When the Orioles made five trades in two July weeks, the influx of minor league players in their system, combined with a number of breakout seasons in their minor leagues, made for a jumbled set of prospect rankings when the entire system was examined.
Now that the minor league seasons are over, the hierarchy is coming into better focus. For the second year running, I've had the privilege of putting together the Orioles' prospect rankings for the Baseball America handbook. The top 10 is out today, and here's some background on how I arrived at them, what it all means and where some of the expected names ended up.
1. There's talent at the top, but then a steep drop
With the recent acquisition of Yusniel Díaz in the six-player trade for Manny Machado in mid-July, the Orioles added to a talent base that has developed some impact potential over the last year-plus. Behind him is left-hander DL Hall, the team's 2017 first-round draft pick who had a legitimate claim to be No. 1 himself and could pitch his way into the conversation as one of the top pitching prospects in the game by this time next year.
Each has the talent to be in the top half of any league-wide top-100 list this offseason, and Hall would probably be better thought of in any other organization than one with the pitching development history of the Orioles. With Ryan Mountcastle and Austin Hays maintaining lofty rankings despite vastly different seasons at Double-A Bowie — the former didn't hit at all upon his introduction to the level in 2017 but raked there this season, while Hays followed up his breakout 2017 with a disastrous 2018 when he was beset by injuries and swing changes that he only recovered from in August.
Those two entered the year as top-100 prospects, and while Mountcastle only solidified that despite his defensive limitations, these Orioles rankings treat Hays' struggles as an anomaly and make three likely everyday position players and a mid-rotation starter among the Orioles' top four — a fine start as they look to rebuild from the ground up.
2. These rankings should be instructive about the Orioles' five July trades
While Díaz is the top prospect and the clear prize in the trades that sent Machado, Zach Britton, Brad Brach, Kevin Gausman, Darren O'Day and Jonathan Schoop out of Baltimore, the only other player acquired in the trades to make the cut for the top third of the list was right-hander Dean Kremer at No. 9. They’re two of nine players in the top 30 who came from the July trades.
Kremer continued the breakout that began at High-A Rancho Cucamonga in the Los Angeles Dodgers system once he came to the Orioles, and ended up leading the minors with 178 strikeouts. What distinguished Kremer over the likes of Dillon Tate and Luis Ortiz, former first-round picks who came to the Orioles in the Britton and Schoop trades, respectively?
While all of their grades are essentially the same, the advantage goes to Kremer for his aptitude to improve. He was a swingman who was barely making the grade this time last year, and his breakout was a symptom of him amplifying his curveball usage and going with a four-seam fastball to play off that. The career trajectories of Ortiz and Tate have been defined by the promise that made them first-round picks in 2014 and 2015, respectively, but the progress hasn't always been there.
At any given time, Tate has the looks of a pitcher who can have three plus pitches. But those don't often line up to the point where it's all there at once, and the Orioles will be the third team to try to harness that. As for Ortiz, perhaps the lack of success he had in his brief major league time will make a difference in accelerating his progress some. Each has battled injuries and just needs to pitch, but there comes a point when having been drafted high doesn't mean as much — especially when two teams each have decided to move on from them.
3. Hunter Harvey gets one last chance
So how do these two newcomers who have battled injuries and were getting used to another new organization get dinged while Hunter Harvey stays high on the list despite another year of injuries?
The difference is simply the stuff. All of Harvey's strengths and weaknesses remain. It's a big fastball with late life, and there's potential for a plus breaking ball to go with the new cutter he's been working on but hasn't thrown in games. There's also not been enough mound time since he pitched with Low-A Delmarva in 2014 to improve his changeup or his command.
Still, the impact stuff is still there to allow for the possibility that Harvey is, for the fifth year running, the best arm in the system despite not really pitching again. The constructs of the Baseball America ranking structure allow for Harvey to be graded out as that kind of pitcher while acknowledging the risk associated with a player who is so rarely on the mound, so it's hard to ignore the upside, even now.
4. The next tier of pitching prospects outside the rankings will do more to determine the team's short-term success than the top 10
While the fates of their first-round pitchers — Hall, Grayson Rodriguez and even Harvey — might end up being the singular separator for a new front office and possibly a new player-development regime against the old one, the next tier of pitchers being able to take that next step and grow into major league starters will be paramount to a quick turnaround at the major league level.
From the likes of Tate and Ortiz to the mass of arms in the low minors who had impressive years such as Brenan Hanifee, Zac Lowther, Michael Baumann and Alex Wells, the Orioles can make a lot of things easier if they end up meeting or exceeding their current outlooks. In a changing game where innings are being covered in unique ways and the game is going away from starters who are expected to turn a lineup over three times, having pitchers with the ability to be effective and give different looks however they're used could change the pitching dynamic in this organization for the better.
Hanifee, with an effective sinker and the potential for two above-average secondary pitches, is the best of that group. Were it not for the undeniable potential of third-round pick Blaine Knight of Arkansas, Hanifee would have been in the top 10. But absent the Orioles' recent struggles in bringing along their first-round pitchers, the mark of a successful organization is hitting on the rest of the first- and second-day pitchers they target in the draft. This crop can make the Orioles look good in that regard.
5. Graduations make this an incomplete picture of the Orioles' young talent base
The threshold for still carrying rookie status (130 at-bats or 50 innings pitched) was one that knocked several potential players off this list who the Orioles still need contributions from. Chief among them was catcher Chance Sisco, who made the team as the Opening Day catcher but had a lost year on all fronts. His defensive questions remain, and considering he didn't hit, what is he now? He was someone who was going to have to hit to have value considering what he is behind the plate, but all that's been brought into question after what he went through this year.
Another early-season graduate was outfielder Anthony Santander, who didn't even get a look as a September call-up after he fulfilled his Rule 5 roster requirements in May and spent the rest of the year in the minors. He'll get a fresh start with a new staff, but didn't make a favorable impression in his first major league stint.
Fewer questions remain for fellow graduate Cedric Mullins, who came up in early August as the everyday center fielder and hit well early before slumping to a .235 batting average, and third baseman Renato Núñez. And on the pitching side, David Hess and Jimmy Yacabonis each graduated, though they project to be big parts of whatever the 2019 Orioles look like.
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Continued development for that group will be vital if the Orioles don’t want the next few years to be as tough at the major league level as many are bracing for.