For years, the presence of Grayson Rodriguez and DL Hall atop the Orioles’ pitching prospect depth chart meant there was a huge gulf between them and the next level of players who eventually could help the major league team.
It didn’t help that, during that time, the Orioles acquired pitchers primarily in the back half of or after the draft, or in trades that subtracted from the major league team. Factor in a pandemic that kept many of these pitchers off a mound for a full season in their formative years, and it has taken time to sort out what the Orioles have in terms of pitchers on the farm.
This year, several pitchers have emerged to change that perception. Cade Povich earned some offseason top-100 buzz. Justin Armbruester and Chayce McDermott reached Triple-A, while Trace Bright struck out hitters at a superlative rate to distinguish himself from a talented group of pitchers at High-A Aberdeen.
Each has been analyzed in this Arms on the Farm series, using 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.
The series wraps for the 2023 season with Seth Johnson, whose return to the mound in August gave the Orioles another fascinating young pitcher to watch.
Where did he come from?
Johnson’s path to the Orioles and path to the mound are relatively unique — but not totally. He spent two years at Louisburg College in North Carolina before transferring to Campbell University, same as Cedric Mullins in his college career. Johnson was at Louisburg as a shortstop but took up pitching during his year at Campbell and showed enough talent and promise to be taken 40th overall by the Tampa Bay Rays in the 2019 draft. Many teams at the back end of the first round had him in the mix to be taken earlier, though.
He was in High-A in 2022, with the pandemic and a deliberate approach to building him up on the mound slowing Johnson’s climb through the minors. By midsummer, he had an elbow injury that required Tommy John reconstruction surgery. Johnson, however, was set to be eligible for the Rule 5 draft in the winter, meaning he needed to be added to Tampa Bay’s 40-man roster or would be eligible to be selected by other teams. Given the Rays’ deep and talented major league roster and farm system, they weren’t going to have room to add him and carry him for an entire year of rehab. So they made him available to the Orioles in a three-team trade with the Astros that also yielded right-hander Chayce McDermott and sent Trey Mancini to the Rays and Jose Siri from Houston to Tampa Bay.
What do the numbers say?
This year, not much — Johnson has pitched 10 1/3 innings over five rehab starts, striking out 14 with a 1.35 WHIP.
Digging through his pre-injury numbers, however, shows plenty of stats the Orioles would value. Johnson struck out 11.05 batters per nine innings with a 2.88 ERA, a 3.71 FIP and a 1.270 WHIP in 93 2/3 innings with Low-A Charleston in 2021. He had a 13.9% swinging strike rate that year, and that whiff rate spiked to 17.7% in his seven starts (27 innings) at High-A Bowling Green in 2022 before the injury. There, he struck out 13.67 batters per nine innings with a 3.00 ERA and a 1.259 WHIP while healthy.
What does he throw?
When Johnson’s elbow injury occurred, he recognized he was pitching really well and it might be a while before he’s back on the mound, so he wrote down everything he was thinking and feeling about pitching to revisit when he was back healthy.
Now that he is, he looks a lot like the player the Orioles were glad to wait on last summer. His fastball still boasts the hoppy movement profile they’re attracted to, and in his Sept. 6 start at Aberdeen sat 94-96 mph and was effective up in the zone. In the past, he’s been up to 98 mph; that’s probably still in the tank for Johnson, but this rehab period isn’t necessarily about that.
“I’ve got a little bit of carry on it, so I’m going to try to attack the top string of the zone and kind of live up there,” Johnson said. “I think that’s going to play pretty well at this level and every other level going forward.”
On this particular day, he wasn’t feeling like his slider — which at the time of the trade was at least a plus pitch and led his secondary arsenal — was working the way he wanted it to. He threw a handful and described the pitch at its best as a tighter bullet slider in the mid-80s. As this start went along, he showed good feel for a two-plane curveball in the 74-78 mph range that he was able to both locate in the strike zone and miss bats with below the zone. The slider may be the primary breaking ball going forward, but the curveball showed potential against lefties and righties in his last Aberdeen start.
Before the trade, Johnson’s changeup was his fourth pitch, though his best on Wednesday showed there’s at least average potential with the pitch. Otherwise, Johnson showed the athletic delivery and live arm that made the Orioles covet him last summer are still intact, even in a small sample.
What does the future hold?
When Johnson’s rehabilitation course was set in January, it wasn’t a given that he would get into game action by the end of the season. Now that he has, he used the last month-plus of the season to see how his reconstructed arm and his arsenal respond to facing live hitters, making notes for offseason improvements as he goes.
“I’m going to talk to the pitching coaches and coordinators about the direction they want my stuff to go with,” Johnson said. “Consistency is going to be the big thing I’m going to start to try to dial in in the offseason, with breaking ball shapes and accuracy and all that kind of stuff.”
There’s a chance he could get some more innings under his belt in the Arizona Fall League beginning next month, but he could also spend extended time with the Orioles’ pitching development staff at the fall instructional camp in Sarasota, Florida.
Whatever path they put him on, Johnson is setting up for a unique year. He’s already spent one year on the major league roster and used one of his three minor league options this year. He is set to begin 2024 at Bowie.
There’s a world — perhaps not a likely one but one that exists — where Johnson could have a handful of dominant starts there to begin the season and move up quickly to Triple-A Norfolk, as Kyle Bradish did in 2021.
Rodriguez logged 79 2/3 Double-A innings that year before starting the next year in Norfolk, and Kyle Brnovich threw 60 2/3 innings at Bowie that summer before his promotion the following year. Over the last two years, the Orioles have had well-regarded prospects spend more time than that in Bowie; Armbruester pitched 125 1/3 innings there, with 95 innings for McDermott and 104 2/3 for Povich.
That much time in Bowie would be good for Johnson’s development, given how relatively inexperienced he is, but his presence on the 40-man roster means the Orioles may not be as deliberate with him as they otherwise would be — and his talent might allow them to move him quickly if they so decide.
Johnson still has a starter’s arsenal all the way, and the idea that he could end up in a similar role to Hall or Mike Baumann in recent years moving to the bullpen to help the major league team in 2024 doesn’t diminish that. Johnson’s roster status might ultimately accelerate that process, but for now there’s no point in even speculating he might start.
He remains a talented starting pitching prospect in an increasingly growing stable of them in the Orioles’ high minors, and his return from Tommy John surgery this summer solidified that.