Normalcy felt far away for everyone in 2020, but maybe more so for Alexander Wells. As many of the Orioles’ top prospects salvaged what development they could last summer at the club’s alternate training site in Bowie, Md., the O’s No. 19 prospect per MLB Pipeline trained at home in Australia, marooned by travel restrictions and the ongoing pandemic. It was the first summer that Wells, a Newcastle, Aust., native, spent down under since signing with the Orioles in 2015.
It was also supposed to be the most important summer of his professional life. After being named the organization's Minor League pitcher of the year in 2017 and registering a solid season at Double-A Bowie in '19, Wells was ticketed for Triple-A in '20, with the possibility of cracking the big leagues if everything fell right. Instead, he spent the year nearly 10,000 miles from Baltimore, due to no fault of his own.
“It definitely crossed my mind, thinking that I didn’t get over there this year,” Wells said recently. “Had I done enough in the past to be protected [on the 40-man roster]?"
The situation forced Wells and his twin brother, Lachlan, a left-hander in the Twins organization, to take matters into their own hands. Early in the shutdown, they played catch with one another as a way to workshop pitches and maintain strength. Eventually, they recruited local catchers so they could throw bullpen sessions, and later more players joined for scrimmages at neighborhood fields.
The health risk was relatively minimal; when Wells spoke in early December, his home county hadn’t reported a positive case in almost a month.
“It’s good here at the moment,” Wells said. “Restrictions have started to ease. We’re allowed to eat outdoors and indoors. Life is getting back to some kind of normal here, which is good.”
For Wells and the Orioles, the hope is that he'll be able to resume climbing the organizational ranks in 2021. Logistics don’t look like they’ll be an issue; as a U.S. worker, Wells is exempt from Australia’s current overseas travel ban. Neither will his roster status after the O’s protected Wells (along with four others) prior to the Rule 5 Draft, hinting at a potential '21 debut. He is also expected to play winter ball in Australia before reporting to Spring Training with an eye toward reclaiming some lost development time.
“He’s a guy who flies a little under the radar in our system, but his Minor League success has been crazy so far. He’s dominated,” O’s general manager and executive vice president Mike Elias said. “I think the reason we were determined to protect him was because we view him as a potential starting pitcher. This is a guy who is knocking on the door right now. If called upon this year, he could potentially help the team.”
Added Elias: “This is a strange year to make these decisions because he didn’t pitch in the United States all year, and a team would’ve selected him knowing they need to keep him on the Major League team all year. We weren’t confident enough that that would’ve been a deterrent.”
If Wells reached the Majors, he’d become the third Oriole to hail from Australia. He’s also unlike any other top prospect in their now pitching-rich system, which is littered these days with hard-throwing strikeout artists like Grayson Rodriguez (No. 2), DL Hall (No. 4) and Michael Baumann (No. 9). Wells’ best skill is command; his calling card is polish.
Wells is a 6-foot-1, 190-pound southpaw with three quality pitches who has succeeded at every level, despite a fastball that often registers in the high-80s. He does so by generating weak contact with his plus-changeup and improving curve, and he's working to develop a slider/cutter to help keep righties off balance. He rarely walks anyone (76 in 475 career innings; 1.4 per nine) and keeps the ball in the yard (46 career homers allowed; 0.9 per nine). It’s a skill set that’s become an anomaly in a modern game of max-effort hurlers more and more focused on missing bats.
It’s also worked so far: In 86 Minor League starts across five levels, Wells is 30-24 with a 2.82 ERA and 1.067 WHIP. The challenge at the highest level will be translating those results despite limited velocity, and the development opportunities lost in 2020.
“We want him to sink or swim as a big leaguer here with the Orioles,” Elias said.