Will he be a major-league pitcher?
Atkins was originally drafted and signed by the Cubs, and had some impressive-looking seasons in A-ball — 13-4, 2.41 ERA at age 20 for Peoria; 8-7, 3.13 ERA at age 21 for Daytona. He got some more attention with a 17-7 won-loss record at age 22 between AA and AAA, but his ERA and underlying stats weren’t that good, and his age 23 season at Iowa was terrible — 8-12 with a 6.58 ERA. After becoming a swingman at age 24, he left the Cubs and signed with the Orioles for 2011. His time in Norfolk was pretty bad — 3-7, 5.44 ERA in seventeen starts.
Atkins has had three cups of coffee in the major leagues — 2 innings in 2009 and 10 innings in 2010 with the Cubs and 10 2/3 innings with the Orioles in 2011. He’ll only be 26 in 2012, and there’s still a chance that he’ll develop or improve something and have a major-league career. But he’s like most of the rest of the 2011 Tides pitching staff — an adequate AAA rotation filler who’ll have occasional brief stints in the major leagues.
Atkins signed with the Nationals as a minor-league free agent for 2012.
Who is he?
Another hometown minor-league veteran, a left-handed starting pitcher out of Ocean Lakes High School in Virginia Beach and the University of Virginia. Ballard was drafted by the Rangers organization, and never actually pitched well; his best season was a 7-6, 3.71 ERA as a 25-year-old in AA. He continued that pattern in the first half of 2011 with Norfolk, putting up a 4.91 ERA in 10 games (officially 9 starts, but really 10 because his one relief appearance came after a rehabbing major leaguer pitched 3 innings.) He then was assigned to Bowie as part of a roster squeeze, where he did pitch quite well (8-3, 3.33 ERA; with a 13-112 BB/K ratio.
His time at Bowie got him another minor-league contract, as he signed with the Nationals in the off-season. There’s no reason to believe that he’ll be a major-leaguer, unless he becomes effective as a left-handed spot relief pitcher. In his current role, he’ll probably hang around AAA for a few years, generally going 6-8 with an ERA of 4.85.
In its annualProspect Handbook,Baseball Americaprovides profiles on the top 30 prospects for each organization. In addition, they provide a “depth chart” showing all of the prospects at each position, generally 2-5 at each position; 10-12 left-handed pitchers, and 20-25 right-handed pitchers. Not only has Ballard never made the top 30 prospects for his organization, he’s never made the depth chart. That’s a pretty good indication that he’s not a good prospect.
Is he a major-league player?
Because Bell had such a horrible 2-53 BB/K ratio in his extended 2010 big-league service (53 games, 161 plate appearances), he’s going to have to be really impressive before he gets another full shot. With the Orioles in 2011, he doubled his walks and halved his strikeouts, but his BB/K ratio was a still-poor 4/25.
Even after 2010, I still thought Bell could be a good player, but I’m less optimistic after 2011. On the positive side, Bell hit 19 home runs in AAA, playing his home games in offense-killing Harbor Park. But that power increase came at the expense of his batting average, which dropped from .278 to .253, and especially his non-home run extra-base hits, so his slugging percentage dropped from .481 to .438. His BB/K ratio in AAA was 40/118, which is just barely acceptable. As a defensive player, Bell still has great “tools” but lacks baseball skills and judgment; he still doesn’t know when to throw and when to hold onto the ball.
In the 1980′s, Seattle came up with a very athletic third base prospect named Darnell Coles, whose career got off to a slow start because of inconsistency and poor strike-zone judgment. Coles bounced around, had one good season with Detroit as a full-time player and lasted a few years as a part-time, platoon corner outfielder. Josh Bell reminds me of Darnell Coles. I expect Bell to have a good season or two, but not be a player you can rely on.
In one 2011 game, Josh Bell committed four throwing errors. In the box score summary, the following line appeared:
E: Bell 4 (throw, throw, throw, throw)
I think that could lead to a Weird Al Yankovic-style parody of a Ke$ha hit — (Josh Bell’s About to) Throw.
Is he a starter? Is he a reliever? What’s his future?
Like Jason Berken, with whom he shares the first three letters of his last name, he shot to the major leagues in 2009 because the Orioles’ starting rotation was crumbling and because he had pitched well in his first starts at Norfolk (in his case, two.) Bergesen had an impressive-looking 2009 before getting hurt (7-5, 3.43 ERA in 19 starts) but his underlying statistics weren’t that good. He struggled as a starter in 2010 (4.98 ERA in 28 starts) and was bad as a swingman in 2011 (5.70 ERA). He went to Norfolk for three starts, one a four-hit shutout.
Bergesen is very similar to Jason Berken, actually, in that there’s no real reason to believe that he can be an effective starting pitcher other than his 2009 season. On the other hand, Bergesen’s strikeout rates even in the minor leagues are too low to signify future success — his best full-season rate was 6.5 K / 9 IP. I think Bergesen is, like Berken, near the bottom of candidates for the Orioles starting rotation, and probably the Atlantic League is in his future.
Is he a starter? Is he a reliever? What’s his future?
Jason Berken shot to the major leagues in 2009 because the Orioles’ starting rotation was crumbling and because he had a 1.05 ERA in 5 AAA starts. After he started quickly, he had a terrible 2009 as a starter (6.54 ERA), rebounded with a fairly good 2010 as a relief pitcher (3.03 ERA in 62 innings), and then had a terrible (but slightly less terrible than 2009) 2011 as a relief pitcher (5.36 ERA in 47 innings.) He was sent to Norfolk a couple of times to get work and pitched okay.
I would classify Berken as a “wishful thinking” class starting pitcher, a step above desperation options like Chris Jakubauskas and Alfredo Simon. There really isn’t any reason to think Berken can be a good starting pitcher, but at least you can hope. Among the Orioles’ 2012 options, he ranks almost at the bottom.
Berken has neither the dominant stuff nor the consistency to be a closer or set-up man. He’s probably no better and no worse than dozens of other candidates for a middle-relief job.
I think Berken’s future is the Atlantic League. I just don’t see him being good enough for a major-league career.
Can he be a major-league pitcher?
Bierbrodt, who was the first amateur player ever drafted by the Arizona Diamondbacks, has a career major-league ERA of 6.66 in 144 innings, mostly as a starting pitcher. After four years in the independent Atlantic League and a year apparently out of baseball, he returned to organized baseball with the Rockies organization in 2010 and the Orioles organization in 2011. In 2011, he had a 0.78 ERA in 23 innings at Bowie and a 6.17 ERA in 23 1/3 innings at Norfolk.
Bierbrodt’s future, if he has one, would be as a left-handed spot relief pitcher. At Norfolk, he walked 19 batters (18 unintentionally) in his 23 1/3 innings. I wouldn’t think he’s got an immediate short-term major-league future. He’s 33, and as of mid-February 2012 remains unsigned.
Who is he?
The Norfolk Tides’ bullpen catcher, who gets added to the active roster on occasions when the Tides will be shorthanded for a couple of days and it’s not worth having someone else travel to the team. He’s been in the Orioles’ organization since 2009, and has had a total of 17 plate appearances. He’s played two games in the field.
This has nothing to do with Zach Booker, but in 2007 the Tides’ bullpen catcher/emergency roster filler role was filled by a young man named Morgan Clendenin (who was in every way a more substantial player than Zach Booker.) On June 17, 2007, Clendenin was in the lineup against the Buffalo Bisons.
In the press box, while we watch the games, we’ll occasionally call “Yahtzee!” when we think a player will hit a home run. When Morgan Clendenin led off the bottom of the third inning against Sean Smith, the Tides’ Media Relations Director Ian Locke half-jokingly called “Yahtzee!”. Sure enough, Clendenin drove Smith’s second pitch over the right-center-field fence. Ever since then, our “Yahtzee!” calls have felt a little anti-climatic, because no triumph will ever top Ian’s prediction that the bullpen catcher would hit a home run at that precise time.
How good will he be? Will he be a successful major league starting pitcher? A star?
Zach Britton shot through the full-season minor leagues in three seasons, obtaining good results at each level. He keeps the ball low — in those three seasons, he allowed roughly 0.5 home runs per nine innings — and made the Orioles out of spring training when other pitchers were hurt. Britton pitched well in the first half of the season, getting some mention as a fringe Rookie of the Year candidate, but tapered off at the end, winding up with an 11-11 won-lost record (pretty good for the Orioles) but a 4.60 ERA (good among the Orioles starting pitchers, but still not really good.) He was sent to Bowie and Norfolk around the All-Star break to keep him on a regular schedule.
I wrote after the 2010 season that I had three concerns about Britton. After his 2011 season, I have two more — his major league strikeout rate was much worse than expected (5.7 K/9 IP) and his walk rate has been higher throughout his career than you’d like (around 3 BB / 9 IP). If he’s able to return to close to his minor league strikeout rate — say, 7.5 K / 9 IP — then he doesn’t have to improve his walk rate significantly to be effective.
Among Baseball-Reference.com’s ten most-similar pitchers to Britton at age 23 are four reasonably current players — Jon Lester, Aaron Laffey, Luke Prokopec, and Jonathon Niese. Lester, of course, has become a successful pitcher — but his ERA, while in absolute terms was very similar to Britton’s, was in relative terms much worse. In terms of strikeout and walk ratios, the most similar was Prokopec, who pitched terribly at age 24 and got hurt, never pitching in the big leagues again. So while Britton still could develop into a solid starting pitcher, the odds aren’t with him and he’s definitely not on the train to stardom.
Can he be a major-league left-handed relief specialist?
Absolutely. He hit a rough patch with the Orioles in 2011 — he allowed five home runs in 10 2/3 innings, leading to a 10.13 ERA — but even with that he has a 4.33 ERA (102 ERA+) in his major-league career. He has a 2.86 ERA in AAA. By defninition, left-handed relief specialists aren’t terribly consistent, because if they were consistent they’d move into a more significant role. He declared free agency when the Orioles tried to remove him from the 40-man roster and signed with the Diamondbacks; he signed with the Dodgers for 2012.
Could he move into a larger role?
He’s pitched well enough in AAA to suggest that he could, but he’s a sidearming lefthanded pitcher, and the conventional wisdom is that sidearming lefthanded pitchers are very vulnerable to right-handed batters. So he probably can’t move into a larger role and almost certainly won’t.
Is he a potential major league regular?
No. Davis is an adequate fielder and a left-handed hitter who can hit .250 with marginal other offensive contributions. That might make him a reasonable desperation option at second or short, but you shouldn’t project him as a regular.
How about a bench player?
I’d love to have Blake Davis on my team as a backup infielder. He’s an adequate fielder in the middle infield — but he’s the consistent type of adequate, making all the routine plays without having good range. He’s a left-handed batter who can hit .250, so he’s not a complete waste if you had to send him up as a pinch-hitter. His arm is a little short for third base, but he can play there in an emergency; and he can even play corner outfield if he had to.
If it came down to Blake Davis vs. Robert Andino, who would you choose as your backup infielder?
I know Andino had a “good” year filling in for Brian Roberts, but I’d still rather have Davis. I think Andino is much more likely to have a terrible year at the plate and to cost you games in the field.