This time last year, the Orioles brought six players into their organization in a shortened Major League Baseball draft with no idea when they’d get them onto a field to bring out their talents.
Now that they finally have, that 2020 draft class and their 2019 predecessors — who would have made their full-season debuts last year if not for the COVID-19 pandemic — are more than making up for lost time.
For an organization that has so much riding on building through the draft and player development, the success in the first month-plus of the minor league season for the dozens of players they selected over the past two drafts is encouraging. Everyone, from 2019 top pick Adley Rutschman on down to the undrafted free agents from 2020, is making strides.
“We’re really pleased with their performance so far,” Orioles director of player development Matt Blood said. “I think it’s a testament to the work that they put in, the communication that they had with our coaching staff and the diligence that they showed throughout the layoff, through COVID. I think these guys continued to work, and they to the message and they’ve gotten off to pretty good starts. It’s exciting to see.”
The six-person 2020 draft class has just half of its members in affiliated ball, with shortstop Jordan Westburg already moved up from Low-A Delmarva to High-A Aberdeen. Westburg, selected in the competitive balance round with the 30th overall pick, hit .366 with nine extra-base hits and a 1.075 OPS for the Shorebirds in earning organizational Player of the Month honors and is still getting his feet under him for the IronBirds.
Second-round outfielder Hudson Haskin is impressing for Delmarva with a .297 average and an .829 OPS with three home runs and 11 steals.
“He’s someone who wants to get better,” Shorebirds hitting coach Patrick Jones said. “He has a growth mindset. He’s willing to get out of his comfort zone and very curious person in general who wants to get better. … It’s fun to see him start to put that all together now — stealing bases, catching balls in the outfield, hitting for a little bit of power, walking. A little bit of everything. It’s very cool to see him develop even in just a short amount of time.”
The third player who started at Low-A ball, third-round shortstop Anthony Servideo, is on the injured list as of last week with hip soreness, but had 28 walks in 24 games to help him to an .801 OPS in his professional debut.
“What I’ve seen from all three of them is they’re good baseball players,” Blood said. “They’re hard workers, they’re competitive, they all have good plate discipline, they play good defense — they’re just good baseball players. I’m really pleased with their progress so far, and I think they’re all going to be valuable players for us.”
Down in Florida at extended spring training, No. 2 overall pick Heston Kjerstad is slowly ramping himself back up after being diagnosed with myocarditis, a heart condition, last year. He was not able to physically exert himself until he was cleared to participate in baseball this spring.
Executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias said last month that it’s “probably going to take some time” for Kjerstad to be game ready, and that the Orioles were going to handle his progression “very slowly and methodically and carefully.”
Blood, who was down in Sarasota with the extended spring training group this week, said the priority is “getting him back to [being] fully, physically healthy.”
“My expectation for this year is just to hopefully get him to that,” Blood said.
Kjerstad is joined by fourth-round third baseman Coby Mayo at extended spring training, where Mayo will soon begin play on one of the Orioles’ two complex league teams. Their only pitcher selected in 2020, right-hander Carter Baumler, had Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery in the fall and won’t recover in time to pitch this season.
The shortened draft meant a meaningful crop of undrafted free agents, with first baseman J.D. Mundy batting .324 with a 1.038 OPS to lead Delmarva and pitchers Brandon Young, Ryan Watson and Thomas Girard also getting established as prospects for the Shorebirds.
This year is not only serving as an introduction to full-season ball for this class, but also the much larger 2019 draft class headlined by Rutschman. That group got a few months experience before that summer ended but have mostly been working remotely and at fall instructional camp and spring training before finally getting into game action in May.
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Rutschman, the No. 2 overall prospect in the game according to Baseball America, is showing himself to be the comprehensive offensive threat he was touted as, entering Thursday batting .296 with a 1.008 OPS and eight home runs for Double-A Bowie.
Two other college bats from that class — infielder Joseph Ortiz (fourth round) and outfielder Johnny Rizer (seventh round) — made great strides during the shutdown year and are already in Double-A with Rutschman.
A few younger draftees such as infielders Gunnar Henderson and Darell Hernaiz are at Delmarva, with Henderson named the Low-A East Player of the Month and climbing onto Top 100 prospect lists in the process.
Blood noted the success of Rutschman, Henderson, Ortiz and Rizer, among others, for how they’ve seamlessly gotten back into game action.
“[Kyle] Stowers is playing well too, Zach Watson’s in that group. Shayne Fontana, Maverick Handley,” Blood said. “These are all players that are performing and doing it really without a Low-A season. None of them really got to play in Low-A, so they’re doing it in High-A and I’d say that they’re on schedule and they’re all moving in that direction towards Double-A.”
Almost all of the Orioles’ early-round picks were hitters as they waited for pitchers later in the draft that fit the specifications of what they think works best and what they can best teach. That group is spread out between Delmarva and Aberdeen.
“For the most part, guys are throwing well,” Blood said. “If you look at the numbers, we’re striking guys out, we’re not walking too many, our ERAs are down. For the most part, guys are performing. I think we targeted specific traits and qualities and we trained those as well, and continued to add strength and improve their deliveries and for the most part, I think we’re seeing success from those arms.”