn't a liability either. He's had the privilege of playing first base for several years in college and already has over 100 minor league contests under his belt.
Walker has the bat to get to Baltimore by early 2014, but with the O's likely to try to lock up Chris Davis after this season to a multi-year extension, it seems unlikely that he'll have a place to play. If the front office ever did decide to go that route, Walker could make an excellent full-time DH, a notion that manager Buck Showalter has been hesitant to commit to in the past.