Since minor league baseball resumed in 2021 after the pandemic, the Orioles’ High-A affiliate in Aberdeen has been the level where the organization’s pitching prospects start to distinguish themselves.
Without using high picks on pitchers in the draft, the philosophy has been to identify later-round arms with attractive traits and bring them along in a development system that is suited to get the best out of them. Once they arrive in Aberdeen, there’s usually a good sense of how that’s going.
This year’s Aberdeen pitching staff has been no different. Despite not having many highly-touted prospects, the group is full of interesting young arms who have a chance to grow into major league players — in time. Many weren’t on the prospect radar when the season began in April.
With so many to cover, this edition of Arms on the Farm provides some background on names to know — some of them have already moved up to Double-A Bowie — as the next wave of Orioles pitching prospects takes shape.
Trace Bright was the Orioles’ fifth-round pick last year, making him the highest draft pick on the Aberdeen staff. He has a hoppy fastball with good angle in the 92-95 mph range, and his curveball is at least a plus pitch and ranks as his best secondary. He’s brought his ERA down to 5.18 over the last month after a tough start, and his 57 strikeouts in 40 innings show the quality of his stuff overall.
“He’s got a really good fastball, curveball is kind of his main 1-2 punch,” pitching coach Austin Meine said. “He’s got a slider that’s also a very good quality pitch and we’ve been working to develop his change-up a bit more, too. That’s kind of the main things that we’re hitting on with Trace, and helping him understand who he is on the mound. … We see a guy with the quality of stuff that he has, just want to make sure that he’s not falling into any patterns and can attack hitters in a lot of different ways.”
Jean Pinto, who was acquired as part of the José Iglesias trade with the Los Angeles Angels in December 2021, was promoted to Bowie this week after spending all of 2022 and the beginning of 2023 at Aberdeen. Before his promotion, he made 12 starts for the Ironbirds with a 2.86 ERA, a 1.13 WHIP, and 71 strikeouts in 50 1/3 innings.
“He’s definitely been pushing the envelope in his development as far as chasing fastball velocity,” Meine said. “That’s been a big key for us, because he’s got phenomenal off-speed shapes. His slider and his change-up are really good, they induce a lot of swing and miss, and for him, having that fastball he can use in the zone, move it around the zone, he’ll set some really good lines to set up those off-speed pitches and learn how to pitch with his fastball.”
Like Pinto, Alex Pham is already in Bowie, though his path is a bit different. Pham — a 19th-round pick in 2021 — was a reliever in 2022 but transitioned to the rotation this year and has produced at an eye-popping level. He had a 2.45 ERA with a 1.05 WHIP and 76 strikeouts in 51 1/3 innings and has been carrying his low-to-mid-90s fastball velocity deep into games. He also features a cutter, sweeper, curveball and splitter.
Meine said: “We’ve seen some really good flashes of some good average and top-end velocity out of Pham, getting into the mid-90s is big for him. He’s got a fantastic pitch mix: He’s got five pitches. His cutter has been a great pitch for him that he’s relied on to induce a lot of swing-and-miss and strikeouts over the past month, so for Alex Pham, he’s a guy that has got five weapons and building out a game plan where the opposition can’t plan for one but they have to deal with all five makes him a really tough puzzle to solve for opposing lineups.”
Ryan Long represented Great Britain in the World Baseball Classic and brought some high-level experience to Aberdeen this spring in a piggyback role. The 2021 17th-round pick has 57 strikeouts, a 0.94 WHIP, and a 2.31 ERA in 46 2/3 innings. He locates his low-90s fastball well to both sides of the plate and attacks the strike zone with a diverse pitch mix.
“Mental sharpness on the mound is really impressive,” Meine said. “For Long, he’s put together a great stretch here in the first stretch of the season. He’s a guy who gets strike one out of the gate. He gets ahead of a lot of hitters, and he’s got a lot of weapons to beat guys with. But for Long, that starts with getting strike one. When he does that, he is a tough puzzle to crack.”
Two of the breakout arms on the Orioles farm in 2022 — minor league pitcher of the year Ryan Watson, and Noah Denoyer — were undrafted free agents. Cooper Chandler, undrafted out of Rice last year, might be the next such pitcher to know. He has a 3.10 ERA with 42 strikeouts in 40 2/3 innings to go with a 1.25 WHIP.
“He added a cutter this season, and his cutter has been a great pitch for him that’s in-between his heater and his sweeper, two pitches for him where he’s got some good velocity,” Meine said. “To complement a mid-90s fastball, he’s got a really good sweeper that he can get up into the mid-80s, and when his cutter is one, he gets that close to 90 mph too. He’s got three really, really good weapons that he can attack hitters with and Cooper is very dialed within his routine.”
Keagan Gillies, the Orioles’ 15th-round pick in 2021, joined Pham and Pinto with the Baysox this week after having the most dominant start to the season of any pitcher in the Orioles’ system. In 16 2/3 innings of relief, he struck out 27 with a 0.54 ERA and a 0.36 WHIP. The 6-foot-8 right-hander has a fastball in the mid-90s and one of the highest swinging strike rates in the organization.
Meine said: “When Gillies is healthy and he’s feeling good, man, it’s really impressive and for a guy like him who is on the mound, he’s 6-foot-8, just a big presence out there and he backs up his big physical presence with a lot of energy and passion on the mound. It’s easy to see. He walks out to ‘Fireman‘ by Lil Wayne here at home and the guys certainly love when Gillies comes in the game because they always know he’s going to get ahead of guys, he’s going to fill up the strike zone, and he’s going to attack guys with a fastball/slider/splitter mix that is really, really tough to beat.”