With only the Triple-A Norfolk Tides in their final stretch of games and a few contests left in the Dominican Summer League, a banner year on the Orioles farm is, for all intents and purposes, finished.
The team will fete its minor league award winners, including co-Brooks Robinson Minor League Player of the Year Award winners Adley Rutschman and Kyle Stowers and Jim Palmer Minor League Pitcher of the Year Grayson Rodriguez, on Tuesday at Camden Yards, and the progress made on the farm will be highlighted as the season ends given how the major league team has fared in 2021.
Boasting the game’s top farm system according to MLBPipeline.com and FanGraphs, and No. 2 overall according to Baseball America is only a small part of the tale.
Over hundreds of games and thousands of plate appearances and innings pitched at the minor league level, there was plenty to be gleaned about the direction of the organization in the third year of this rebuild under executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias.
Here are five things we learned about the Orioles’ farm during the 2021 minor league season.
There’s a cutting-edge hitting program in place that’s paying dividends
One of the many detriments of the lost 2020 season was not getting to see the work of the Orioles’ new hitting staff on the farm, a group that entered spring training with a collaborative and comprehensive new philosophy to develop modern hitters. They worked tirelessly with hitters during the virtual year, and the result was a spike in production at the full-season affiliates that signals plenty of good things to come.
Orioles minor league hitters had a .696 OPS over the four full-season levels in 2019. This year, that jumped 40 points to .736. In 2,172 fewer plate appearances, Orioles minor league hitters at the full-season level walked 341 more times with 136 more home runs. Seven qualified full-season hitters had an OPS over .800, while just one prospect achieved that in 2019 — Ryan Mountcastle.
There aren’t a ton of caveats, though it’s worth noting that strikeouts were up and batting average was down. I can’t imagine anyone inside the organization registers such a thing. There’s also the fact that even with a shortened 2020 draft, the condensed minor leagues made for less filler at the full-season affiliates this year.
Taken as a whole, there have been massive steps in developing hitters on the Orioles’ farm. It will be another thing to deliver them to Camden Yards ready to produce, but considering how well the hitters who came up in 2020 from this program at the alternate site did in the big leagues, there’s not much doubt what could be on the horizon here.
This front office seems to know exactly what to look for in drafting hitters
Much of that success, of course, came from hitters drafted in the last three drafts under Elias and assistant general manager Sig Mejdal, with domestic scouting supervisor Brad Ciolek running the drafts.
One of those seven players with an OPS over .800 — Robert Neustrom — was a holdover from the last regime. Another, Patrick Dorrian, was a trade acquisition in 2019. The rest largely read as a who’s-who of the highest-profile picks the Orioles have had in the last few years — co-players of the year Rutschman and Stowers, plus Jordan Westburg, Gunnar Henderson, and Andrew Daschbach. Coby Mayo was a revelation and would have been above that threshold if he spent more time at Delmarva, and Bowie infielders Terrin Vavra, JD Mundy, and Joey Ortiz all would have been on that list if not for injuries.
All that fails to even mention what the 2021 draft class, led by fifth overall pick Colton Cowser, did the last month with Delmarva. Cowser hit .347 with a .904 OPS and more walks than strikeouts in his month with the Shorebirds, one of four players along with Jacob Teter (.934 OPS), Connor Norby (.847), and Billy Cook (.846) who excelled in their first taste of full-season ball. All could be fast movers, and added to the rest of the productive hitters from the last three draft classes, have transformed the long-term ceiling of the Orioles lineups the rest of this decade.
The Orioles did well to protect young pitchers this year, but the few injuries stung
The Orioles’ hitting program essentially had the massive improvements in 2021 that the pitching program did in 2019, though success there is harder to quantify given how careful they tried to be with their young arms coming off last year’s shutdown. Rodriguez was able to show he was the top pitching prospect in the game despite pitching past the fifth inning once, and they supplemented the lack of experience going through a lineup a third time with intensive video sessions.
Whether it’s down to light workloads or struggles at higher levels, there are probably 20 pitchers whose 2021 seasons can be regarded as qualified successes. All, however, have the kinds of weapons the Orioles hope can make them effective long-term in any role going forward. Next year should give some clarity as many push into the high-minors without restriction.
It’s worth noting, however, what was lost in the instances where their caution wasn’t enough. DL Hall was every bit Rodriguez’s peer and was on track to perhaps push for a major league role in the second half when his elbow got sore, eventually ending his season due to a stress reaction. Right-hander Brenan Hanifee’s work at home last year had the player development staff abuzz, but he was lost early to Tommy John surgery. Carter Baumler, the 2020 fifth-round pick, would have been the bell cow of the low minors and was impressing at fall instructional league last year when his elbow injury required Tommy John.
Those three are among the best pitching prospects the Orioles have. As happy as they’ll be to have completed this rebuilding year, those losses are one of the true disappointments of the season.
Having two elite prospects in Rutschman and Rodriguez is as good a foundation as there can be
Rutschman and Rodriguez spent the summer establishing themselves as not only of their own class among prospects in the Orioles’ organization but in the entire league. That’s what high draft picks are supposed to do, but the Orioles are fortunate to have two paragons of everything they want to achieve in developing young players double as their best prospects.
For each, their work ethic and dedication to improvement are unmatched. Their acumen to take the information their coaches give them and apply it to their development is a significant part of that. But if the Orioles wanted to draw up a prototype hitter as an example of what they want to accomplish developing major league bats, Rutschman’s elite strike zone control and ability to drive the ball to all fields would be the starting point. Rodriguez’s electric fastball, willingness to go to his secondary pitches to both sides of the plate in any count and aptitude for pitching to a game plan designed to attack hitters’ weaknesses would be the same on the pitching side.
They’re just two players, and the Orioles are going to need a lot more than that to compete in the AL East. They’re two incredibly talented players, though, and there are worse places to start.
The fruits of this all should get to Camden Yards imminently
To that end, the first three seasons under Elias have largely been defined by caution when it comes to graduating players to the majors. A bevy of one-time top prospects began 2019 in Triple-A Norfolk despite having major league experience so they could finish their development there. Ryan Mountcastle and Keegan Akin each had full seasons of Triple-A in 2019, but were held off the major league roster once the 2020 season began to further their development at the alternate site.
And this year, the Orioles gave their recent wave of pitching prospects some time in Norfolk that they’d missed last year. On the hitting side, many of their prospects there struggled, but they waited a surprisingly long time to bring up Jahmai Jones, so the proclivity to keep players in Norfolk a while still bubbled through.
Even if the Orioles don’t spend much to improve the major league team this winter and thus, struggle again in 2022, there’s no reason that should continue to be the case. Elias said on MASN this weekend that Rutschman and Rodriguez could push for spots on the Opening Day roster, which is what those players will want to hear, even if it would take a lot to happen. Someone like Stowers could also prove he’s ready quickly with a hot start at Norfolk.
Jordan Westburg and Gunnar Henderson will need more time at Bowie but can move quickly. Any of the 2021 draftees can follow Westburg’s lead and end their first full season in Double-A, thus putting them on the major league radar in 2023.
Once the team is ready to compete, the calculus for how long players need to marinate in the minors will change. The hope is, in some cases, players force the issue before then and some of this talent can start to make an impact where it counts: in Baltimore.