The Aberdeen IronBirds open up their 10th season of affiliation with the Orioles on June 17th, and the 2011 season will hopefully be one that features some future Orioles stars. The IronBirds are the highest level short-season team in the Orioles’ farm system, and often times high-round draft picks that sign pro contracts early on will play a few months with the team. Otherwise, the roster is made up of younger players rising from Bluefield’s Rookie League squad from the year before or players that spent the beginning of their season in extended spring training.
While the full roster for the IronBirds has not yet been released, we’ll take a look at five players who will either make an impact with the team this season, or guys who would be well-suited in an Aberdeen uniform this Summer.
1. Parker Bridwell, RHP, 19 years old.
Bridwell was the Orioles’ 9th-round pick in 2010, and the O’s were able to lure him away from a full scholarship to Texas Tech. A three-sport star in high school (football, basketball, baseball), Orioles scouting director Joe Jordan liked Bridwell’s athleticism, and most scouts agreed that once the 6’4” righty focused solely on baseball, that athleticism would turn into success on the mound. His fastball hovers in the low to mid 90s with great sinking action, going along with a hard cutter and an above-average curveball and changeup.
In two relief outings for the IronBirds last season, Bridwell did not allow a run, scattering and one walk over 4.0 innings of work. This season, the big right-hander should lead the starting rotation, and look to pitch well enough to earn a late-season promotion to Delmarva or Frederick. He was ranked the #12 prospect in the Orioles’ system by Baseball America, and worked 4.2 innings in a start at Delmarva on June 4th, giving up five earned runs on six hits. In all likelihood, this was an outing to get Bridwell some live game experience before his season with Aberdeen began.
2. Austin Knight, 2B/OF, 21 years old.
Another returnee from last year’s squad, Knight will look to improve on his 2010 season with the IronBirds. A local product (originally from Reisterstown), Knight was taken in the 37th round of the 2010 draft, and played 54 games in an Aberdeen uniform last year. Knight hit .225 with 17 RBI and no home runs last season, but was versatile for the team, playing all three outfield positions, along with shortstop and second base.
Knight was mainly drafted for his glove and speed, and although his fielding was stellar last season, the speed on the basepaths lagged behind. The Boys’ Latin graduate only stole three bases, while being caught stealing five times. This season, Knight will be playing more exclusively in the outfield, most likely playing center field, where he can take advantage of his speed. If the bat comes around for Knight and he emerges as a legitimate base stealer, he could be an everyday impact player for the IronBirds this year.
3. Steven Mazur, RHP, 23 years old.
Another returnee from the 2010 IronBirds, Mazur is the one player on this list who had the most success in Aberdeen last season. Working out of the bullpen, Mazur pitched eight games in Bluefield and did not give up a run, allowing only 3 hits in 8.0 innings of work. Shortly thereafter, the Notre Dame product was called up to Aberdeen, where he kept a 1.64 ERA in 22.0 innings, appearing in 15 games. While he did not pitch the required 24.0 innings to be included on the league leaderboard, Mazur’s ERA would have put him at #14 in the New York-Penn League last season.
After a productive 2010 season, Mazur looks to build on his performance this year with Aberdeen. A late-round pick (33rd round), the 6-foot righty will try to make a name for himself again this season with the team working out of the bullpen. While no official word has come out, Mazur’s impressive performance last season may put him in prime position to take over the closer’s role for the IronBirds this year.
4. Jason Esposito, 3B/SS, 20 years old.
Esposito was the Orioles’ 2nd-round draft pick in this past week’s draft, and whether or not he gets to Aberdeen this year depends on when he signs his contract. Last season, the O’s sent Manny Machado to Aberdeen at the end of the season; don’t be surprised if the same thing happens for Esposito. Keeping in mind that his agent is Scott Boras, Esposito could remain unsigned right up until the August 15th deadline.
When he does sign, Esposito would do well with some time in Aberdeen. His bat was what kept him out of the first round, but scouts like to think that he has 20+ home run power and should consistently have a batting average above .275. He played shortstop at Vanderbilt, but will probably be forced to move to third base because of his size and because of Machado’s presence at short. Facing tough competition in the SEC, Esposito should move quickly through the Orioles’ system, which other than Josh Bell, lacks a legitimate third base prospect. If Esposito gets to Aberdeen this Summer, expect it to be a late-season cameo in August.
5. Kyle Simon, RHP, 20 years old.
Simon is another recent high draft pick, going in the 4th round to the O’s out of Arizona. The 6’5” righty was one of the Pac-10’s most dominant pitchers this season, which is really saying something when you consider that four Pac-10 pitchers were drafted in the first round this year. Simon uses a three-quarters arm slot when he pitches, giving his mid-90s fastball some nice natural movement and making it tougher to read for a batter out of the hand. Simon went 11-3 this season at Arizona, with a 2.72 ERA and five complete games. While he only racked up 86 strikeouts in 129.0 innings, Simon only walked 11 batters, ranking fourth in the entire NCAA in walks allowed per nine innings.
Simon is a fairly polished college pitcher who needs to improve his slider and other secondary pitches, so a stop in Aberdeen this season would benefit him greatly. The only concern the Orioles may have about Simon is the fact that he’s thrown a lot of innings already this year, so if Simon signs early enough to play most of the season with the IronBirds, the team may shut him down before the season’s over to reduce the risk of injury.
Edgar Walker will be covering the Orioles farm system, Terps football, and Baltimore-area high school sports for BSR. Follow him on Twitter @Edgar_Walker.