November 23, 2016
Baltimore Orioles Top 10 Prospects
The State of the System: Thin and lacks impact profiles at the top, but a bevvy of young, intriguing arms keeps the Orioles out of the bottom tier of systems at least.
The Top Ten
The Big Question: Why are we so bad at projecting future roles for catchers?
Here’s a list of catchers to make the Top 101 in recent seasons (highest rankings in parentheses):
Blake Swihart (17)
Jorge Alfaro (31)
Still very much Jorge Alfaro, for good and for ill.
Reese McGuire (59)
Still a very good defender, but has never hit in the minors.
Kevin Plawecki (80)
Hit in the minors, had a fringy defensive profile, is now a 20-hit framing god.
Francisco Mejia (84)
Good catching prospect.
Andrew Susac (91)
Got beat out for the Giants backup job by Trevor Brown.
Chance Sisco (101)
Oh we’ll get there.
Austin Hedges (18)
Great defender, hasn’t hit outside of El Paso
Josmil Pinto (56)
Turned out he wasn’t actually a catcher.
Travis d’Arnaud (15)
Good when healthy, wasn’t healthy enough. Now isn’t that good when healthy. Another bat-first profile that “turned into” a good defender once we had framing metrics.
Gary Sanchez (47)
Was a good catching prospect, then a less good catching prospect, now may be Babe Ruth.
Decent backup catcher, may be a middle reliever next year.
So that’s not a great hit rate. A quick scan of our 2013 Top 101 third baseman for example includes Miguel Sano, Anthony Rendon, Nick Castellanos, Nolan Arenado, and Jedd Gyorko (also Matt Davidson, Kaleb Cowart, and Mike Olt, mind you). That’s more solid major leaguers than three years of catchers. We also got the shape of the production far closer than we did for catchers. Arenado turning into an 80 glove at third notwithstanding, Miguel Sano is a TTO bopper that maybe wasn’t really a third baseman, Nick Castellanos is a bat-first profile that has to battle at the hot corner, Rendon is injury-plagued, but brilliant when healthy. This is all in line with their prospect profiles. The catchers above, busts, Babe Ruth, and everything in between often look like completely different players than their minor league reports.
The most common underlying issue here is “they didn’t hit.” This is true of most minor leaguers, but not true of most prospects. This is more art than science—see Kaleb Cowart—but generally we are pretty good at figuring out who we think will hit in the majors. If you had seen Rendon and Arenado in the minors, for example, they wouldn’t have been hard scouts on the offensive end. With catchers though, we are more willing to accept risk in the offensive tools, because (A) catching is so damn hard and (B) thus the bar for offense at catcher is much lower. If Kevin Plawecki even had a 40 hit tool, he’d be a much easier sell as a role 5 starter. But those guys that you hope get to a 40 hit tool, McGuire, Hedges, and Bethancourt jump to mind, have very little room to fall short until the bat is completely unplayable even with the defensive tools. A prospect at any other position with McGuire’s offensive projection would just be an org guy at best.
On the flip side, does it even matter if they can’t hit? In 2016, Russell Martin hit .231/.335/.398. He was a three-win player by WARP. Jason Castro hit .210/.307/.377; WARP sees him as a perfectly cromulent starter. Rene Rivera and the aforementioned d’Arnaud both posted .630 OPS. They were each worth a 1.5 WARP in 70 games of playing time.
At SaberSeminar this year during their presentation on catcher game calling metrics, BP Stats maven Jonathan Judge said—I’ll paraphrase—that he didn’t care if his catcher hit at all. I’ve long been a bit of a James Randi when it comes to catcher defensive metrics, but even I’ve come around in the last year or so. This leaves me with a bit of a quandary.
All public prospect writing suffers from information asymmetry. The Orioles are going to have a whole heck of a lot more information on the ten names to follow than we are. Other teams have more looks going back further. In most cases though, we are at least looking at the same things. It’s less true with catchers. Pitching prospect X might be a bit of a jerk, a bad tipper, a little lazy in PFP drills, but if he is 94-96 with a plus slider, we’d probably overlook that even if we knew it. With catchers, the important stuff is almost completely hidden from view. It’s been a meme at times in sabermetric circles, Nichols Law of Catcher Defense. Turns out there might actually be a quantifiable reason that old no-hit backup catcher is around (see Rene Rivera again).
It’s pretty clear teams have known this longer than us. Consider Juan Centeno—yes, bear with me—occasional third catcher for the Mets, Brewers, and Twins. The Twins were bad enough this year that Centeno got longer run as a back up and hit .260 with an average OBP and some doubles. That’s not out of line with his minor league scouting reports. He was usually backing up “better” catching prospects in the Mets system, like Francisco Peña and Blake Forsythe, but there was some bat-to-ball from the left side of the plate, and he was a good catch-and-throw type. You may remember him as the first catcher to throw out Billy Hamilton in the bigs, back when we thought that was going to be an event as frequent as a sighting of the Leonid Meteor storms.
Centeno hasn’t turned out to be a great catch-and-throw guy in limited major league opportunities—his minor league caught stealing rate is still 40 percent—but that kind of profile should get more opportunities as a backup. There’s a reason three teams have passed on his services for the most part, one that’s become clearer with the research that the BP Stats team has done—he’s not a good receiver. We used to scoff at “pitchers don’t like throwing to him” as an excuse to keep our favorite catching prospect on the fringes, but if I’m taking nothing else away from the research BP has done as catcher defense in the last couple years, it’s that my stopwatch gives me much less useful information about a catcher’s major-league future than a blind org quote of “pitchers don’t like throwing to him.”
Receiving/framing can be an observable physical skill. The problem is we’re usually in the wrong place to see it. The scout’s vantage point is great for evaluating pitching mechanics and pitches in general. It’s pretty good for swing stuff. And it’s fine for catch-and-throw actions. It’s not great for receiving. The actions are hidden from view. This seems like an appropriate metaphor to conclude with.
Oh, well I suppose at this point you might still be wondering why this is the big question for the Orioles system. About that...
1. Chance Sisco, C
The Good: Sisco will hit. He ticks all the boxes you look for when projecting a plus major-league hit tool: Good zone control, short to the ball, quick wrists with barrel control. He’s comfortable deep in counts and should add a shiny OBP to the profile as well. He’s improved his defense behind the plate to the point where you’re more confident he sticks at catcher. The arm is average, and his catch/throw and receiving actions have improved in 2016.
The Bad: Sisco is still rough behind the plate.. He’s improved, but he’s not a slam dunk to be an average defender there. The hit tool should still carry the profile, but it will have to as there is well-below-average game power here due to a swing geared for contact over loft.
The Irrelevant: Sisqo grew up in Baltimore and worked at the Fudgery in the Inner Harbor.
OFP 60—Above-average two-way catcher
The Risks: Catchers are weird, man. I wrote an essay about it and everything.
Major league ETA: Early 2018
Ben Carsley’s Fantasy Take: The great thing about me is I read that entire essay about catching prospects and thought “yeah, but Sisco will be different.” Hell, I wrote this two-plus years ago and still think “yeah, but Sisco will be different.” I know Sisco might not be a catcher, but I’ll sell out for a hit tool faster than Craig will sell out for retweets. There’s a good chance I’ll have Sisco as my No. 2 or 3 dynasty catching prospect in the game. If (big if, yes) he can stick behind the plate, I think Sisco can be a high-average top-10 catcher in his prime, sort of like what Yadier Molina did from 2011-2015 (minus that 22-homer year). And so ends the first and last time you’ll ever see Sisco comp’d to Yadier Molina.
2. Ryan Mountcastle, SS
The Good: Mountcastle jumps up the Orioles list this year on the back of a strong campaign in the Sally as a 19-year-old. Although he’s a bit of a free-swinger, there’s the potential for above-average game power as he grows into his 6-foot-3 frame. He was better than expected at the 6 as well, although it is hard to find 6-foot-3 shortstops nowadays.
The Bad: Mountcastle is a bit of a free swinger, and it wouldn't be shocking if upper level arms exploit that. There aren't many 6-foot-3 shortstops and it's still likely he ends up sliding over to third. His below-average arm could mean a move to left field rather than third. The bat should handle the move to the hot corner, but it is a less exciting offensive profile the further down the defensive spectrum he goes.
The Irrelevant: Mouncastle’s alma mater, Paul J. Hagerty High School, ranked first among Seminole County high schools the year he graduated.
OFP 60— Above-average middle infielder
The Risks: High. Mountcastle is still years off from major-league contributions, and the approach may limit his ability to get the potential power into games. Corner profile wouldn't more pressure on the bat.
Major league ETA: 2019
Ben Carsley’s Fantasy Take: Mountcastle is a bit too far away and a bit too unlikely to stick at shortstop to garner serious top-100 consideration yet, but he’s definitely one to watch as 2017 progresses. If he keeps hitting well at higher levels and/or starts getting improved defensive reports, Mountcastle could jump up these rankings quickly. He is Lysa Arryn’s least favorite prospect.
3. Cody Sedlock, RHP
The Good: Big arm speed and big fastball from a long, lean frame. Sedlock sits in the mid-90s and touched higher in his pro debut, although he had issues holding that velocity in even three-inning stints after a full college season. The pitch can be a bowling ball at times, making up for his lack of a true swing-and-miss offering elsewhere at present. Breaking ball is slurvy but will show good, hard tilt at times. Should be solid-average or even better in the end.
The Bad: Mechanical profile points toward the bullpen. Effort, crossfire, and a full pause before foot strike to let his arm accelerate all negatively effect the command profile and ability to repeat his release point. Fastball can be wild in the zone as a result. Changeup is used sparingly and is firm and well-below average at present.
The Irrelevant: In Sedlock’s only year as a starter at the University of Illinois, he threw 22% of his team’s innings.
OFP 55—Good setup guy, occasional closer.
The Risks: Post-college-season pro looks at pitchers are always a bit fuzzy, and Sedlock was worked hard at Illinois in his first season as a starter. That can work in either direction. The fastball is good enough at present that he shouldn’t encounter too much resistance through the minors. Secondaries/command development will be the biggest risks to the profile. Could move very quickly as a reliever, but likely to stay stretched out for a while.
Major league ETA: 2018
Ben Carsley’s Fantasy Take: As impressive as Sedlock’s fastball and first-round pedigree may be, he’s either years and years away from starting in the majors or a reliever. He’s also in a system that’s struggled to develop meaningful fantasy arms, Kevin Gausman’s turnaround aside. That’s not going to cut it for our purposes, even in a relatively down year overall for fantasy prospects.
4. Trey Mancini, 1B
The Good: Mancini hit in Double-A. He hit in Triple-A. He hit in the majors (okay it was 15 PA). It’s in no way an exciting profile. He’s a big, brutish, right-handed, bat-first first baseman. The pop is above-average, though not prodigious. This sounds sarcastic placed in this section, but it isn’t? There isn’t that much right-handed power around, and Mancini has it and is ready to deploy it in the majors.
The Bad: You’d be forgiven for thinking this did sound like a potential Quad-A profile. The power comes from a long swing with a near armbar, and while the K-rates have been high but manageable so far, major league arms may exploit the holes. He’s first base (and DH) only. If he isn’t starting there, he’s not an ideal bench piece.
The Irrelevant: Mancini’s first major-league hit was, unsurprisingly, a dinger.
OFP 55—Solid-average major league first baseman with pop carrying the offensive profile
The Risks: Mancini is low risk, but your reward might only be something in the vein of C.J. Cron. It’s tough to carry a Role 45 right-handed 1B/DH nowadays, even if they add a 26th roster spot.
Major league ETA: Debuted in 2016
Ben Carsley’s Fantasy Take: I used C.J. Cron as a comp to disparage Dom Smith, and here I’m using it to compliment (sort of) Mancini. Really, this is all about managing expectations. If you want to take the plunge with Mancini in TDGX-sized leagues that roster 200-plus prospects, sure, why not? He’s MLB-ready and has good contextual factors. You could do worse than to bet on him as a bench bat/backup CI. But you couldn’t really do worse than to bet on him as a starting fantasy 1B. Just take it slow and keep your hopes modest.
5. Jomar Reyes, 3B
The Good: Reyes is a massive human being and he has the massive raw power to match. Potential 25-home-run hitter at maturity. More than enough arm for third base, if he ever improves his actions and footwork enough to play at third. While the swing has some length to it, there’s some feel for hitting as well.
The Bad: After holding his own as an 18-year-old in the Sally, it didn’t go quite as well as a 19-year-old in the Carolina League. The big frame means big swings, and big swing-and-miss. It’s not as bad as the stat line, but he does struggle with spin, and the overall hit tool issues mean the raw power hasn’t really shown up in games yet. He’s rough at third even considering the body type, and the body type will eventually move him to first regardless.
The Irrelevant: Reyes ended up a third baseman because his father noticed the catcher throws to third after every strikeout. (No, really)
OFP 55—See Trey Mancini
The Risks: High. We are banking on some projection, a lot more hit tool utility, and an eventual first base profile. As we mentioned earlier, that fringy right-handed first base profile is tough as a bench bat, so it limits his major league impact if he isn’t a starter of som sort.
Major league ETA: 2019
Ben Carsley’s Fantasy Take: The fantasy third base prospect scene is pretty barren right now once you get past the first few names. It’s so bad that Reyes is probably still a top-15 (and maybe a top-10) dynasty prospect at the position, but please don’t confuse that with making him anything close to a top-100 prospect overall. The power is intriguing and he might not be super far away if it clicks, but you can say that about lots of CI prospects. Pray he turns into 2016 Maikel Franco (.255, 25 homers) but be prepared to settle for 2015 Luis Valbuena (.224, 22 homers). Or, you know, worse.
6. Keegan Akin, LHP
The Good: If you caught Akin on the right day you would see a pitcher with a much more quiet delivery than before, with three potentially average or better pitches. His fastball has been as high as 96, with sink, which will be his bread and butter. His secondary pitches need to find consistency but his slider has flashed above average on occasion, and late in the year with Western Michigan he found feel for his changeup.
The Bad: The odds you caught Akin on that day are not good. In my viewings of Akin I saw all of that, but never all at once. He needs to gain consistency and while the reduction in effort is attractive, he will need to show that he can consistently use his three pitches.
The Irrelevant: In the championship game of the MAC tournament Akin pitched on three days rest against Kent State, who refused to throw future first rounder Eric Lauer on three days rest.
OFP 50— No. 4 starter or set-up man
The Risks: The risk on Akin is that he never can put together the whole package that he has flashed, and is relegated to the bullpen. Even if this happens, Akin will be successful in the role.
Major league ETA: 2020, possibly faster in the pen —Grant Jones
Ben Carsley’s Fantasy Take: Because Akin possesses the ability to be something more than a back-end starter, he’s slightly more interesting for our purposes than you might think. I only mean, like, maybe a top-300 prospect interesting, though. Wait to see if it clicks or Akin or if more positive reports start flowing in before you take the leap. Or, given Baltimore’s track record of producing viable fantasy starters, spend your time focused on literally anyone else.
7. Ofelky Peralta, RHP
The Good: Peralta is a big kid with a big arm. I’m going to guess that 195 is his signing weight at this point, because even at 19, he has developed a bit of the vaunted “Chad Billingsley ass.” Fastball touched 98 this year, although he will work more in the low-90s. Even at 92-93, it appears to get on you in a hurry and is a lively pitch. Change is ahead of the breaking ball. It isn’t a big fader at present, but the arm speed is good and lends it some additional deception. I really, really like the arm, but...
The Bad: ...if Sedlock’s mechanics point to the pen, Peralta’s scream “reliever” like it’s the first lyric of a Brutal Truth song. And the brutal truth is the command profile will probably never allow him to start at the major-league level. The delivery is all arm speed over lower-body usage. His upper and lower halves are rarely in sync. Release point may be governed by the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. Okay, we think you get the picture. Oh, breaking ball is slurvy and lacks depth, but it’s more projectable than the command/control profile.
The Irrelevant: You’ve probably read enough of these by now to know that I am about to tell you he is the only Ofelky pitching in organized baseball. Only 243 more of these to go!
OFP 50— Effectively wild setup man
The Risks: Peralta is raw. Really raw. First-course-of-a-three-michelin-starred-omakase-menu-with-one-eight-person-seating raw. He may never throw enough strikes to satisfy anyone. And he’s a pitcher.
Major league ETA: 2019
Ben Carsley’s Fantasy Take: I maintain that someday Mauricio Rubio will invent a fantasy league with “ass” as a category. Until that day, Ofelky can remain on waivers in your league.
8. Garrett Cleavinger, LHP
The Good: He’s a lefty with a fastball that gets up into the mid-90s and a potential plus power curve. That’s a pretty good start.
The Bad: But there’s not much more there. He’s a college closer that’s now a minor league reliever and will eventually be a major league reliever. The curve can be inconsistent at times, and even at its best it can be a tick below 1-7 and more effective against lefties than righties. The command is below-average, but acceptable for a reliever.
The Irrelevant: No, he’s not that Clevenger.
OFP 50—Power lefty set-up man with 4-plus out possibilities
The Risks: Cleavinger’s command profile might be limiting in roles other than where he needs to come in for an inning or two and blow a power fastball/curve combo by guys. Fortunately we aren’t projecting him for that role, so he should be a major-league arm and potentially quickly. But he is a pitcher, so...
Major league ETA: Early 2018
Ben Carsley’s Fantasy Take: I don’t miss Felix Doubront, to be honest.
9. Alex Wells, LHP
The Good: Wells is a young lefty with precocious command of a fastball/change combo that kept Penn League hitters off balance in 2016. The fastball only touches 90 at present, but he commands it well to both sides of the plate, and there is some boring action against righties. The fastball plays up past the 87-90 radar readings due to some deception in the mechanics and arm action. The change is very advanced for his age, and a potential plus pitch with further refinement. It features good sinking action. Like the fastball, he can command it to both sides of the plate. He will spot it for a strike, even first pitch, and throws it left-on-left as well.
The Bad: The breaking ball is a soft downer curve in the low-70s that is just a chase pitch at present. I wonder if he doesn’t try a slider at some point (though betting on the Orioles improving an internal pitching prospect…) from that high-three-quarters slot. The fastball velocity is always likely to be fringy as there isn’t much projection left and there is already some effort in the delivery.
The Irrelevant: Alex’s identical twin brother, Lachlan, who pitches in the Twins organization, is listed as five inches shorter than him.
OFP 50— Command and pitchability no. 4 starter
The Risks: Wells only has a short-season resume, needs a significant grade jump on the breaking ball, and will be working off fringy fastball velocity. I think that about covers it. Oh yeah, and he’s a pitcher.
Major league ETA: 2020
Ben Carsley’s Fantasy Take: If you enjoyed Wade Miley’s 2016 work in Baltimore but want to wait three or four seasons to relive it, go all-in on Wells.
10. Chris Lee, LHP
The Good: Lee works off a 90-mph fastball that is deceptively fast and shows good arm-side life at times. He can take a little off and cut it to righties as well. He’ll cast his slider at times, but it’s a weapon against left-handed bats, and there is an average change in here with continued refinement, or at least enough to crossover in a bullpen role.
The Bad: There’s not a real swing-and-miss offering in the arsenal yet. Lee has to ramp up the effort to get the fastball to the top end of this range, and he has reliever mechanics to begin with. The delivery is herky-jerky even when he isn’t maxing out for the low 90s, and he throws across his body with a slight crossfire. The stuff and command is fringy enough that it’s unlikely he could go through a major-league lineup multiple times anyway.
The Irrelevant: Lee probably has some work to do to knock off the English actor from the top of the “Chris Lee” google search, and he even went by “Christopher.”
OFP 50— Crossover setup guy
The Risks: Lee wasn’t all that far away from a potential callup when a lat strain ended his season in May. But you never like to hear shoulder-related things with a pitcher, even if it is “just a lat strain.” Assuming nothing lingers or cascades, Lee could be a factor in the Orioles pen at some point in 2017. But as his 2016 reminded us, he’s a pitcher.
Major league ETA: Late 2017
Ben Carsley’s Fantasy Take: Friends don’t let friends draft reliever prospects.
Others of note:
Hunter Harvey, RHP
Also not the 90s-noise-rock band but this one does go to #11
Jesus Liranzo, RHP
Mammas, don’t let your babies grow up to be right-handed
Tanner Scott, LHP
D.J. Stewart, LF
Top 10 Talents 25 And Under (born 4/1/91 or later)
The Orioles’ list of top players 25-and-under has all the hallmarks of being the makings of a really good organization. There’s serious star power at the top in the form of young major-league talent. There’s a glut of prospects following that which includes some premium position players (catcher, shortstop, etc.) and plenty of intriguing arms.
The trouble is the presence of serious question marks in the major-league talent and general lack of quality in the group of prospects. The Orioles’ system is less a function of having a lot of high-quality prospects, and more the result of having little-to-no young talent on the major-league roster that profiles as anything more than a bench guy.
There is one massive caveat that I’d be remiss without noting, and that is Manny Machado. He’s a top-10 player in the American League, and arguably all of baseball. I’m not going to waste time talking about Machado, because at this point we all probably know how good he is.
After Machado there is Dylan Bundy and Jonathan Schoop. Bundy is/was remarkably talented, but his injury history is lengthy to put it mildly. The team likely overworked him in 2016—asking him to throw 110 innings despite not even reaching the 25-inning mark the previous season. For a player with an injury history like Bundy’s, that approach was surely bold. In terms of performance, Bundy flashed the promise that he once held as a prospect, although he wasn’t able to pitch that well consistently. The big question is whether he’ll be able to improve and stay healthy in his sophomore season.
Schoop is another interesting player in that slick-fielding second baseman who hit 25 home runs aren’t exactly the Pidgey of the baseball world. Schoop suffers a bit from the Adam Jones issue where the eye test says he’s a pretty great defender, but the stats don’t seem to agree. That and his inability to get on base stunt his value, making him just a 1-win player in 2016. There’s room for improvement, especially in approach, but Schoop has already proved to be a dynamic player that can hold down a major-league job for now.
Overall the young talent in the Orioles’ organization—beyond centerpiece Manny Machado—is filled with big question marks. Health has been a major question throughout the organization, so it’ll be important for the club’s future that this new batch of young pitchers stays relatively healthy. There’s not a lot of position player depth either, so O’s fans should be crossing their fingers that guys like Sisco and Mountcastle continue to develop.
All in all, the system and overall young talent leaves a lot to be desired. As a result, the O’s should be feeling the pressure to make a deep playoff run over the next year or two or else there might be some big changes leading up to Machado’s impending free agency after the 2018 season. —Jeff Long