If you followed Brew Crew Ball’s weekly minor league roundups this year, you’re probably Familiar with Nate Orf. If not, Orf is a super-utility man who slashed .320/.397/.507 with nine home runs in 507 plate appearances for the AAA Colorado Springs Sky Sox.
Orf was also one of just two (Monte Harrison) Brewers prospects in the Brewers system to log 500+ plate appearances and a wRC+ north of 130.
Seems like a guy that would be a call-up, right? I can theorize why he hasn’t received one yet, though I think he deserves a shot.
One of the primary obstacles in Orf’s way is his age. He’s 27 years old, after being signed out as an undrafted free agent from Baylor University as a 23 year old. As one might expect from an advanced college bat, Orf has worked pretty quickly through the Brewers minor league system, with Triple-A being his longest stop (214 games).
Orf also stands at just 5’9”, which probably doesn’t do him any favors with scouts, but he has versatility. Beginning in his second professional season in 2014, Orf has seen significant time at third base and the corner outfield positions in addition to his primary position at second.
Because he doesn’t get attention from scouts, it’s difficult to say how he fares at each of those positions, but on the surface at least, it’s a level of versatility General Manager David Stearns has been known to crave. For what it’s worth, Baseball Prospectus rated him at +6.9 runs across the board on defense this season according to their metric Fielding Runs Above Average.
Another potential hurdle for Orf is that his recent success has come in the Pacific Coast League, which is notorious for its dry conditions which elevates BABIP, and thus, overall performance. Consider that the Sky Sox had five players with at least an OPS of .894 (min. 300 PA), including other non-prospects like Garrett Cooper and Ivan De Jesus Jr.
Additionally, the Sky Sox home field (at 6500 feet above sea level) is assumed to be a major home run park, but wind that regularly blows in from the outfield, as well as a humidor for the baseballs, makes Security Service Field roughly league average in home run frequency.
Of those five 2017 Sky Sox with 300+ PA and a .894+ OPS (the others being Lewis Brinson and Brett Phillips), Orf is the only one with zero big league experience. Also, Orf’s 134 wRC+ already takes parks and leagues into consideration, so his 134 wRC+ is fantastic, whether he was in the PCL or the run-suppressing Florida State League.
Orf’s nine home runs more than doubled his career total. He had knocked just SIX homers in his previous four seasons (1467 at-bats). His extra bases were up across the board, and after posting a .091 ISO from 2013-16, Orf had a .187 ISO in 2017 with 32 doubles and 11 triples (both of the latter stats ranked fourth in the PCL).
Orf also spent the majority of his 2016 with Colorado Springs, slashing a serviceable .288/.366/.383 in 381 PA.
Orf has always been an on-base specialist, owning an excellent .385 career OBP, but his power numbers have always lagged behind. In 2017, however, a focus on flyballs appears to have changed Orf’s profile. In 2016, Orf owned a 46.8% groundball rate in 128 Double-A at-bats, and a 42.6% rate in his 326 Triple-A ABs.
This season, Orf cut that number to just 34.1%, bumping his flyball percentage by about 10 percent. His 47.9% flyball rate was by far the highest of his career, and would have ranked sixth in the Majors, tied with Trevor Story. That flyball rate may actually be a bit high for a non-power hitter, but it’s hard to deny Orf’s improvements.
We hear a lot about journeymen minor leaguers who never seem to get a shot. The Brewers briefly had one recently in Matt Clark, but the organization has also seen the value in fringe prospects. Ryan Cordrell and Garrett Cooper, both of whom were old for AAA and blocked in the Brewers’ organization, were traded for players who had already reached the Majors. The Cordrell trade brought over Anthony Swarzak, who stabilized a bullpen that had lacked late-inning talent.
Additionally, one of the Brewers best position players this season was essentially a journeyman minor leaguer at this time last year. Manny Piña was a defensive specialist until he started cranking doubles in AAA with the Tigers and Brewers in 2015 and 2016, and this season he cruised to a 2 WAR season despite just 359 plate appearances.
Ultimately, Nathan Orf’s career probably doesn’t end with All-Star games and accolades, but I’d be stunned if Stearns’ Brewers didn’t give a player like Orf a chance.
The Brewers regularly utilize fringe prospects. Piña, Junior Guerra, Brent Suter, Hernán Pérez, Jesus Aguilar, Keon Broxton, Jacob Barnes, Paolo Espino, Ramon Flores, Colin Walsh and Aaron Wilkerson all fit the bill. The aforementioned players weren’t all acquired by Stearns, nor did they all pan out, but The Brewers’ GM clearly sees the upside in exploring fringe names, and doles out opportunities to many players other GMs might not.
Orf’s ceiling is probably similar to Pérez’s, a player who gets playing time (some would argue too much) because he can fill in at several positions. The ideal Orf would get on base 35% of the time, even if his batting average is underwhelming. And if Orf’s extra base numbers are for real, he could earn a comfortable living as a super-utility player.
At the very least, a .318/.413/.481 career slash (37 doubles, 399 AB) against lefties could make him an attractive platoon option should the Brewers re-sign Neil Walker (.691 career OPS vs. lefties). That is, if he isn’t first plucked up by another team in the Rule 5 Draft, in the likely event that he is left unprotected for a second straight year.
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs and Baseball Prospectus