Last night, I had a short back-and-forth with Luke Jackson of Maryland Pro Sports on Twitter, and eventually we found ourselves discussing former Orioles 1st-round pick Billy Rowell. A high school third-baseman/shortstop from New Jersey when he was drafted in 2006, the O’s loved Rowell’s colossal power and selected him 9th overall, passing up on players taken later in the first round such as Tim Lincecum, Kyle Drabek, Max Scherzer, and Daniel Bard, just to name a few.
Now, with Lincecum being a two-time Cy Young winner and a key part of San Francisco’s 2010 World Series victory, Rowell is playing in the Gulf Coast League for the Orioles, trying to rediscover his powerful stroke that made him a first-round pick, and in Luke’s words, “trying to get his confidence back.” Previously playing with Double-A Bowie, this drop down to the GCL is yet another massive speed bump on the road of Rowell’s career. With so much natural talent and such promise just five years ago, will Rowell ever be able to put it together and become the player the Orioles envisioned when they saw him five years ago?
It wasn’t always like this for Billy Rowell. One of the rare first-round picks to sign shortly after the draft, Rowell was able to play 53 games in 2006 (42 at Bluefield, and the final 11 at Aberdeen). In those 53 games, Rowell impressed. Hitting at a .328 clip with a .415 on-base percentage to go along with 32 RBI, the 6’5″ third baseman from New Jersey had an incredible pro debut, and got the Orioles’ front office giddy about his potential at the plate. Rowell did have trouble at third base, but with a great throwing arm and an even better bat, his glove wasn’t a huge concern at the time.
Before 2007, Baseball America lauded Rowell as the Orioles’ top prospect, one of the most promising players from the 2006 draft class, and the 47th-best prospect in all of baseball.
In 2007, Billy Rowell was promoted to full season baseball in Delmarva, where he played 92 games as the Shorebirds’ third baseman. Needless to say, Delmarva was a big step up for Rowell, but to be fair, he dealt with it pretty well. Putting up a solid .273 batting average and a respectable .335 on-base percentage, his season was, at first glance, a successful one. Dig a little bit deeper though, and you find the struggles that have been consistent throughout Rowell’s career. The power was not there like the Orioles wanted it to be, with only nine home runs, 21 doubles, and three triples. In 2006, Rowell had 19 doubles and three triples, to go along with three home runs. Moreover, his strikeout rate was high (104 Ks in 388 PAs), and his fielding at third base was not improved.
Rowell played at the Advanced Single-A level at Frederick for three years. In 348 games in a Keys uniform, he homered 27 times, drove in 150 runs, and went from playing third base to playing right field, then back again to third base. He had a .250 batting average, which is inflated due to his fairly successful 2010 campaign, where he hit .275. Where Rowell was once the knight in shining armor in the Orioles’ system, he became a second thought in Frederick, averaging more than a strikeout per game, and seeing his Baseball America ranking in the system drop astronomically each year, to the point where he is no longer considered one of the Orioles’ top 30 minor league prospects.
Rowell’s 2010 season seemed like it could have been a turning point. The strikeouts were up, yes, but Rowell found more gaps, drove in more runs, and had an approach at the plate that showed he wanted to continue on to the next level. Sadly, the same can not be said about his 2011 season. In what has become a theme of Rowell’s career, he couldn’t follow up on a good season when he moved up a level. In 41 games at Bowie, very little went right for Rowell, who is now 22 and struggling to find a true position in the field. His .227 batting average was laughable, and he had a grand total of two extra-base hits in 119 at-bats. Both were doubles. He was the team’s DH, then moved to first base, and played five games at third. After suffering from tendonitis in his ankle, he was placed on the 7-day DL, and now finds himself in the GCL on a “rehab assignment” which is taking much longer than it should be, suggesting Rowell is no longer in the Orioles’ long-term plans.
Billy Rowell has played in 550 minor league games and counting, and it looks like his time in the Baltimore Orioles organization is coming to an end. Approaching his six-year minor league contract expiration, it’s possible 2011 may be his last season in professional baseball. And in the end, is it really a surprise that he didn’t turn out to be a star? In a decade where so many talented players saw their hopes of an MLB career die in the Orioles’ farm system, Rowell is just one of many who have never been able to get over the hump. And like the rest of the once-heralded top O’s prospects, it always looked like he had the talent and the will to turn his career around, but never could quite do it.
In essence, Billy Rowell could be a metaphor for the entire Orioles’ organization over the past decade. He arrived to great hype and fanfare, showed flashes of brilliance, but eventually was coached poorly, given too much to handle, or maybe just never had it in him. It’s a shame we won’t have the chance to find out.
Edgar Walker writes stuff, and pretty much all of it is about sports. Follow him on Twitter so that you can read more stuff he writes, with pretty much all of it about sports.