Having a strong minor-league system can fuel an organization for years to come. Quality young talent can propel an organization to new heights—see the 2008 Tampa Bay Rays.
This time, we'll look at the five best prospects in the Baltimore Orioles' minor-league system. The Orioles are a once-proud franchise that has fallen on hard times in the last decade. Luckily for them, they have some potential difference makers in the pipeline. And since they're in the highly competitive American League East, they'll need them.
Baltimore Orioles' 2009 Top-Five Prospects
1. Matt Wieters, C, 5/21/86- The best hitting prospect in baseball.
He hit a combined .355 between High A-Frederick and AA-Bowie and showed a tremendous mix of power (27 HR, 22 2B) and patience (82 BB vs 76 K).
And that was his professional debut.
There's not many negatives with Wieters, the fifth-overall pick in the 2007 draft. The former Georgia Tech Yellow Jacket will likely make his big league debut in 2009 and eventually become a franchise-caliber player.
Wieters looks like as sure of a thing as a prospect can be as well as somebody who could make an immediate impact upon arriving in the majors.
2. Chris Tillman, RHP, 4/15/88 - Tillman, tall and lanky at 6'5"/195lbs, was acquired last winter in the Erik Bedard trade and had little trouble adjusting to life in the Orioles system. Even though he was young for AA, Tillman dominated anyway.
He held opposing batters to a .227 average and struck out 154 in only 135 innings. He could stand to cut down on the walks (65), but after overpowering AA hitters, Tillman seems ready to open 2009 in AAA.
It's an imposing challenge for a 21-year-old pitcher, but Tillman doesn't have a lot left to prove in AA. Depending how quickly he adjusts, he could debut in Baltimore sometime in 2009, potentially towards the end of the season. There's not much blocking him.
3. Brian Matusz, LHP, 2/11/87 - Matusz, a San Diego State product, was the third overall selection in last season's draft, and the first pitcher drafted.
He signed too late to debut during the minor-league season but has looked strong in the Arizona Fall League.
In 22 innings, he's allowed 20 hits and five walks but has also fanned 27. He's given up a homer in five of his six appearances, but that's not a concern yet.
He doesn't have an overpowering fastball, but it sits in the low 90s and is complemented by an impressive array of offspeed offerings.
He'll likely begin 2009 with Frederick but could be moved aggressively, possibly debuting in Baltimore late in 2009 or early in 2010.
4. Jake Arrieta, RHP, 3/6/86- At one time, Arrieta was projected to be a top 10 pick in the 2007 draft. A poor spring for Texas Christian University plus hefty contract demands saw him tumble to the fifth round.
Baltimore is glad he did.
Arrieta has a mid-90s fastball and he used it en route to a .199 BAA and 120 punchouts in 113 innings for Frederick.
He was away from Frederick for a few weeks while he was on the 2008 USA Olympic baseball team—Arrieta threw six shutout innings of two-hit ball against China. His breaking pitches all have the potential to be good, but they all need work.
He also needs to reduce the free passes—he walked 51 in those 113 innings.
Arrieta should begin 2009 with Bowie and could surface in Baltimore at some point in 2010.
5. Brandon Erbe, P, 12/25/87- Erbe was a darling among prospectors after his breakout 2006 season, but a disappointing 2007 campaign for Frederick left many unsure what to make of him.
Erbe repeated the league in 2008 and rebounded nicely, throwing 150 innings, allowing 120 hits, and posting a strong 50/151 BB/K.
He had a 4.48 ERA (down from 6.34 in 2007) and while he allowed a few too many home runs, the other ratios were encouraging.
After spending two years in Frederick, look for Erbe to be tested with AA in 2009. At 21, he'd still be young for the level.
NOTE: Only players with no more than 130 AB/50 IP in the majors qualify for this list.