The minor league season is coming to a close with a few of the teams in the thick of playoff races. 2012 has been an exhilarating ride for all of baseball, with the surging new set of star prospects, a few new faces in the MLB playoff hunt, and a new Baseball CBA. It’s been a good year in the Orioles minor league system with a few of those star prospects making a name for themselves on a national scale. But what about those players that may not have the allure of a Manny Machado or Dylan Bundy?
Below are a few prospects that I think have flown under the radar in the Orioles’ minor league system. Some of them have been through a few road bumps, while some have simply been forgotten. At the end of the day, these players have displayed skills in some aspect of the game that make them useful assets down the road. I’m not saying they are top prospects, or they are definitely going to produce, but that there are tools some teams in the future may deem useful.
I’ve been a strong Ward supporter since first seeing him play in 2010 at Frederick. He was signed by the Orioles as a non-drafted free agent in 2009 out of Lewis-Clark (Idaho) State College. Yes, Ward is 26 years old and at AA Bowie. Yes, he has struggled at the plate. Yes, he missed 50 games earlier this season. However, I do not want to linger on the negatives with Ward. There is one underlying detail with his game that far exceeds anything else. His defensive ability is top tier and the backbone of his game.
Ward continuously proves how talented of a catcher he is every time I see him play. His arm behind the plate is absolutely plus. I’ve seen him gun down runners countless amounts of time. I have him unofficially clocked at a pop time of 1.82, which is very good. That was based off two in-game throws I timed earlier in the year. Don mentioned that the best pop time from Ward was 1.71 and most hover around 1.79 to 1.82. So it sure seems like I timed him on a bad day.
Rarely does he sail a throw and is quite excellent at the the one-hop throw to second base. The footwork behind the plate is tremendous, and he rarely is found in a wrong position on a ball bounced in the dirt. With good footwork usually comes good blocking skills. The thing that might impress me the most about Ward is the connection with the pitching staff. I’ve noticed a trend that most the pitchers generally seem to be in-sync with Ward at all times, and he really handles the game well. He is an intangible rock-star behind the plate.
The bat was probably hurt the most with the missed time this year. He’s really been turning it on lately though. Ward has always been one known with a keen eye at the plate. Just look at the BB/K ratio he has over the past years. 2009 (20/16), 2010 (39/58), 2011 (42/54), and 2012 (22/21). It’s simply a tough skill to teach a player, and Ward has proven time after time to have a good approach at the plate with selective discipline. His bat may not have the most pop or the flashiest of skills, but he can provide enough offense to be a serviceable backup for a MLB club.
Overall, I think Ward is often the forgotten man in the system, and it’s largely because defense is not publicized in the minors like hitting. People remember the guy hitting .320 with 20 HR, but often forget the man behind the plate whom is carrying a pitching staff. Ward could easily be a fine defensive catcher down the road for a club, if given the chance.
Buck is another older player at Bowie that a lot of people do not buzz about. He is mostly known as the older brother of Zach Britton. However, he should not be cast aside so quickly. Buck was a 35th round selection in the 2008 draft. Add that along with his relatively older age and most people are not going to think much about the player. But there are a few things to like about the game he brings to the table.
Britton, first and foremost, is a versatile player whom I would rate above-average defensively at multiple positions. He can player second, third, first and the corner outfield with ease. He’s primarily played the outfield this year with Jonathan Schoop taking time at second. Britton has good enough footwork at second, and has very good hands. He has a smooth feel that I like to call “the golden touch”. You just feel comfortable when a ball is hit his way. The range is good enough
where I think he could easily work as a utility guy at the next level. I’m not sure how he would handle the SS position (I haven’t seen him play there before). In the outfield he makes solid routes and his agility makes up for the lack of true speed he has. Again, I see no reason why he could not play any of these positions at the major league level.
The bat is obviously the question when it comes to Buck. As with Ward, people will scoff at a 26 year old player at the AA level. However, the Eastern League is not all that different from the International league in terms of talent. The Eastern league is known for pitcher parks and a lot of teams hoard their pitching prospects at this level. Bowie is the quintessential pitchers park with the spacious outfield and a swirling wind within the stadium at times. Buck doesn’t seem to have a problem hitting there though.
Buck has a very solid approach at the plate. He does not expand the zone too often and his minor league experience has clearly paid off. He can work a walk (9.3 BB% this year) but does have a few holes in his swing (14.4 K% this year). He has a contact oriented approach with a fairly small load and compact swing. He is a spray hitter who uses the entire field to his cause and can surprise sometimes with the pop that comes off the bat. His bat would work well as a utility player as mentioned above, and he is a guy that I think gets a crack at the big league level at one point down the road.
It feels like Welty has been around forever, yet he was only drafted in 2008 (20th round) by the Orioles. He has seen some ups and downs throughout his journey in the minor leagues. He was never a highly touted prospect, but at a time when the system was barren he absolutely stood out. Over the past year or so it seems he has been the forgotten man at Bowie. Welty has always put together solid numbers throughout the minors. He is a career .283 hitter in the minors with an OBP above .350. However, the strikeouts are a huge problem for him. He has a K% over 25% every year except 2012. He only has a little over 120 plate appearances at Bowie this season due to injuries.
I’ve seen Welty a a lot over the past two years at Frederick and Bowie. There is no doubt that he is still a free swinger and will expand the zone. His bat speed is above-average and he is certainly a good athlete. Welty has always been weak against the change up, and it’s pretty much the same case this year although he has definitely gotten a little better at staying back on it. When he is on his game, he is driving the ball gap to gap.
In the field Welty is just average. Welty is an athlete and can make up for poor reads and judgment with that athleticism. He does not make the best reads but it is not the end of the world for him. There are players in the majors right now with worse fielding skills than he has. His arm is above-average and it probably is suitable enough for the outfield.
Welty is another player with some nice skills but might have to wait out his time for the big league club. He may not ever break with the Orioles, but some team will give him a chance down the road. A big key for his game would be to limit the strikeouts. He does not have the pure power to have that as a passable deficiency.
Pena is the little engine that could. The 38th round selection from the 2011 draft has not been talked about much. He started out the year in Aberdeen at age 23. Obviously that was a little old for the league, but he quickly forced his way to a promotion. At Delmarva and Frederick, he has provided us with a better idea of how his skills translate against better talent.
While Pena may not be the brightest star in the Frederick clubhouse, he certainly has a few tools that I like. He has a fairly short swing which is very compacted. It’s a perfect mold for him since he severely lacks power. He’s your typical dink and dunk kind of player. While watching him at Aberdeen, he was mostly hitting line drives and ground balls through the infield. That’s not a knock on Pena, but it does probably limit some of the upside he has down the road. He is a switch hitter, which is always a plus to me. When a player can show versatility in any form, it notches them up one or two in my book. Pena does expand the zone at times, and it’s the second downfall to his bat besides the minimal power. When he is at his best, he is poking the ball to all parts of the field. As a second basemen, I think his bat is sustainable. It’s probably an uphill battle for him, but plenty of players have done it before.
Defensively, Pena is probably average at second. He has decent footwork and an athletic mold, but not top tier. I would probably rate him closer to average in all aspects, including his arm. realistically, his upside all relies on how he handles better pitching at the higher levels. So far so good, but A is a large difference between AA.
The thing I like about Pena is that he has come from a late round pick to a guy forcing himself to get recognition. It’s a tough road for Pena, but playing well at each level will get noticed. He is younger and further down the line than the three players mentioned above. Next year will give a much better idea of Pena’s ability. Until then, he has shown up on my radar and is a guy I’ll keep an eye on for 2013.