When the Orioles' minor league affiliates open their respective seasons Thursday, the assignments of some of their most promising prospects will signal an urgency in player development not recently seen on this scale from the organization.
At Double-A Bowie, the outfield will be manned by Cedric Mullins, who is skipping High-A Frederick entirely, along with former first-round draft pick DJ Stewart, who spent just half a season there. And below them in Frederick, three top draft picks from 2016 — pitchers Cody Sedlock and Keegan Akin, plus outfielder Austin Hays — are going straight to High-A, bypassing Low-A Delmarva.
All of the assignments put the players involved on a fast track toward cracking the major league roster, and the team seems to be subscribing to the theory that pushing them is the way to go.
"It's still minor league baseball," Frederick manager Keith Bodie said at the team's media day Tuesday. "Talent-wise, they're level-appropriate. So I don't know if they're going to be challenged as much as they are at a stage in their development where they need to continue to progress. They all have things that they need to develop — with pitchers, it's about fastball command, throwing your secondary pitches for strikes. At any level of baseball, that's a challenge. It's nothing new, it's nothing they can't do, and we expect them to have great success trying to do that.
"Minor league baseball is minor league baseball. I don't think there's very much difference, especially when you're a polished player. A-ball, from Short-A to Low-A to High-A, I don't think there's any difference. There's really no difference. I think one of the biggest jumps is from here to the next level, Double-A and I think the next biggest jump is anywhere in the minor leagues to the big leagues. But this level, to the next level, is the biggest jump in the minor leagues, in my opinion."
While such aggressive placements are starting to become commonplace around the game, moving some more advanced prospects away from the year-to-year, level-to-level development that has long held as the norm, the Orioles have been much more cautious in recent years for all but their most precocious talents.
Before the draft signing deadline was moved into July instead of August, a given year's draftees often couldn't get much professional experience in their draft year. But after a handful of short-season games the year he was selected, Manny Machado went to Delmarva and then quickly up to Frederick. High school draftees and international signees almost always start their first full season in Delmarva, even if some, such as 2011 first-round pick Dylan Bundy, leave quickly.
As far as college players, as all those being moved quickly this spring are, there's still little precedent. Kevin Gausman signed early enough to make it to Frederick in 2012, the year he was drafted, and started in Bowie the following year. The most recent college pitcher to skip a full season at Delmarva before this crew was 2014 fifth-round pick David Hess.
Sedlock, the team's first-round pick out of Illinois last year, and Akin, the second-rounder out of Western Michigan, fit the same mold as advanced college pitchers. For them, the only benefit of going to the South Atlantic League would be to get on a five-day schedule in an easier environment. But this new generation of college pitchers often gets a taste of that in their draft year, so they benefit the next year.
As for Hays, the Orioles don't have much track record with college bats selected as high as he was in last year's third round out of Jacksonville. Even Christian Walker, selected in the fourth round in 2012 and the Orioles' highest-picked college hitter before Stewart, began in Delmarva, though he only stayed a month and was in Bowie by the end of the year.
The Bowie outfielders fit into the same bucket as one another, in that opening the season in Frederick would have been reasonable for either, but their aggressive placements seem different. A 13th-round pick in 2015, Mullins had an intriguing stat line last season, as one of just a handful of minor league players to finish in double digits in doubles (37), triples (10), home runs (13) and steals (30). This spring, he came over to major league camp often to come off the bench in games, and won quick fans in manager Buck Showalter and the team's coaching staff for his speed, defensive instincts and surprising pop.
Stewart, the 2014 first-round pick, started 2016 as teammates in Delmarva with Mullins and was promoted at the All-Star break after batting .230 in the first half of the season. Stewart hit .279 in the second half at Frederick.
Baysox manager Gary Kendall knows the challenges they'll be up against this year.
"It's going to be a jump for them," Kendall said. "They're going to go through some aches and pains, I think. There's going to be nights where they go out there and look the part, and there's going to be nights where they go out there and run into a good pitcher just like anyone else and they're going to struggle. It's just on how you handle it. Good hitters come out of slumps and they learn to face adversity. Those two guys have tremendous makeup. … I think they're both going to be fine. They're both kids who that go about it the right way. They have good practice habits, a good routine. I don't think they're going to struggle too long in this league."
Several factors could be motivating the aggressive placements. For starters, the modern game values youth above all else, so if you can get a player ready to contribute at the major league level as quickly as possible, you get more value out of that player while he's under club control. Someone who cracks the majors at age 23 can give a team his entire prime on his rookie contract, in theory.
The Orioles' current roster situation can't hurt, either. On the pitching side, three of the team's starting pitchers — Chris Tillman, Wade Miley and Ubaldo Jiménez — are free agents after this season. Sedlock and Akin represent the next wave of pitching in the low minors, and could shoot up quickly to give the club more options to replace them at some point next season.
In the outfield, Mullins could be the heir to Adam Jones, whose deal is up in 2018, or at least be a worthy understudy. He and Hays are seen as strong defenders, and if Stewart carries some of his offensive progress from the second half of 2016 into 2017, he could be a useful bat in the outfield when left fielder Hyun Soo Kim's contract expires after this season.
All of this is beyond the players, though. On Tuesday, that they spent the day in their respective teams' uniforms and not a level lower was all that mattered to them.
"Everybody's goal is to get to the highest level as fast as possible, so being here is great," Hays said.
"It means a lot," Sedlock said. "Obviously, I have confidence in myself that I can perform at the highest level, so just to know they have confidence in me that I can start here and perform and move up in the ranks means a lot."