This fall, it was a privilege to be able to partner with Baseball America to compile their Orioles top prospect rankings for both their handbook and the online top 10, the latter of which is out now.
It was an intensive process, but one that was wholly worth it, considering the insights and understandings gained about the Orioles farm system after a year when many players took big jumps, from the likes of Austin Hays and Cedric Mullins to left-handers Tanner Scott and Alex Wells.
But considering how much goes into producing all these rankings, and how frequently the rankings changed over the course of the process, I've highlighted five of the more interesting cases and decisions for a little background on what went into it, how the rankings were established and where everyone ended up.
1. Hunter Harvey (and even Tanner Scott) could’ve been No. 1
On the last weekend of the minor league season, knowing these rankings were going to be looming in September and October, I went to see Hunter Harvey's final rehabilitation start to see if he looked like the pitcher who dazzled in 2014 for Low-A Delmarva.
I left convinced that he was, with a fastball that he located at up to 97 mph and by his own admission, the best curveball he showed all summer. Both three years ago and now, he hasn't found much of a need to throw his changeup in the South Atlantic League, but given the progress that fellow long-term absentee Dylan Bundy made with his changeup while out dealing with injuries and rehabbing, there's plenty of promise with that pitch as well.
That package, as it stands, is worthy of making Harvey, 22, the top prospect in the system on a raw talent standpoint. The earliest iterations of the list had him as such. But to rank someone who has pitched 31 1/3 innings over the past three seasons as the top prospect in an organization with some of the other options available would’ve created a credibility problem in the eyes of some evaluators, and I came to understand that. Plus, the injury risk — even though he's healthy now and has developed physically while out — created a fair reason to drop him to No. 4 on the list.
Tanner Scott, the 23-year-old hard-throwing left-hander who made his major league debut this year and has been working in a hybrid three-inning role, also got some votes for No. 1 prospect among those I spoke with. His slider jumped a full grade this year and is a legitimate strikeout pitch, and he's always had that electric fastball, but the grading scale and the criteria for it make a long-term reliever hard to grade higher than starting pitchers or those who are projected to be regulars. Either way, both had a case for the top spot.
2. Ryan Mountcastle and Chance Sisco are interesting comparables
Two of the players who came between those pitchers and the No. 1 ranking, besides top prospect Austin Hays, were third baseman Ryan Mountcastle and catcher Chance Sisco. Last season, Sisco was the organization's top prospect, but I swapped him and Mountcastle at Nos. 2 and No. 3 for several reasons.
It came down to the fact that these two players are prospects because of their bats, with Mountcastle projecting as an impact power hitter and Sisco showing tremendous plate discipline and an ability to hit for average, with his power developing as well.
But there's a slight edge for Mountcastle, who is just 20 and at Double-A, in terms of the bat. Both face defensive questions. Mountcastle moved off shortstop to third base in July and is still adjusting to the position, while Sisco's glove has always been in question, though there was improvement in 2017.
If you go by the worst-case defensive scenarios, where Sisco can't stay behind the plate and Mountcastle leaves the infield, they both probably would end up as left fielders long term. If that ends up being the case, Mountcastle would probably provide more value at the plate. So the edge went to him.
Either way, criticizing defense is difficult. Sisco, 22, has limitations with his arm strength but can end up with an average arm at the position. The problem is, how many major league catchers have average arms? As for Mountcastle, the Orioles did him no favors moving him when they did. But if he hits, any team can find a place for that bat. This coming season will be telling for each.
3. There was more behind the seasons of 2016 top picks Cody Sedlock and Keegan Akin than the numbers
Nowhere in the early drafts of the list were Cody Sedlock and Keegan Akin, the Orioles’ 2016 first- and second-round picks, respectively, as high as they ended up. Sedlock, 22, is at No. 7, while Akin, 22, is in the next few rankings outside the top 10. The right-handed Sedlock had a 5.90 ERA in 20 starts at High-A Frederick. The left-handed Akin struggled badly early but rebounded to end the year with a 4.14 ERA before missing August with an oblique strain.
Sedlock, it turned out, still had the stuff that made him a first-rounder, if not the high-end velocity. There's a potential for four plus pitches when each is at its best. But after he went home in the fall before the 2017 season, he tweaked his delivery in an effort to add more velocity and ended up doing more harm than good. He'll be back with his college delivery in 2018, and the Orioles believe that will do the trick.
It's the type of explanation that makes the numbers and the performance make a little more sense. As one evaluator said, he doesn't want to trade for Sedlock, but he wants to see him over the next three years be able to figure it out. He's not alone.
As for Akin, the Orioles skipped him a start at the end of May to fix a problem with his lower half in his delivery and saw him post a 2.97 ERA from then on. He also had a 2.76 ERA in the Arizona Fall League. There's not a lot of projection left with Akin, but he too deserves a chance to start fresh with the best version of himself and an opportunity to live up to his draft billing. If both have a full season of the form that made them top picks, this system will look much different.
4. DJ Stewart remains divisive, but there's no denying his progress in 2017
Outfielder DJ Stewart, the team's top pick in 2015, had one of the best statistical seasons of anyone in the system in 2017. After a trying first full professional season in 2016, he hit .278 with an .859 OPS while stealing 20 bases and hitting 21 home runs for Double-A Bowie this year. He did so, as one evaluator noted, by "getting off the toilet" with his crouched batting stance, allowing himself to create more loft with his swing and time up fastballs better.
With the 24-year-old’s pedigree and the season he put up, the fact that he's not in the top 10 is probably divisive. There are two schools of thought here. One is that Stewart has been a successful athlete at not just baseball at every stop in his life — save for the first half of 2016, when professional baseball was getting the better of him. It hasn't gotten the best of him since. So, doesn't he deserve the benefit of the doubt after making obvious improvements?
The other side of the argument comes from evaluators who saw so much that discouraged them in 2016 that it's hard to reconcile the season he had being the product of such a marked improvement. They'll say that while athletic, his stolen bases are on instincts as much as anything else, and he benefited from the ability to crush mistakes.
He could easily have slipped into the top 10, and also could’ve been five spots lower than he'll be in the full top 30 in the handbook next month. What the focus should be, however, is that Stewart is a legitimate part of this conversation in a way that few would’ve seen coming a year ago.
5. There are a lot of redundancies in the areas of strength
Though it's hard to get the gist of a 30-deep list from the first 10 slots, this group gives a picture of where the Orioles are strongest and where they'll need to improve their depth. It's almost all starting pitchers and outfielders, and while they obviously need arms in a desperate way, the corner outfield spots every prospect would occupy — except for center field possibilities Hays and Cedric Mullins on their best days — are already full, as are first base and designated hitter.
There's a world in, say, 2019, when the Orioles could be trying to fit Trey Mancini, Mark Trumbo, Chris Davis, Hays, Mullins, Anthony Santander, Stewart and Mountcastle into four lineup spots.
On the opposite side, there's a paucity of infielders, depending on how you view Mountcastle. That's why many of the Orioles' early minor league free-agent signings added infield depth for the high minors, and why over $1 million was dealt in international bonus slots to acquire middle infield depth for the low minors this past summer.
The possible strength of the outfield group could create trade possibilities, but absent that, the Orioles better hope for continued health and contract extensions for the men on the infield dirt for years to come.