Despite being the Orioles 1st round pick (9th overall) in the 2006 MLB Draft, Billy Rowell is far from a household name these days. His three year stint in the Carolina League with lackluster results washed away his status as a prospect, but there was a time that his future was very bright.
Of course that was many years ago and entering the 2012 season, his stock and his professional career were already hanging by a thread. Instead of returning to the Eastern League – where he hit 0.227/.304/.244 in 41 games last year – Rowell opened the year in extended spring training and was attempting to make the transition from position player to right-handed reliever.
Baltimore was clearly trying to salvage some value from their former 1st rounder but Monday’s announcement that he’s been given a 50-game suspension for a “drug of abuse” (in this case marijuana) may have cemented their efforts as a lost cause. It is the second time Rowell has violated the Minor League Drug Prevention and Treatment Program and it all but eliminates his chances to pitch for the Aberdeen IronBirds in the New York-Penn League this summer. Aberdeen opens their 76-game schedule on the road against Hudson Valley on June 18th meaning Rowell couldn’t return to active duty until July and he may be too far behind the curve by then to get a shot.
Even if he does it will be hard to him to curb the erosion of his standing. An erosion that has been slow and steady from the days when he was Baltimore’s top prospect.
He held that spot in the 2007 Baseball America Prospect Handbook and was also #47 in their pre-season Top-100 prospect list that year. It was hard to argue the ranking at the time since he was the top high school position player taken in the draft, signed for a then hefty $2.1 million bonus, and hit 0.328/.415/.503 over 53 games in the Appalachian and New York-Penn Leagues that summer/fall.
In BA’s 2007 handbook profile of him they included the following:
Rowell is exactly the kind of impact bat the Orioles desperately need in their big league lineup, so they’ll move him up as soon as he shows he has mastered a level. His bat is good enough that defense is a secondary consideration.
Those sentiments were echoed by John Sickels who wrote in his 2007 Baseball Prospect Book:
Scouts love the bat; he could develop into a cross between Chipper Jones and Justin Morneau, producing both power and batting average from the left side … His only current flaw from a statistical standpoint is a higher-than-ideal strikeout rate, but this is not expected to be a problem at higher levels.
Sickels went on to assign a B+ grade to Rowell which tied him with Brandon Erbe as the top ranked O’s prospects heading into the 2007 season. For his part, Billy held his own in his first taste of full season ball. As an 18-year old that summer he hit 0.273/.335/.426 with 21 2B and 9 HR for Delmarva (SAL) and put up those numbers despite missing time early in the year with an oblique injury. The SO-to-BB issues however manifested in full and he finished with a 104 SO and just 31 BB in 91 games.
Heading into 2008, Rowell dropped to 5th in BA’s rankings of the Orioles system as Matt Wieters, Radhames Liz, Troy Patton and Nolan Reimold all jumped ahead of him. Sickels likewise downgraded him just a smidge dropping his grade from B+ to B and closed out his 2008 profile of Billy with the following:
Overall he did pretty well considering his age, and I’m inclined to cut him some slack for now.
The 2008 season would be Rowell’s first of three years with the Frederick Keys in the Carolina League. During that span he hit 0.250/.316/.371 with 69 2B and just 27 HR in 348 games. The lack of power and his defensive problems – 49 errors at 3B and 15 in RF – were legitimate concerns but neither was as glaring or pressing as the 379-114 SO-to-BB numbers he racked up.
His stock fell accordingly.
2009: Baseball America (#9) / John Sickels (C+)
2010: Baseball America (#30) / John Sickels (C)
2011: Not Ranked/Rated
In the 2010 BA Prospect Handbook included a critical point about his development, or lack thereof:
Rowell has consistently been one of the youngest players in each league he has played in, and he has compounded his youth with immaturity. The Orioles would make recommendations on his swing, stance and bat path, but he always would revert to his old ways.
Sickels drove home the point more poignantly in his 2010 book:
At this point Rowell looks like a complete bust as a prospect … in theory he still has time to put things together, but I wouldn’t bet on it, and he desperately needs a change of scenery. If he hadn’t been a first round pick, he might have been released by now.
Rowell did turn in one of his better slash lines in 2010 hitting 0.275/.348/.408 with a career high 11 HR but he also struck out a whopping 153 times in 117 games. Throw in the context that it was his third crack at Carolina League pitching and it’s hardly a shock that he couldn’t handle the Eastern League in 2011.
While he didn’t deserve the promotion, Baltimore did the right thing when they gave him a look in Double-A. They were no doubt hoping that he’d be able to escape the demons and struggles that plagued him in Frederick. It didn’t work out, but it was certainly worth a shot.
Even before the 50-game suspension was handed down this week it was probably time for the Orioles to cut him loose and move on. Now it seems a foregone conclusion that his time with the organization will come to a close by the time the offseason rolls around.
Between the conversion to the mound, the assignment in rookie ball and now the suspension Rowell needs nothing short of a miracle if he’s going to reach the major leagues. He will be a minor league free agent this winter, but it’s hard to imagine another organization is going to give him much of a look given the lack of results and two positive tests on his resume.
For more on the Baltimore Orioles, check out Birds Watcher