Baltimore Orioles: Top 10 Prospects With Scouting Reports

Baltimore Orioles: Scouting Reports

Baseball America's Top 10 Prospects lists are based on projections of a player's long-term worth after discussions with scouting and player-development personnel. All players who haven't exceeded the major league rookie standards of 130 at-bats or 50 innings pitched (without regard to service time) are eligible. Ages are as of April 1, 2009.

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Baltimore Orioles

The 2000s were a decade to forget for the Orioles. But they finally can see enough legitimate big leaguers in place or on the horizon to believe there's hope for the future.

Since Baltimore won the American League East and went to the AL Championship Series in 1997, the team not only hasn't returned to the playoffs but also hasn't finished above .500—and it hasn't even been particularly close. If not for the complete ineptitude of the Royals and Pirates, more people might have noticed that the Orioles just completed their 12th straight losing season. They finished fourth in the AL East nine times in 10 years before bottoming out in last place over the last two seasons.

The Orioles were able to keep their heads above water before the all-star break in 2009, but the second half was a disaster. They endured a 13-game losing streak in September, the third-longest in franchise history, on the way to a 64-98 record, the third-worst in baseball. Their offense and defense were middle of the road, but their pitchers put up the worst numbers in baseball, with a 5.16 ERA and 876 runs allowed.

And yet it's on that young and often overmatched pitching staff that the seeds of a turnaround have been planted. Chris Tillman and Brian Matusz, Baltimore's top two pitching prospects coming into 2009, made their major league debuts, taking their lumps but also showing flashes of their talent. Matusz now ranks as the system's top prospect, while Tillman no longer qualifies.

Several other pitching prospects graduated to the majors, including Brad Bergesen, Jason Berken, David Hernandez and Kam Mickolio. Others such as Jake Arrieta, Zach Britton and Troy Patton are expected to reach Baltimore soon. Not all of those pitchers will pan out—Berken's numbers in particular were ugly last year at 6-12, 6.54—but the volume of arms with legitimate promise finally gives the Orioles margin for error.

While the rookie position players couldn't match the pitchers in volume, their results were even more encouraging. Organization cornerstone Matt Wieters didn't put up overwhelming numbers in his big league debut, batting .288/.340/.412, but he showed enough that he's still expected to be one of baseball's best catchers in the near future. A more pleasant surprise was the performance of Nolan Reimold, whose 15 homers led AL rookies. With him, Adam Jones and Nick Markakis, the Orioles look set in the outfield.

Baltimore also found a building block for its infield at the trade deadline when it sent closer George Sherrill to the Dodgers for third baseman Josh Bell (as well as righthander Steve Johnson, who was lost in the major league Rule 5 draft). Bell, whose prospect star had dimmed in the previous two seasons, got in better shape this year and really impressed scouts in the Arizona Fall League. He easily ranks as the best upper-level hitting prospect in the system.

Beyond Bell the ranks of position players are a bit thin, however, as the Orioles have emphasized pitching as the way they're going to become a contender again. They did shell out their second- and third-largest bonuses to sign shortstop Mychal Givens and catcher Michael Ohlman in last year's draft, but used the fifth overall pick on high school righthander Matt Hobgood and spent big money on several pitchers in later rounds.

1.  Brian Matusz, lhp   Born: Feb. 11, 1987B-T: L-LHt: 6-5Wt: 200
 Drafted: San Diego, 2008 (1st round)Signed by: Mark Ralston
Brian MatuszBackground: The Orioles felt like they got a bargain when they took Matusz with the fourth overall pick in the 2008 draft and signed him to a major league contract worth $3,472,500. He did nothing but reinforce that opinion in his pro debut, going from the University of San Diego to pitching in Yankee Stadium in a year. After signing too late to pitch in 2008, Matusz opened at high Class A Frederick and dominated in 11 starts, then pitched even better at Double-A Bowie to earn an eight-start trial in Baltimore to wrap up the season. His 1.91 ERA between his two minor league stops ranked fourth overall in the minors. He ranked as the top pitching prospect in the Carolina League, and would have done the same in the Eastern League if he had enough innings to qualify for Baseball America's rankings. Matusz was the fourth-highest pick out of the 2005 draft not to sign, turning down the Angels in the fourth round out of an Arizona high school to spend three years at San Diego, where he set the school's career strikeout record (396) and led NCAA Division I in whiffs (146) during an All-America junior season in 2008. He went 12-2, 1.71 that spring. He was the highest-drafted player in Toreros history and the first pitcher drafted that year.

Strengths: Matusz has three (and potentially four) above-average pitches and advanced command of his entire repertoire, yet most people say that his best trait might be his makeup. Team officials describe him as a winner and admire the way he made adjustments in his first pro season. He's both intelligent and determined, with a great feel for pitching and a strong will that allows him to deal with adversity and never give in to hitters. When an Orioles official told him that his changeup wasn't as good as it needed to be early in the year at Frederick, he went out and threw it more than 20 times in his next start, commanding it and using it in a variety of counts and situations. He sits in the low 90s with his fastball, touching 95 mph, and complements it with both a curveball and a slider. The slider rates as the more effective pitch at this point. His changeup is the best in the system and could be well above-average in the future as he masters his command of it. He has a clean delivery and repeats it well.

Weaknesses: While his command is advanced for his level of pro experience, sharpening it will be Matusz's final task. He has great control and usually is able to keep the ball low and work both sides of the plate at will, so he just needs more experience against big league hitters to develop the pinpoint command he'll require to get them out consistently.

The Future: A No. 1 starter isn't always the guy who has the best pure stuff. And while Matusz's pure stuff is plenty good, it's what's between his ears that could make him the Orioles' ace within the next couple of years. Having gotten his feet wet in Baltimore last season, he'll be expected to win a spot in the major league rotation in spring training as the Orioles fill in homegrown studs behind newly acquired veteran Kevin Millwood.
2009 Club (Class) W L ERA G GS CG SV IP H HR BB SO AVG
Frederick (Hi A) 4 2 2.16 11 11 0 0 67 56 5 21 75 .225
Bowie (AA) 7 0 1.55 8 8 1 0 46 31 2 11 46 .189
Baltimore 5 2 4.63 8 8 0 0 45 52 6 14 38 .292
2.  Josh Bell, 3b   Born: Nov. 13, 1986B-T: B-RHt: 6-3Wt: 235
 Drafted: HS—Santaluces, Fla., 2005 (4th round)Signed by: Manny Estrada (Dodgers).
Josh BellBackground: Bell's prospect status had dimmed a bit with the Dodgers, but he got himself into better shape and had a bounceback season, becoming the key player in the deadline trade that sent reliever George Sherrill to Los Angeles. He showed no ill effects from a knee injury that had bothered him in 2008, and ranked as the No. 5 prospect in the Arizona Fall League after the season.

Strengths: In a system lacking in impact bats, Bell fills a huge need. He has above-average power and a good approach, showing the ability to work counts to get on base. While he's a below-average runner, Bell has worked hard to become an average defender at third base, with smooth actions, improved footwork and an above-average arm.

Weaknesses: Bell is a switch-hitter, but his lefthanded swing is much smoother and he has severe splits, batting .193 with one home run in 135 at-bats against lefthanders last year, and .339 with 19 homers in 313 at-bats against righthanders. He has shown enough promise that the Orioles will allow him to continue switch-hitting for now.

The Future: The Orioles think they have found their third baseman of the future, and with Melvin Mora not returning the future could come soon. Ty Wigginton will keep the position warm while Bell gets at-bats in Triple-A, but Bell should take over at some point in 2010.
2009 Club (Class) AVG OBP SLG AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SB
Chattanooga (AA) .296 .386 .497 334 47 99 30 2 11 52 50 70 3
Bowie (AA) .289 .346 .570 114 18 33 5 0 9 24 11 28 0
3.  Zach Britton, lhp   Born: Dec. 22, 1987B-T: L-LHt: 6-2Wt: 180
 Drafted: HS—Weatherford, Texas, 2006 (3rd round).Signed by: Jim Richardson
Zach BrittonBackground: When talking about elite pitching prospects in the Orioles organization, it's time to add Britton's name to the discussion. He was the pitcher of the year in the Carolina League last season, and his 2.70 ERA ranked second in the league. The Orioles shut him down a bit early with shoulder fatigue when he hit 140 innings, but he'll be at full speed for spring training.

Strengths: Britton seems like the typical sinker/slider pitcher, except that his fastball touches 94 mph. His velocity improved last season, and he usually works in the 88-92 range with his sinker, adding a four-seam fastball to go with it. His slider has become an effective weapon against lefthanded hitters, and his already-solid changeup improved as well, in part thanks to tips he got from Brian Matusz.

Weaknesses: Britton's command has improved and he does a good job of keeping the ball down in the zone, but he still needs to throw more strikes with his fastball and get himself ahead of hitters. His 55 walks led the Frederick staff, and his 21 wild pitches led the Carolina League.

The Future: Britton is another Orioles pitcher who earns high marks for his makeup, and he could get a lot more attention in 2010 if he moves up to the Bowie rotation and pitches well.
2009 Club (Class) W L ERA G GS CG SV IP H HR BB SO AVG
Frederick (Hi A) 9 6 2.70 25 24 0 0 140 123 6 55 131 .232
4.  Jake Arrieta, rhp   Born: March 6, 1986B-T: R-RHt: 6-4Wt: 225
 Drafted: Texas Christian, 2007 (5th round).Signed by: Jim Richardson
Jake ArrietaBackground: After leading the Carolina League in ERA and pitching in the Olympics for Team USA in 2008, Arrieta pitched his way to Triple-A in 2009 and led the organization (both major and minor leaguers) with 148 strikeouts. The Orioles signed him for a $1.1 million bonus in 2007.

Strengths: Arrieta is a bulldog who is willing to challenge hitters in the strike zone. His fastball sits in the 92-94 mph range, and has the action to generate swings and misses. His slider has become a solid second pitch and is plus at times, while his changeup is solid but needs the most improvement. He also occasionally throws a curve to lefthanded hitters.

Weaknesses: While Arrieta can throw strikes with all his pitches, he needs to do it more consistently and better command his pitches in the strike zone. His 56 walks last season were the most in the farm system. The Orioles worked to shorten his stride last season to give his pitches a better finish and keep them down.

The Future: Arrieta's pure stuff compares with any of the Orioles' elite young pitchers, but his command puts him a notch behind them. While some scouts think that could eventually send Arrieta to the bullpen, the Orioles see him as a middle-of-the-rotation pitcher who can pile up 200 innings a year with no problems.
2009 Club (Class) W L ERA G GS CG SV IP H HR BB SO AVG
Bowie (AA) 6 3 2.59 11 11 2 0 59 45 4 23 70 .208
Norfolk (AAA) 5 8 3.93 17 17 0 0 92 97 9 33 78 .276
5.  Matt Hobgood, rhp   Born: Aug. 3, 1990B-T: R-RHt: 6-4Wt: 245
 Drafted: HS—Norco, Calif., 2009 (1st round)Signed by: Mark Ralston
Matt HobgoodBackground: The Orioles surprised some people when they made Hobgood the first high school pitcher drafted last June (fifth overall), and while he signed for a slot bonus of $2.422 million, the Orioles said he was simply the player they liked the best. Hobgood first gained attention in Southern California when he outdueled Gerrit Cole (who went on to be a first-round pick) in a 2008 high school playoff game. He debuted in the Rookie-level Appalachian League and finished as the league's No. 4 prospect.

Strengths: Hobgood is a big, burly power pitcher who has drawn physical comparisons to such players as Goose Gossage and Curt Schilling. He was a two-way player in high school with plus power, but with a 90-95 mph fastball, and a curveball and changeup that could also be plus pitches, his future clearly was on the mound.

Weaknesses: Hobgood has clean, repeatable mechanics and should be durable, but he'll need work on his command. He needs to refine his breaking pitches and changeup. His body is mature, so there's not a lot of projection left. He topped out at 91 mph in instructional league, but the Orioles say he was just tired.

The Future: It may take Hobgood some time to refine his arsenal, but all the raw material is there. He'll get a chance to win a spot in the Delmarva rotation in spring training, though he could stay in extended spring.
2009 Club (Class) W L ERA G GS CG SV IP H HR BB SO AVG
Bluefield (R) 1 2 4.72 8 8 0 0 27 32 0 8 16 .305
6.  Brandon Snyder, 1b   Born: Nov. 23, 1986B-T: R-RHt: 6-2Wt: 210
 Drafted: HS—Centreville, Va., 2005 (1st round).Signed by: Ty Brown
Brandon SnyderBackground: Snyder looked like he might wash out after shoulder problems limited his at-bats and forced him to move from behind the plate, but he has proven over the last two seasons that he can be a major league hitter. His .343 average would have led the Eastern League had he stayed around long enough to qualify, and he further boosted his stock by batting .354 in the Arizona Fall League.

Strengths: Once Snyder got his swing and approach dialed in during the 2008 season, he has been consistently productive with the bat. He's hitting more with his hands now, staying inside the ball and working it up the middle, as well as driving the ball the opposite way more. His defense at first base has improved significantly, and he shows good hands and good footwork around the bag.

Weaknesses: Snyder doesn't have the prototypical power for a first baseman, and he projects to hit 15-25 home runs a season now, though some think he could add more power down the line. He's a fringe-average runner and has an average arm.

The Future: Snyder struggled enough at Triple-A to show that he needs more experience against quality pitching. He'll open the season back at Norfolk and prepare himself for a major league opportunity, and he now looks like he'll profile as a righthanded-hitting Sean Casey.
2009 Club (Class) AVG OBP SLG AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SB
Bowie (AA) .343 .421 .597 201 24 69 19 1 10 45 27 45 0
Norfolk (AAA) .248 .316 .355 262 36 65 18 2 2 43 24 64 3
7.  Brandon Erbe, rhp   Born: Dec. 25, 1987B-T: R-RHt: 6-4Wt: 180
 Drafted: HS—Baltimore, 2005 (3rd round)Signed by: Ty Brown
Brandon ErbeBackground: The Orioles have taken a patient approach with Erbe because they've had to. After a strong 2008 when he led the Carolina League with 151 strikeouts to get his career back on track, Erbe missed nearly two months last year with shoulder tendinitis. He returned to action in June and made three starts in the Arizona Fall League as well, and the Orioles added him to the 40-man roster in November.

Strengths: The Orioles were encouraged by what they saw of Erbe when he returned to action, as he worked at 91-92 mph and touched 94 with good, hard late life down in the zone. His slider should be an above-average pitch, and he made great strides with his changeup as well.

Weaknesses: Fastball command and durability remain the key tipping points that will determine how good Erbe can be. The Orioles smoothed out his mechanics a couple of years ago and will continue to give him every opportunity to remain a starter.

The Future: Erbe will compete for a spot in the Norfolk rotation in spring training and will keep starting as long as he performs and stays healthy. Because of his track record and the large group competing for spots in the future Orioles rotation, it seems likely that he'll end up in the bullpen long-term.
2009 Club (Class) W L ERA G GS CG SV IP H HR BB SO AVG
Aberdeen (SS) 0 1 4.61 4 4 0 0 14 13 3 2 11 .245
Bowie (AA) 5 3 2.34 14 14 2 0 73 44 5 35 62 .170
8.  Kam Mickolio, rhp   Born: May 10, 1984B-T: R-RHt: 6-9Wt: 255
 Drafted: Utah Valley State, 2006 (18th round)Signed by: Phil Geisler (Mariners)
Kam MickolioBackground: Though he'll play most of the 2010 season at 26, Mickolio is young in terms of his experience and his arm. He didn't play baseball until American Legion ball in 2001, before his senior year of high school in Montana, then he attended college in Utah for four years before the Mariners drafted him in 2006. He came to the Orioles in the Erik Bedard deal in February 2008 and has pitched in the majors in each of the last two seasons.

Strengths: Mickolio has a pure power arsenal and is an intimidating presence on the mound, driving fastballs down on a steep downhill plane. His fastball sits around 95 mph and peaks at 97-98, and he was much more consistent with his slider last season. He even had enough confidence in his changeup to throw it in the big leagues on occasion.

Weaknesses: The Orioles try to walk the line between tweaking his funky delivery, in which he throws across his body, and letting him do what works for him. He was shut down the last two Septembers with a tired arm. He needs to sharpen his command and must do a better job of understanding hitters and how to attack them.

The Future: Mickolio has the stuff to pitch in the back of a bullpen, and if he develops a better feel he could be a closer. He should win a spot in the big league bullpen this spring.
2009 Club (Class) W L ERA G GS CG SV IP H HR BB SO AVG
Norfolk (AAA) 3 3 3.50 35 0 0 0 44 32 4 16 52 .203
Baltimore 0 2 2.63 11 0 0 0 14 11 0 7 14 .220
9.  Mychal Givens, ss   Born: May 13, 1990B-T: R-RHt: 6-1Wt: 190
 Drafted: HS—Tampa, 2009 (2nd round)Signed by: John Martin
Mychal GivensBackground: Givens jumped into the national amateur spotlight early and played in both the Aflac and Under Armour all-America games before his senior year of high school, and he was regarded as one of the best two-way prospects in the 2009 draft class. Eventually most scouts thought he would end up as a reliever on the mound and saw him more as a shortstop—as did the Orioles, who signed him for $800,000 as the 54th overall pick.

Strengths: Givens signed too late to make his professional debut last summer, but in instructional league he showed the athleticism the Orioles were looking for, with agility, balance, speed and strength. He has good bat speed and should be able to hit for power as he matures. He shows good actions at shortstop and has a plus arm, touching 97 mph when he was a pitcher.

Weaknesses: The Orioles expect Givens will need a good number of minor league at-bats and will need to tweak his swing to take advantage of his strength. He'll need repetitions at shortstop as well.

The Future: While Givens has played a lot of baseball, he'll need refinement as a shortstop and hitter after spending a good bit of his high school career as a pitcher. He'll open his first season at a short-season stop after a stint in extended spring training.
2009 Club (Class) AVG OBP SLG AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SB
Did Not Play—Signed Late
10.  Caleb Joseph, c   Born: June 18, 1986B-T: R-RHt: 6-3Wt: 180
 Signed: Lipscomb, 2008 (7th round)Signed by: Rich Morales
Caleb JosephBackground: When Joseph had a strong debut at Aberdeen in 2008, the Orioles jumped him a level and he spent all season at Frederick, finishing up as the catcher on the Carolina League's postseason all-star team. He wore down as the season went on and hit .156 in August, but still finished eighth in the league in batting.

Strengths: The more you see Joseph, the more you like him, and that seems to go for everyone from scouts to managers to pitchers, who love working with him. His tools grade out as average across the board, but his performance is consistently above-average. He understands his swing and knows how to hit, consistently centering the ball and hitting it where it's pitched. He's a good athlete and blocks and receives well. He has an average arm.

Weaknesses: Joseph's swing can get long and funky, and he'll have to hit with more power to stay out of the lower part of a batting order. He has to work on his footwork, and his release time is a bit slow. He'll need to get stronger to handle catching every day.

The Future: Joseph has all the skills to be an everyday, workingman catcher. Unfortunately for him, the Orioles have Matt Wieters, who has all the skills to be a star catcher. A decision about his long-term future is still a couple of years away, though, so for now Joseph will move up to Double-A.
2009 Club (Class) AVG OBP SLG AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SB
Frederick (Hi A) .284 .337 .450 380 50 108 23 2 12 60 26 64 2

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Photo Credits:
Rodger Wood (Matusz)
Brian Fleming (Hobgood)