Winning is probably pretty low on the priority list when it comes to what the Orioles want for their minor league prospects.
It certainly doesn’t hurt, but once a team is full of players that are overperforming at their respective levels, it shows they need a new challenge. At this stage in the season, though, having a pair of affiliates in Double-A Bowie and Low-A Delmarva each complete six-game series sweeps shows there must be a lot going right on the Orioles’ farm.
Each week, The Baltimore Sun will break down five of the top performers in the Orioles’ prospect ranks and include some superlatives for those who didn’t make that cut.
1. Double-A Bowie catcher Adley Rutschman
In sporadic looks at Rutschman in both 2019 and the past two spring trainings, it’s been abundantly clear that he knows the strike zone and isn’t going to chase pitches. It’s just been a matter of being on-time enough to connect when he does take his cuts in the strike zone.
A week in which Rutschman walked 10 times against three strikeouts with a double and two home runs — including one off his face on the scoreboard with the game on the line Sunday — shows he’s getting to where he wants to be at the plate.
Stringing together a few more weeks like this will likely make the drumbeat to just get Rutschman, the Orioles’ top prospect according to Baseball America, up to Baltimore a loud one. No one is at that point yet. But that might have been the best week of his pro career, and this kind of production is nice to see.
2. Double-A Bowie infielder Terrin Vavra
As good as Rutschman’s week was, it wasn’t even the best on his own team. He trailed Pat Dorrian, whose story is one of the best in the minors this year, and No. 22 prospect Vavra, one of the top players the Orioles brought back in last summer’s trades.
Acquired from the Colorado Rockies for reliever Mychal Givens, Vavra was 10-for-24 (. 417) with a 1.283 OPS and two home runs last week. He’s batting .387 with a 1.210 OPS, and his .533 on-base percentage is the best in the entire Orioles system.
Since the end of the 2019 season, the Orioles acquired 10 players in trades who are on minor league rosters right now. One of the more intriguing parts of this minor league season is seeing what the Orioles have in them, and Vavra is certainly making a good impression.
3. High-A Aberdeen right-hander Grayson Rodriguez
After a two-start week in the Ironbirds’ opening series, the No. 2 Orioles prospect pitched just once this week but made it count. He struck out 11 while allowing three hits, including a solo home run, while hitting a batter in five innings, improving his season line to 1-0 with a 1.46 ERA and 0.973 WHIP. He and DL Hall lead the system with 23 strikeouts; they’re each fanning nearly two batters per inning.
Rodriguez looks to be dealing with the jump in competition well after spending all of 2019 at Low-A Delmarva. But considering his time at the alternate site and his premium stuff, Rodriguez might already be ready for more.
4. Low-A Delmarva infielder Gunnar Henderson
Asked Sunday during the MASN telecast whether he was surprised that Henderson had started so well at age-19 in full-season ball, executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias said he wasn’t, considering how talented Henderson was and how much he grew last year at the alternate site against older competition.
Henderson, the team’s sixth-ranked prospect, had as productive a week as one could imagine during this Fredericksburg series. He went 10-for-23 (. 435) with four doubles, a home run, and 13 RBIs while recording a 1.221 OPS to earn the league’s Player of the Week honor. It’s early days for Henderson, but there’s probably not a more promising thing for a club than to have teenage infield prospects performing well in full-season ball. The hit rate on such players has to be high, and Henderson certainly qualifies so far.
5. Low-A Delmarva infielder Jordan Westburg
Conversely, a high college draft pick from a big school like Westburg, the 30th overall pick in 2020 out of Mississippi State, being in Low-A should just be a box-checking effort and not a challenge. It looks like that’s the case for the team’s No. 11 prospect.
Westburg and Henderson are flipping between shortstop and third base and also sharing quite a production load, going a combined 7-for-17 (. 412) with a home run, two doubles and a 1.266 OPS.
Having two high draft picks on the left side of the same infield the way the Orioles do in Delmarva is nice, but considering Westburg’s college experience, he might not be long for the South Atlantic League. Moving him up to Aberdeen would allow both players to play shortstop more regularly, as well.
The top prospect not featured so far
Left-hander DL Hall, the Orioles’ No. 3 prospect according to Baseball America, continued to show off the “new DL” Tuesday with an electric start in Bowie’s home opener by striking out nine in five innings of two-hit ball without a walk. It was closer to his early 2019 form Sunday, as Hall pitched 2 ⅔ innings and allowed five earned runs on four hits with four walks and four strikeouts.
That doesn’t dim the team’s hopes for him, but at least cools for now some of the excitement for one of the best left-handed pitching prospects in the game. Facing a team a second time in a week the way Hall did in this series will be a challenge as he has to learn to get out hitters who are familiar with his electric stuff. He did it last year at the alternate site, and the Orioles will have to believe he will again this year.
The best former top-30 prospect of the week
Baltimore Orioles Insider
This is cheating a bit, but catcher Brett Cumberland was ranked the No. 23 prospect in the Atlanta Braves’ system in 2017 ahead of his first full season as a second-round pick out of California. He came to the Orioles as part of the Kevin Gausman trade, and is now playing every day at Triple-A Norfolk and trying to bring his catching along to match his prowess at the plate.
The latter has been no problem of late. Cumberland hit .333 with a .970 OPS, a home run and two doubles in six games this week, and is batting .282 with an .851 OPS and a pair of home runs through the first two series of the year.
Mike Elias acquisition of the week
Let’s just list the Dylan Bundy trade here: Right-hander Kyle Bradish struck out nine with three hits and two walks in five shutout innings in his second start for Bowie, and right-hander Kyle Brnovich allowed a home run and nothing else while striking out five in 5 ⅔ innings in his second start for Aberdeen.
Right-hander Zach Peek is still getting built up on a crowded staff at Delmarva, and Isaac Mattson struggled some in his return to Triple-A after making his debut with the Orioles on May 7.
Adding a good pitching prospect at every level in exchange for a couple years of a big league pitcher while in a rebuild isn’t the worst idea, it seems.
Time to give some shine to …
A team doesn’t sweep a six-game series without getting production from everywhere, and Bowie was no exception. First baseman J.C. Escarra hit two home runs and had a bases-clearing double to help them to a walk-off win Sunday.
Like many of the Bowie hitters, the 26-year-old first baseman is showing good plate discipline and attacking pitches he can drive, helping him to a 1.007 OPS through two weeks.