Will he be in the Orioles’ 2013 rotation?
Although Hunter is only 26 — he’ll turn 27 in July 2013 — I don’t see him being a successful starting pitcher. Hunter has a profile that doesn’t predict success — he doesn’t strike out a lot of batters but he does give up a lot of home runs. Hunter’s 2013 season was one of 27 seasons in which a pitcher pitched 100 or more innings and gave up more home runs than walks. Obviously, having good control is a good thing; but of the 23 such seasons by a right-handed pitcher, Hunter had the 4th-worst BB/9 IP ratio, the 3rd-worst HR/9 IP ratio, and the fourth-worst adjusted ERA. That’s not a good sign for his future.
The Orioles have a lot of candidates for the starting rotation, and I wouldn’t think Hunter would be a top candidate. They’ve mentioned moving him to the bullpen. Even at his best with the Rangers, Hunter wasn’t particulary durable; he’s never made more than 22 starts or pitched more than 2013′s 134 innings in a single major-league season. The Orioles have two pitchers set in their rotation (Jason Hammel and Wei-Yen Chen), two others who pitched well in 2013 and are favorites for the rotation (Chris Tillman and Miguel Gonzalez), three other former top prospects who were originally in the Orioles system (Zach Britton, Brian Matusz, and Jake Arrieta), and a free-agent signing (Jair Jurrjens). Plus Steve Johnson pitched well in both AAA and the majors as a swingman. Hunter probably ranks ninth or tenth among the candidates.
Will he make a successful bullpen conversion?
It’s always possible that he’ll change his pitching style if he does convert. But most relief pitchers have substantially higher strikeout rates than Hunter and are substantially less vulnerable to the home run. The Orioles, right now, have a stacked bullpen and no obvious spot for him.
Actually, I really think Hunter will not survive spring training in the Orioles’ organization. He’s out of options, so he can’t be sent to the minors without being exposed to waivers and being removed from the 40-man roster. He’s not going to be given a roster spot. He was acquired in the Koji Uehara trade; the other part of the trade was Chris Davis, so the Orioles don’t have to keep Hunter around to justify the Uehara trade. I think the Orioles will try to trade him during spring training; if they can’t, they may very well release him.
Is he ready for the major leagues? What’s his role?
There is absolutely nothing in Steve Johnson’s 2012 season to complain about. At Norfolk, he had a 2.86 ERA, allowed 66 hits in 91 1/3 innings, struck out 85 and walked 31. OK, his walk rate was a little higher than you might like — 3.1 BB/9 IP — but it was an admirable season. He earned his first promotion to the major leagues and was, if possible, even better. A 4-0 record, a 2.11 ERA, 46 strikeouts in 38 innings — and he did all that in the heat of a pennant race.
He definitely has earned a spot on the major-league team, but that doesn’t mean he’s going to get it. There are nine other legitimate candidates for the starting rotation. Four pitched well enough in 2012 to be considered favorites, a couple of other candidates are out of minor-league options, and a couple of others are left-handed pitchers. Johnson has options left, so if a player without options pitches well in spring training, he has a leg up on the major-league roster spot. As of this writing, I think Johnson will start 2013 at Norfolk, but there’s a very good chance he’ll be promoted to the Orioles early and/or often.
There is one other caveat. Johnson pitched extremely well at Norfolk in 2012, but extremely poorly at Norfolk in 2011. Johnson started 2012 as a spot starter/long reliever at Norfolk and had success. He pitched with more confidence and trusted his stuff; he was very tentative in 2011. When a spot in the starting rotation became available, he moved into it and continued to pitch well. We do need to see if 2012 was an aberration, or if he really has improved.
Johnson really hadn’t been counted for much before the 2012 season. I think that the lack of pressure allowed him to focus on succeeding as opposed to not failing. We often see highly-touted pitching prospects struggle, in large part because they think they have to be perfect. When nothing’s expected of them, they focus on delivering good pitches rather than perfect pitches. And it’s almost impossible to plan to throw a perfect pitch. Good pitches are good enough.
Is he still a prospect? Will he play in the major leagues?
He’s sort of in limbo; he’s not exactly a prospect but not quite yet a minor-league lifer. A catcher, he reached his peak as the Orioles’ #10 prospect after his 2009 season at Frederick (according to Baseball America), and there were questions about how the Orioles would use both him and Matt Wieters. He didn’t hit well at Bowie in 2010 or 2011, and started 2012 at Bowie before being promoted to Norfolk when injuries hit the catching corps. He didn’t hit at Norfolk and returned to Bowie, where he did hit much better than he had in 2010 and 2011.
He’ll turn 27 in June 2013. He has no chance of becoming a big-league regular, almost no chance of becoming a long-term big-league backup, and has probably only a 25% chance or so of even having a cup of coffee.
Who is he?
A contact hitter who has played second base, third base, and corner outfield. His career slash line is .283/.379/.378; his offensive strength is getting on base. He doesn’t have great speed. Defensively, he doesn’t really have the arm for third base or the range for second base. If you’re a Cleveland Indians fan, or follow the International League closely, Kelly is like Cord Phelps without the power. Or maybe a Bill Mueller-type offensive player; not as good but the same basic type. Baseball America rated Kelly as the #30 prospect in the Orioles’ system for 2013.
Can he play in the majors?
Offensively, Kelly’s 2012 was far better than any of his previous seasons. Twenty-five years ago, he’d be a perfect candidate for a bench role on a National League team — his primary role would be as a left-handed early-inning pinch hitter, but he could fill in at second, third, or a corner outfield spot. If you go back that far, think of a defensively versatile Greg Gross.
Today, with teams carrying more pitchers, Kelly is a luxury most teams can’t afford, especially American League teams. If you carry twelve pitchers, and you have eight regulars, that leaves five spots. You need a backup catcher, an infielder good enough defensively to play short, and an outfielder good enough defensively to play center field. You want one really big bat to be your DH. That leaves one remaining bench spot, and although Kelly does do a number of things it’s not clear that he does the right things.
Who is he?
A left-handed pitcher whom apparently no one believes in. He was drafted by the Marlins in 2008, and spent 2009 and 2010 pitching middle relief, not especially well. He was essentially given to the Phillies in 2011, and he pitched very well for the Phillies’ High-A team. The Orioles selected him in the minor league phase of the Rule 5 draft, and he pitched at Frederick, Bowie, and Norfolk. He’ll be 27 for the 2013 season.
He’s never been used as a starter or as a closer, and he doesn’t appear to have been trained as a left-handed specialist. He’s one of the rare players who strikes out a lot of batter and also gives up a lot of hits, although he doesn’t give up home runs. Right now, he’s an organization player / non-prospect. He doesn’t appear to be eligible for minor-league free agency, so he’s probably on an Orioles’ minor-league roster.
Can he be a major-league player?
The good news about Joe Mahoney’s 2012 season at Norfolk is that he stayed healthy the whole season and that he made his major-league debut. The bad news is that his 2012 season at Norfolk was disappointing, .265/.319/.389. For a first baseman, that’s inadequate.
In fairness, Norfolk’s Harbor Park may have been the worst park for Mahoney. Although he’s a left-handed power hitter, he wasn’t a dead-pull hitter who could take advantage of the short right-field party deck fence. He was more of a gap-to-gap hitter, and Harbor Park’s huge power alleys and center field sapped his power. He did produce .300/.356/.518 in 564 AA plate appearances.
Mahoney looked like a good first baseman, but it’s unclear whether that’s because he truly was a good first baseman or his predecessors at Norfolk were poor. He has the arm to play corner outfield — he was a pitcher as an amateur — but leg injuries have prevented him from getting a good look. He probably wouldn’t be a good defensive outfielder because of his lack of range.
All told, Mahoney is probably limited to a left-handed platoon first-base/DH role or to a left-handed bench bat. He reminds me of Sid Bream, the Pirates/Braves first baseman of the late 1980′s / early 1990′s. He was claimed by the Marlins on waivers, where he may have a better chance to make the big-league team. At the very least, if he’s assigned to AAA, he’ll get to hit in Albuquerque, as extreme a hitter’s park as Norfolk is a pitcher’s park.
Is there any hope for him?
Yes, I think so. Matusz shot through Frederick and Bowie in 2009, reaching the major leagues in his first professional season. He pitched well enough and showed promise in late 2009 and as a rotation starter in 2010, when he was 23. He was hurt at the start of 2011 and pitched terribly in ten starts before being sent down; Matusz was in the 2012 Orioles rotation at the start of the year but didn’t pitch well enough to stay in it. When he was sent to Norfolk, he was converted to the bullpen.
It’s tempting to write him off, and to relegate him to a left-handed relief pitcher role, but I wouldn’t write him off yet. I would make him a left-handed relief pitcher for 2013. It seems to me that Matusz has simply lost his confidence and now has no idea how to pitch successfully. By moving him to a low-leverage relief role, Matusz will have a chance to re-learn how to get batters out, to enjoy success, and to regain his confidence.
And once Matusz has experienced success, it’ll be time for him to get another crack at the rotation. There have been several pitchers who endured some time as a left-handed bullpen arm who were switched to the starting rotation and had long, successful careers. Jimmie Key, Kenny Rogers, and David Wells come to mind. There’s no reason Matusz can’t join them.
Will he pitch in the major leagues?
McCurry is a college-trained left-handed pitcher who pitched well as a starter in the low minors but has been more ineffective the higher he’s progressed. As a relief pitcher, he’s had one great half-season at Double-A but has more often been merely adequate. There’s no reason to believe he’ll advance to the majors; although, because he throws left-handed, there’s always a chance that he’ll surface as a left-handed one-out specialist. He hasn’t been used that way to date.
He was sold to the Braves’ organization in mid-season, where he moved between High-A, AA, and AAA as needed. He doesn’t appear on Baseball America’s minor-league free agent tracker, and the sale to the Braves is the last transaction on his list, so I assume he’s on a roster somewhere in the Braves’ system.
Can we expect him to perform in 2013 the way he did for the Orioles in 2012?
Obviously, we’ll have to wait and see. Normally, I would assume that a good one-half season was the fluke compared to 2 1/2 bad seasons, but there are some mitigating factors. McLouth had been injured off-and-on over 2010 and 2011. In 2012, he signed with the Pirates but didn’t really get a chance to play before getting released. The Orioles signed him and sent him to Norfolk, where he did get a chance to play regularly and shed the rust. He gradually got more effective and was recalled to Baltimore, where he played quite well over the last two months. It’s possible that he’s recovered fully and will continue to be effective. I think it’s more likely that 2012 was a “last hurrah”, and will regress to his 2010-2011 form.
The Orioles signed him to a 1-year, $2 million contract. Was that a good move
Sure. The contract is cheap and carries no long-term liabilities. McLouth played very well in the playoffs. His contract is a reward for good service — which can’t help but be a positive to the other Orioles — and if McLouth really doesn’t play wel, there’s no reason not to cut him loose and move on. If the Orioles had a left-field prospect ready to go, then signing McLouth would run the risk of derailing him; but L.J. Hoes could use some more AAA time.