At the top of the last few drafts, the Orioles have invested heavily in productive college hitters with the hope that those players can move up to the majors quickly.
That, plus a hitting program that has prospects honing their swing decisions and focusing on pitches they can drive for extra bases, has borne out an impressive statistical improvement on the farm.
In 2019, the Orioles only had six qualified full-season batters in the minor leagues with an OPS over .750, and two were major league depth pieces in Mason Williams and Jace Peterson. Only Ryan Mountcastle (.822) was above .800, with Adam Hall, Rylan Bannon and Austin Hays rounding out the list.
Two years later, there are 11 such players, with JD Mundy, Kyle Stowers and Adley Rutschman all above .900. All but one, outfielder Robert Neustrom, was drafted or acquired in the past three seasons.
Some of those players were among the best this week on the Orioles farm. Each week, The Baltimore Sun will break down five of the top performers in the Orioles’ prospect ranks and hand out some superlatives for those who didn’t make that cut.
1. Double-A Bowie outfielder Kyle Stowers
Given the Orioles’ emphasis on batted-ball data in their draft preparations, it’s no surprise that one of the 2019 draftees who had some of the hardest, most consistent exit velocities in the NCAA has emerged as a top power hitter in the Orioles’ system.
With four home runs (as well as four walks) and a 1.458 OPS this week, Stowers leads the organization with 21 home runs, including seven with High-A Aberdeen and 14 with Bowie.
With so much uncertainty and bad luck befalling the Orioles’ small 2020 draft class — with only infielders Jordan Westburg and Coby Mayo looking likely to have representative seasons — so many fast-movers and successful full-season debuts for the 2019 class have gone a long way toward elevating the Orioles’ farm system.
2. Low-A Delmarva outfielder Colton Cowser
This year’s No. 5 overall draft pick had a productive week at the plate in his second series with the Shorebirds, traveling to Salem and batting .368 with a .941 OPS to lead the team’s regulars. He had a double for his only extra-base hit of the week, but more importantly, walked five times against three strikeouts.
Between his time in the Florida Complex League and these two weeks at Delmarva, Coswer is batting .390 with a 1.049 OPS, seven extra-base hits, and more walks (12) than strikeouts (10) since making his professional debut.
3. Triple-A Norfolk catcher Adley Rutschman
Rutschman, the top prospect in baseball, has hits in 14 of the 16 games he’s played in three weeks at Triple-A Norfolk, including a five-game hitting streak last week against Jacksonville. Rutschman had a pair of doubles while batting .316 with an .879 OPS last week against the Jumbo Shrimp to bring him to .371 with a .943 OPS at Triple-A.
With the Triple-A season extending into October, Rutschman will end up getting nearly two months of playing time at the highest level of the minors. Not much he can do will change how quickly he gets to the majors, but maintaining this type of production won’t hurt his ability to force the issue next spring.
4. Double-A Bowie right-hander Grayson Rodriguez
The 21-year-old Texas native didn’t have his best statistical start Saturday against Erie, but seeing him settle in after a rocky first two innings was eye-opening.
Rodriguez, the top pitching prospect in baseball, bounced back after allowing a two-run homer two batters into the game and loading the bases with no outs in the second to pitch five innings, allowing three hits and two runs with nine strikeouts.
Whether it was the mound or his own mechanics, Rodriguez didn’t have much of a feel for his fastball early on, and he needed to lock in after he loaded the bases in the second. He relied on his slider and changeup plenty, so once he got going with the fastball, he was nearly unhittable.
The outing reinforced that there’s still growing pains for Rodriguez at Double-A, but also was instructive on just what kind of pitcher the Orioles could have on their hands should he continue to develop at this rate.
5. Double-A Bowie second baseman Terrin Vavra
A two-month back injury was particularly disappointing for the Orioles when it came to Vavra, a player who they immediately liked after he was acquired in last year’s Mychal Givens trade with the Colorado Rockies and who filled an important void when it came to high-minors infield depth in the organization.
He returned to Bowie this week to make an impact offensively, hitting a home run and two doubles while walking four times and stealing two bases. Vavra still has a few weeks left at Bowie, where he’s batting .265 with an .874 OPS in 35 games, but seems to be an ideal candidate to make up some of that lost game time in the Arizona Fall League once the minor league season wraps up.
The top prospect not featured so far
Left-hander DL Hall hasn’t pitched in months after his season-ending elbow injury, and the looming September roster expansion is a reminder of how much of a bummer that is. With his high-90s fastball and swing-and-miss secondary pitches, plus the fact that he started the year in Double-A and needs to be added to the Orioles’ 40-man roster this fall, Hall had an outside chance of pitching his way to the majors this year and being the first true top Orioles prospect to be called up since Ryan Mountcastle last August.
Such an ascent wouldn’t have made too much of a difference on the major league team’s chances this year, but could have been a nice carrot for fans who have stuck around all summer.
Mike Elias acquisition of the week
The Orioles’ lack of highly-drafted pitchers has meant slower progress in the low minors for many this year, but the acquisition of 2019 sixth-round pick Zach Peek from the Los Angeles Angels in the Dylan Bundy trade gave the organization someone worth paying attention to immediately.
Peek struck out seven without a walk in five innings of three-hit, one-run ball for Aberdeen on Wednesday, his fourth appearance out of six for the IronBirds in which he’s struck out at least six. The 23-year-old right-hander has a 4.20 ERA with a 1.37 WHIP and 96 strikeouts in 70 ⅔ innings between Delmarva and Aberdeen this year.
The best former top-30 prospect of the week
Right-hander Dean Kremer started Sunday at Norfolk and allowed a run on four hits while striking out three and walking none, bringing his ERA at Triple-A down to 5.96. It’s the first time it’s been below 6.00 at that level since the end of June. The Orioles have also been using him out of the bullpen to limit his innings in hopes of having him available to return to the majors for the stretch run if necessary.
Time to give some shine to …
Just because shortstop Jordan Westburg hasn’t been off to a flying start in Bowie doesn’t take away from the season he’s put together in his first full year of professional baseball. Westburg dominated at Delmarva in May before two-plus impressive months at Aberdeen, but he’s found the adjustment to Double-A difficult. He’s batting .143 with a .432 OPS and struggling to elevate the ball, but this will be valuable experience as he prepares to begin 2022 in Bowie and possibly push himself into major league consideration by the end of the 2022 season. What he does this September won’t change that trajectory.
A pair of Latin American prospects signed under former general manager Dan Duquette late in 2018 had good weeks in the Florida Complex League. Hector López, a 19-year-old right-hander from Panama, pitched five shutout innings, allowing one hit while striking out three in his first start of the summer. To that point, he’d allowed just three earned runs in 15 ⅓ innings of relief. Outfielder Isaac Bellony, 19, had five hits, including two doubles, in 13 at-bats.