An Orioles farm system that’s spent the past year improving both in player quality and outside perception came into focus Friday when Baseball America published its top-10 prospect rankings, the third edition of these rankings that I’ve been able to do and by far the most interesting.
Considering the addition of top overall draft pick Adley Rutschman atop the system and the steps forward so many players in the organization took in a banner year on the farm, there were more players to discuss with other team’s scouts and Orioles personnel than ever before — over 10,000 words worth of notes on nearly 50 players.
The fruits of that labor are in the Baseball America reports that came out Friday and in the prospect handbook in the winter and are constantly sprinkled throughout The Baltimore Sun’s minor league coverage.
Here are five takeaways from putting together the list, and what the positioning of the players in the top 10 means for them and the Orioles going forward.
Adley Rutschman is almost exclusively responsible for the jump in farm system rankings.
While Grayson Rodriguez (No. 2) was barely on the overall top prospect rankings last season, most of the players who will account for the Orioles’ entries onto the league-wide lists have already been on them, including DL Hall (No. 3), Ryan Mountcastle (No. 5) and Yusniel Diaz (No. 6). Austin Hays and Hunter Harvey were both on them in years past, but not recently.
So, it’s not as if there’s been this massive influx of talent that’s allowed the Orioles’ farm to go from the bottom of the league to the top 10 by many estimations. Some players ranked in the teens and 20s on last year’s list jumped up, but most of the statistical success has been by players not even in the top 30.
The improvement really comes down to adding what the Orioles hope will be and what the industry sees as a transformational talent in Rutschman, whose perfect swing from both sides and ability to command a game behind the plate make him one of the game’s best prospects automatically.
It’s a good thing to have someone like him, and adding the No. 2 overall pick next year will make for a loaded top five this time next year. But he is the tide that’s lifting this boat, at least in this sense.
The pitching tiers are far more distinct than they have been.
Rodriguez and Hall are deservedly above the rest of the pitchers charging toward the majors in these rankings, mostly because they have the stuff that got them drafted in the first round and have shown an ability to use it in games. And it should be noted that Hall didn’t so much take a step back this year after being ranked No. 2 in the organization midseason as much as Rodriguez just couldn’t be denied. A No. 2 or No. 3 left-handed starter might be ultimately more valuable than a right-hander, but Rodriguez doesn’t have the blemishes that Hall showed in High-A.
That said, those two are the top tier of the club’s pitching prospects. Excluding Hunter Harvey, who is his own animal but is still eligible, the next tier of Keegan Akin, Michael Baumann and Dean Kremer (who just missed this list at No. 11, but might as well be No. 10B) probably is the next cutoff. Whether it’s Akin’s fastball-changeup combination, or Baumann’s high-90s fastball and significantly improved slider, or Kremer’s ability to locate his fastball and miss bats with a curveball, there’s something other than guile and craft that works for them.
At some point, the stuff has to get some credit, and it does in these cases. That’s not to say that the pitchers in the next tier, including Zac Lowther, Alex Wells, Drew Rom and Bruce Zimmermann, all don’t have the stuff. There’s just a lot more barriers for left-handers without premium stuff.
It’s hard to see the benefit of the overall pitching program in a slice of rankings.
There’s no denying the influence of Chris Holt, who spent last year as minor league pitching coordinator before his role was expanded last month to director of pitching.
What became clear for the purposes of these rankings was twofold: first, those who couldn’t work within their confines struggled some. It’s not as if this is a cookie-cutter operation, but there seem to be some guidelines that the Orioles’ farmhands operate under: fewer fastballs, better pitch mixes, harder secondary stuff. Those who couldn’t do it fell, but not out of the rankings entirely.
Second, the pitchers who benefited most under Holt, such as Rodriguez and Baumann, were already good, and that’s something important to remember about what the Orioles are trying to do — find good players and make them better. There were plenty of deserving pitchers who improved, but not enough to crack the top 30.
For all the improvement that went on, three pitchers jumped into the rankings this year: Zimmermann, Cody Sedlock and Gray Fenter. Zimmermann has continued to outperform expectations, and the other two are healthy and improved because of said program. Ryan Wilson and Nick Vespi got consideration on the lower rungs of the farm, but there’s a lot of players to climb to get there.
If half of these guys are eligible next year, there’s going to be a real problem.
As exciting as the process of reporting these lists can be, and as legitimate as some of the progress made by the players on it has been, it’s a little disheartening to see so few graduations this year. Especially considering the position players in the high minors, that means a lot of players with the same questions and the same development goals in 2020.
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If they don’t meet them all and break into the majors, it might be a sign that all’s not well in the Orioles’ development system, even if all these players preceded the new front office. Hays will graduate from prospect status in the next major league game he plays. Mountcastle not getting at least 130 at-bats in the majors next year would be maddening, considering how he’s hit in the minors, defense or no defense. A healthy Harvey probably hits the 30-appearance graduation mark for Baseball America’s purposes; Akin making even a dozen major league starts could get him to the 50-inning graduation point as well.
It will all be well-deserved major league time at that point, but it’s time for these players to ship up and clear the way for the next wave in the top 10 of these rankings. And to that note…
The 2020 offseason prospect rankings might be like nothing this organization has ever seen.
What will two strong drafts, including another high pick, do for the overall depth of the Orioles’ farm system? There might not be a more anticipated question for the prospect industrial complex.
With plenty of expected graduations, a carryover top three who could each be top-50 prospects in league-wide lists, and another massive influx of talent coming in the 2020 draft, this system could completely change its complexion, especially if the way the 2019 draft was executed and received plays out again.
Already, the Orioles are left with too many pitchers in the low minors than rotation spots because of the quality of the college players they drafted last year. They targeted pitchers with plus secondary pitches who were malleable in other ways, and those are the types who put up standout numbers in the South Atlantic League. There’s also plenty of power in the college bats the Orioles took, and that tends to boost the farm’s status as well.
Plus, another year of development for some of those pitchers, such as Blaine Knight and Brenan Hanifee, who are between the high-minors wave and the low-minors wave, plus Triple-A success for some pitchers who still have something to prove, and this could continue to be a lot more fun than it used to be.