Through an entire rebuilding cycle for the Orioles, Grayson Rodriguez and DL Hall were the beginning and end of every conversation about their minor league starting pitching depth. Without high draft picks outside those two, and with a pandemic halting the development of an entire generation of pitchers, the gulf between those two and the next tiers of Orioles pitching prospects was wide.
That’s changed recently. The Orioles used more draft capital on pitchers in 2022 than any of the previous years, and did so again last month. Between that, some development success stories, such as Justin Armbruester, and shrewd trade acquisitions, such as Cade Povich and Chayce McDermott, the next wave of promising pitchers on the farm is taking shape.
Throughout the season, in this series — Arms on the Farm — I’ll use firsthand observation, data analysis and insights from the pitchers and their coaches, along with opinions from professional scouts who cover the Orioles, to provide as much information as possible about these prospects.
After a bit of a hiatus, the series returns with a look at Trace Bright, who is one of the minors’ most prolific strikeout artists as he’s making his full-season debut for the Orioles’ High-A affiliate in Aberdeen.
Where did he come from?
Because Nolan McLean didn’t sign as the No. 81 overall pick in the 2022 draft, Bright was the Orioles’ highest-drafted pitcher to enter the organization last year as their fifth-round pick out of Auburn.
The Orioles overlooked some uneven college stats — he had a 5.13 ERA with a 1.44 WHIP in 80 2/3 innings in the Tigers’ rotation as they made last year’s College World Series — for a pitcher who had raw stuff that was far more appealing than the surface numbers. The Orioles signed him for $400,000, slightly below slot value for the 137th overall pick.
An amateur evaluator with another club noted his TrackMan readings, which outline the spin and direction on his pitches, were “ridiculous,” and in doing so acknowledged that while he had issues with walks at Auburn the stuff was “real deal.”
What do the numbers say?
Well, that the stuff is real deal, to say the least. Pitching at Aberdeen for the entirety of his first full season so far, Bright started well but tailed off through the second half of April and May as he and the organization worked to integrate more than just his fastball and curveball into his arsenal. They sacrificed results to do that, as Bright entered May with a 6.91 ERA and 1.54 WHIP, albeit with 13.8 strikeouts per nine innings.
Once June hit, Bright seemed to turn a corner. He has allowed two or fewer earned runs in nine of 12 outings since the start of June, with six outings in which he struck out at least eight. In the 52 1/3-inning span, he’s had a 3.27 ERA with a 1.19 WHIP, significantly limiting opponent’s slugging percentage against him and keeping the ball in the park.
However his season is sliced, though, the strikeouts are the main attraction. His 124 strikeouts rank third in the organization behind 2022 trade deadline acquisitions Povich and McDermott, and Bright’s 14.01 strikeouts per nine rank fourth among the 441 pitchers in all the minors with at least 70 innings pitched. He’s struck out 35.7% of the batters he’s faced, with a 15.6% swinging strike rate.
To put that into context within the Orioles’ system in recent years, the only peers in terms of strikeout ability Bright has atop organizational leaderboards are Rodriguez and Hall, who have been the top pitching prospects since they were drafted in 2017 and 2018, respectively.
What does he throw?
Pre-draft reports had Bright reaching the upper 90s with his fastball toward the end of his time at Auburn, though his fastball has lived in the 92-95 mph range over his full-season debut at Aberdeen. As with so many Orioles pitching prospects, Bright boasts a hoppy fastball that gives the appearance to hitters that the ball is rising, and gets consistent plane on the pitch up in the zone, making it hard for batters to square up.
His curveball is a high-spin pitch with two-plane break that Bright throws in the mid- to high 70s. Although the curve traditionally been his best secondary pitch, his slider has progressed this season as well. In his most recent start Tuesday, the pitch was up from its traditionally low to mid-80s velocity range to 86-88 mph. It looked more like a cutter than a slider, though it certainly still had plenty of horizontal break even at those high velocity bands and induced plenty of weak contact. Given the organization’s voracious appetite for adding cutters at Aberdeen, it might have happened by accident on this occasion, with the potential for the slower sweeper in the low 80s to remain in his arsenal with the harder cutter between that and his fastball.
When teams load up lefties against him, however, the curveball and slider are weapons, as is his mid-80s changeup, a pitch that has improved as the season has gone along. It’s inconsistent, with some exhibiting extreme horizontal movement, but the makings of an effective pitch are there.
What does the future hold?
Bright pitched into the sixth inning for the first time in his career Tuesday, as sure a sign as any that the Orioles are developing him as a starter. Their pitching development plan can best be described as long term, though, and Bright so far is on a pretty familiar path. He’s spending a lot of time in Aberdeen adding weapons to his arsenal and working in a tandem starter setup to allow for ample game reps and development reps between outings, and he could end the year at Double-A Bowie before starting there next year.
There’s reliever risk in pretty much every starter, ever, so letting that hang over Bright’s future seems beside the point. His mix is that of a starter, his ability to hold his fastball velocity deeper into games resembles a starter, and his weapons to righties and lefties can play in the rotation.
It’s often the case that it takes succeeding in Aberdeen for Orioles pitching prospects to distinguish themselves. Bright has done that perhaps more than any of his peers this year, even if others moved up to Bowie first. Bright could be in Triple-A Norfolk and firmly on the prospect radar by this time next year, though the numbers in the last few months and the stuff that’s helped him get there suggest that should probably be happening now.