The Orioles have seen tons of graduations from the minors to the big leagues in the past few years.
Last year was tops, with the O's losing five of their top ten prospects to the big-league club. This year they have contributed Jake Arrieta and, for a short time, Josh Bell.
Now the Orioles are in a bit of a dead man's zone. They have tons of talent at AAA, in lefty Zach Britton, first baseman Brandon Snyder, and righty Troy Patton, but not much at AA or high-A. In fact, with the graduations of Brian Matusz, Chris Tillman, Arrieta, Nolan Reimold, and eventually Josh Bell, the O's have one of the most depleted minor league systems in baseball.
But, there is hope, especially with tons of new blood from the past two drafts. Manny Machado, Daniel Klein, Dixon Anderson, and Trent Mummey are all studs, and the O's have to be pleased in what they've seen from Matt Hobgood, Mychal Givens, and 2009 late-round picks Michael Ohlman and Jake Cowan.
I listed my top 30 Orioles top prospects before the season, and I thought the mid-season point would be as good a time as any to update my rankings.
Pre-season rank: not ranked
The Orioles changed the face of their franchise's infield when they drafted Machado, a Miami native, with the third overall pick in June's MLB draft.
Not only does Machado's presence give the Orioles their first a potential All-Star caliber shortstop, but it sends a trickle-down effect through the system, meaning position changes could be in the works for several of the Orioles top infield prospects, including 2009 second-rounder Mychal Givens.
Those in the know will tell you Machado is a legitimate five-tool talent. The worst of his tools is speed, although I'm sure the Orioles will have no qualms about whatever speed he offers as long as he reaches his ceiling as a high-average, above-average power hitter.
On defense, Machado offers solid shortstop skills. He possesses a very strong arm, and has good range and footwork. If anyone can stay at shortstop, it will be someone with Machado's athleticism.
If he is forced to make a long-term switch to third base, however, he shouldn't have too much trouble, although he would have incredible competition in Josh Bell and possible 2011 first overall pick Anthony Rendon.
Assuming Machado stays at short, and I have every belief that he can, he puts the organization in quite a bind. Mychal Givens was drafted to be the future of the franchise at short last year, and with an injury effectively ending his 2010 season, he and Machado could be on similar timetables.
Not to mention 2008 pick Greg Miclat, whom the Orioles are very high on and have moved aggressively due to his superior defensive prowess. Or Garabez Rosa, the O's best international find. Or Pedro Florimon Jr., provided he regains the stroke that made him a Carolina League All-Star last season.
And don't forget fellow 2010 draftee Connor Narron, who may turn out to be a fantastic mid-round steal.
Don't be worried though. With the most impressive set of tools of any shortstop in the minor leagues (officially official after the O's get him to sign), the job is Machado's to lose.
Pre-season rank: 2
Don't let Josh Bell's pre-demotion .200 performance with eight strikeouts in 15 big league at-bats fool you. This is a kid who is going to be playing in the Majors for a long time.
The plan was for Bell to come up and get his feet wet in the bigs, and then to head back to Norfolk when Felix Pie came off the DL.
Bell got five games in, far too few to revoke his prospect status, and now he's back to AAA, where he will likely resume mauling International League pitching.
Bell is hitting .266 for the season, but he's never been a really high average guy anyways. It's his power that has him ticketed for third-base in Baltimore, as his 10 homers this season have given him his fourth full-season with ten or more long-balls. His 44 RBI rank in the top-20 of the IL, despite missing more than a week of playing time.
Bell has taken a long and winding road to get to this point in his career, from being a chunky, overweight player with terrible range at third to the power-hitting, good-fielding third-baseman that he his today.
Orioles fans should get used to seeing him around the hot corner for the next decade or so. And should he eventually outgrow third base, he could easily slide over to first and give the Orioles the power at that position that they've lacked since Rafael Palmeiro the first time around.
Pre-season rank: 7
Zach Britton won't win any awards for being the most flashy guy. He doesn't have a fastball that can scrape the high 90s like Jake Arrieta, and he doesn't have four or five different offerings a la Brian Matusz. Furthermore, he doesn't have the ideal pitcher's size, like Chris Tillman.
And yet, somehow, some way, Britton has found a way to continually frustrate hitters and post career numbers in the minors that outperform all of them.
Britton wasn't necessarily a low draft pick (third-round in 2006), which makes the lack of any attention somewhat puzzling, but now that he's emerged as the best pitching prospect currently in the organization, he's getting his due accolades.
ESPN's Keith Law ranked Britton as the 25th best prospect in the minors to start the season, and has him as the 8th most talented member of either team's roster for the Future's Game in Anaheim. And Baseball America has had no problem labeling his sinker as potentially the best of any pitching prospect.
Despite the added attention, Britton hasn't disappointed in his fifth season of pro ball. He recently earned a promotion to AAA Norfolk, after handcuffing Eastern League hitters to a .231 average over 14 starts. His 2.48 ERA was, and still is, ranked in the top five.
In his first AAA start, Britton tossed six scoreless innings, getting 11 of 18 outs via groundout.
On top of it all, Britton has earned Eastern League All-Star honors, been named both the Eastern League Pitcher of the Week and Pitcher of the Month, and earned a nod in the Future's Game, signifying he's one of the best American born pitchers the minor leagues has to offer.
Look for Britton to make his big league debut this September, provided he continues to pitch well at AAA. Without a doubt, he will challenge for a spot in the rotation come next spring training.
Pre-season rank: 5
Although he claims injuries weren't responsible, Snyder wasn't himself the first few months of the season. A .213 average through April, and a .250 in the month of May, put a serious scare into the O's. They envision Snyder as a Sean Casey-type player who hits for high average, with average to below-average power.
Luckily, Snyder has rebounded in a big way, posting a .325 average in June, including .382 in the ten games preceding his trip to the 7-day disabled list with a shoulder strain.
The team has no long term concerns about his shoulder, which means Snyder should be back on track, and prepared to make his big league debut as early as September.
Even if his power is limited, he can't do much worse than the O's big league first-basemen, who labored four long months into the season before hitting their first home run.
Snyder is still a work in progress at first base, but no more so than Jake Fox, or even super-utility player Ty Wiggington.
The best case scenario for Snyder is that he hits around .315 for the Orioles, with 10-15 home runs and 75-90 RBI. Given the way things are going now, I'm sure they wouldn't complain.
Pre-season rank: 9
Some people look at Avery's season so far (.284, 3 home runs, 41 RBI, and 22 stolen bases) and see an average year. Nothing too showy there, a good solid season from a top of the lineup bat.
What most forget is that Avery is a 20 year old who's more than keeping his head above water at High-A. Take that into account, and those numbers become sensational.
It was only a little more than a year ago that the Orioles were debating starting Avery at short-season Aberdeen. They took a calculated risk by sending Avery, who until he signed with the O's had yet to devote all of his time and energy to just one sport, to Delmarva. After an initial slump, Avery thrived, hitting .262 with 15 doubles, eight triples, 36 RBI, 55 runs, and 30 stolen bases.
That was as a 19-year old in low-A ball.
This year's encore, which is a level higher, has been even better. Avery is on pace to set career highs in numerous categories, including: runs scored (he already has tied his 2009 number), RBI (already set), doubles (set also), triples, home runs (set), stolen bases, and, possibly the most important number for Avery...walks.
After walking only 27 times last season, in comparison to 111 strikeouts, Avery already has 30 free passes, to only 75 strikeouts. As a result, his OBP is nearly 50 points higher than last year, and being on base more means more stolen bases.
Early comparisons had Avery's best case scenario ceiling as a Carl Crawford, capable of stealing 60+ bases, while hitting 10-15 home runs. And while Avery might not ever develop even that much power, he profiles as a true lead-off hitter.
Pre-season rank: 15
Tabbed as a possible fast-riser two years ago by Baseball America, Cooney is finally starting to make his run towards the Orioles bullpen.
With a large, menacing presence that the current bullpen lacks, Cooney has maximized his 6-6 240 pound frame and turned himself into the Orioles' future closer.
This season the 30th round draft pick in 2007 has turned in a stellar campaign. Between two levels he has notched a 1.21 ERA in just over 37 innings of work. He has held opposing batters to a .178 average and has struck out 36.
He didn't surrender an earned run in the entire month of June, and made it 11 days into July before giving up his first in almost two months.
While he was the full-time closer at Frederick, he's been mostly a set-up guy with Bowie. The O's have let him adjust to AA hitters before forcing him into a closing role.
Cooney probably won't get his shot to make his debut this year, but should challenge for a bullpen spot next spring training.
Pre-season rank: 6
The Orioles took a major gamble with their first-round pick in last year's draft, when they tabbed California right-hander Matt Hobgood.
Yeah, Hobgood was the Gatorade National Player of the Year, following in the footsteps of A-Rod, Justin Upton, Rick Porcello, Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke, and Casey Kotchman. And yeah, he posted an 11-1 record and a 0.92 ERA, striking out 101 batters in only 68.1 innings of work. And on top of that, he also knocked 21 home runs while batting .475 as Norco High's slugging first-baseman. Yet, somehow, there was still concern in baseball's inner circles that Hobgood was a dreaded "money pick."
And if Hobgood didn't have enough going against him, check out the pitchers who were taken along with him in the top ten: Stephen Strasburg (already one of the top five pitchers in the majors), Mike Leake (went straight from college to the big leagues), Mike Minor (one of the best pitchers left in the minors), Drew Storen (already in the bigs). The only two others who haven't set the world on fire are Zack Wheeler, who was chosen for the Future's Game, and Jacob Turner, the Tigers top prospect.
The Orioles, however, stand by their conviction that Hobgood was the most big league ready high school arm available, and that he has the capability to be an innings-eating number three starter. And after a rough start to the year, it looks like Hobgood might finally be settling into pro ball.
Hobgood posted decent enough numbers in April (a 4.57 ERA with a .215 average against), but struggled in May (4.70 ERA and 17 walks in 30.2 innings). His June wasn't too much better as he lost both starts before being shut down with shoulder tendinitis.
Now Hobgood is back, and presumably healthy, and the Orioles are trying to ease him back into things. He went three innings in his first start, allowing one run on three hits. His next outing saw him go one inning longer, giving up just two hits and an unearned run. He only issued one walk over the seven combined innings, so maybe he's finally starting to show the command that he hasn't necessarily had this year.
Hobgood is an easy target for O's fans, who were completely thrown for a loop when the team called his name on draft day, but you can't forget the fact that he hasn't even turned 20 yet, and he's pitching in low-A ball.
That in itself is quite impressive.
Pre-season rank: 4
Nobody is more confused or frustrated by the Orioles 2005 third-round pick than myself.
After teasing and tantalizing with his big arm, and threatening to fulfill his ridiculous upside, Brandon Erbe just keeps letting me down, one start after another. Check out the numbers.
0-10 in 14 starts, 70.2 innings, 86 hits (.294 average against), 11 home runs allowed, and a 5.73 ERA.
That's Zach Ball pitching in the minors. What happened to the skinny righty who helped toss a combined no-hitter? What happened to the guy who struck out 133 in only 114 innings, compiling a 3.22 ERA as a teenager in low-A ball? Or the kid who struck out 151 batters with two complete games in high-A ball?
There's no question, Erbe has a tremendous upside, whether as a starter or a reliever. His mid 90s heat and improving secondary pitches are definitely playable in the bigs, and he's only one step away from Baltimore at AAA, and yet it feels like he's so far away from ever making his big league debut.
The way Erbe has progressed through the system, he will finish the season out with Norfolk, and then probably come back for another year at AAA, where he'll only be 23-years old, with six years of pro-ball under his belt.
My thought has always been to turn Erbe into a reliever now, and utilize his power arm, and maybe try to squeeze a few extra MPH out of it. He wouldn't have to worry about adding multiple secondary pitches, and wouldn't have to worry about pacing himself to try to make it through six or seven innings .
Pre-season rank: not ranked
From a starter who should be turned into a reliever, to a closer who will be turned into a starter.
Daniel Klein arrives in the organization compliments of UCLA's runner-up to the NCAA Championship squad. Mainly as the Bruins closer, Klein pitched a 6-1 record in 39 appearances. He notched a 1.90 ERA and 10 saves as arguably the best closer in collegiate baseball. He struck out 55 batters in 52 innings and issued only 11 walks. And batters only hit .204 off of him.
Despite his amazing success as a reliever, the Orioles have always viewed Klein as a starter, going back to when they drafted him the first time in 2007. He has four quality pitches, starting with his fastball, which sits in the low 90s. He's Zach Britton-like in his ability to keep his fastball down.
His curveball rates as average, as does his slider and changeup, and he has pretty good command of all three pitches.
The Orioles are encouraged by the success that former closer Brett Cecil has had with the Blue Jays, and don't see any harm in letting Klein try his hand at starting, keeping the fact that he is a proven solid bullpen arm up their sleeve.
Pre-season rank: not ranked
The Orioles made headlines by taking "money saver" Matt Hobgood with their first choice in the 2009 draft, but doing so allowed the O's to take chances on late picks who were tougher to sign...like Michael Ohlman.
Ohlman was on track to take his game to Miami before the Orioles jumped in with both feet and offered him $995k to sign as an 11th-round pick.
Vowing not to give in to anything less than what he wanted to skip college, Ohlman was understandably blown away and signed immediately, giving the Orioles yet another athletic catching prospect with pop in his bat and the ability to hit for average.
Ohlman was getting Jayson Werth comps long before the Orioles drafted Ohlman, but it's fitting since the O's tabbed Werth as a first-round pick. Like Werth, Ohlman may end up in the outfield someday, but for the time being the O's are letting Ohlman work with Einar Diaz, the coach at Bluefield, where Ohlman is now playing after a 34-game trial with Delmarva.
At Delmarva, Ohlman played sporadically, notching 109 at-bats, and putting up a paltry .174 average. He did rap six doubles and hit two home runs, driving in 17 runs, showing some of that pop the O's expected, and his 16:34 walk to strikeout ratio wasn't nearly as bad as expected for a 19-year old in low-A ball.
When short-season ball started up, the O's sent Ohlman to Bluefield, a more age-appropriate level, where he has been one of the Baby Birds most consistent hitters, with a .286 average. He has yet to go deep at Bluefield, but he has driven in nine runs in 14 games, and has seven doubles in that span.
Ohlman ranked as the 15th best prospect in Baseball America's 2010 Prospect Handbook, so clearly the sky is the limit for the O's newest big catcher.
Pre-season rank: 11
From one athletic catcher to another.
Joseph made a huge leap forward last season after he hit .284 with 12 home runs and 60 RBI at high-A Frederick. Joseph didn't just hit homers and drive in runs though, showing good plate discipline.
And impressively enough, Joseph's best work came on defense, a trend he has carried over to this season, which has been welcomed since his offensive numbers haven't been as impressive. He did crank his tenth home run last night, and has 42 RBI on the year, but his .245 average leaves much to be desired.
However, Joseph has been the anchor of an impressive pitching staff that has the fifth best ERA in the Eastern League. Joseph has helped Zach Britton post career numbers before moving on to AAA, helped Chorye Spoone emerge from shoulder surgery, and turned the Baysox bullpen into one of the league's best.
At the plate, Joseph has been on a tear as of late, bashing four home runs in his past eight games, driving in ten runs in the process.
Clearly, the O's don't have an immediate need for a catcher at the big league level, so the O's will let Joseph progress naturally.
Pre-season rank: 12
It's easy to forget, but before there was Manny Machado, there was Mychal Givens, the Orioles 2009 second-round pick.
Givens was a top prospect on the mound as well, but the O's had possibly the worst shortstop depth of any organization, so they opted to develop him as an infielder.
Givens was off to a decent start with Delmarva in limited playing time, but saw his season cut short due to a broken finger that will most likely cause him to miss the rest of the season. When he was on the field, Givens showed excellent range at short, although his footwork needed some work. At the plate he didn't appear totally over-matched. He notched five walks to only four strikeouts and drove in four runs in only seven games. And on the basepaths he swiped a base, showing off his plus speed.
Although the O's added a superior prospect in Machado, and the two will most likely be on the same timetable to Baltimore, you shouldn't sleep on Givens. If anything, adding a super-prospect to the system should motivate him.
Pre-season rank: 28
If you had to give an award to the least heralded prospect having the best season, Ryan Berry would be a shoe-in.
After oodles of turmoil before, during and after the draft, Berry ended up with the O's, who hoped he could regain the form that made him one of college baseball's top pitchers from 2007-09.
So far so good.
Over two levels (Delmarva and Frederick), Berry has notched 17 starts. He's given up only 80 hits in 90.1 innings and walked only 24 batters. He struck out 43 in 46.1 innings at low-A and now 36 in 44 innings at high-A. And all the while he's posted a 2.89 ERA.
Berry tosses in the low 90s and compliments his fastball with a knuckle-curve, arguably his best pitch. He also features a slider and a changeup, both average pitches.
Berry has moved quick so far, and could continue to rise through the system. He could finish the season with Bowie, with an eye to starting 2011 with Norfolk.
Pre-season rank: 8
It's hard to imagine getting off to a worse start than Patton did to being the year.
A 1-3 record in April, 16 earned runs in only 18 innings and a .311 average against.
Luckily for Patton, and the O's, who may have been losing faith that the crafty-lefty would regain the form that made him one of baseball's best pitching prospects, he has improved on a month-by-month basis.
In May, Patton lowered his ERA by nearly four runs, and in June brought it down another run. And in his first July start, Patton went seven innings, picking up his sixth win of the year, striking out three.
His ERA now stands at 4.67 and Patton has finally generated some momentum that could culminate in making his Orioles debut at the big-league level.
Pre-season rank: not ranked
Mummey generated tons of momentum this season in an injury-shortened year for Auburn, and early returns indicate he's carried it over into pro-ball, after signing with the Orioles as a fourth-round pick.
At Auburn, Mummey hit .366 with 17 homers and 54 RBI in only 36 games, helping lead one of the nation's most explosive offensive attacks. Mind you, Mummey had this season as Auburn's lead-off hitter, the same role he's now settled into for the Aberdeen Ironbirds, where the speedy center-fielder has notched a .308 average with two home runs and 10 RBI.
His plate discipline is above-average, and has shown in his 15 pro games, as has his plus speed, even though he only has two stolen bases so far. And all signs point to Mummey heating up, scoring five hits in his past two contests, driving in six runs.
For a team like the O's, who don't have a glut of proven power-hitting center-fielders, Mummey is a welcomed addition.
16) Ronnie Welty, OF, 22-years old
17) Garabez Rosa, SS, 20-years old
18) L.J. Hoes, 2B, 20-years old
19) Cameron Coffey, RHP, 19-years old
20) Chorye Spoone, RHP, 24-years old
21) Matt Angle, OF, 24-years old
22) Brandon Waring, 3B/1B, 24-years old
23) Jesse Beal, RHP, 20-years old
24) Dixon Anderson, RHP, 21-years old
25) Jake Cowan, RHP, 22-years old
26) Pedro Beato, RHP, 23-years old
27) Joe Mahoney, 1B, 23-years old
28) Tyler Henson, 3B, 22-years old
29) Kyle Hudson, OF, 23-years old
30) Luis Noel, RHP, 22-years old