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Four takeaways from the Orioles’ top prospect rankings at Baseball America | ANALYSIS

As the Orioles’ to-the-studs rebuild continues into 2022, the team’s improving farm system has taken more than its fair share of the spotlight from fans and observers who are interested in learning just how quickly the team might be good again.

Those fans have something else to study as Baseball America on Tuesday released its top 10 prospect list for the Orioles’ farm system to kick off its 2022 rankings.

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For the sixth year, it’s been my honor to put the rankings together for their annual prospect handbook, with the top 10 representing just a small piece of the offseason work. It’s an informative process that brings plenty of insight from inside and outside the organization on both the players themselves and the state of the organization as a whole.

Here are four takeaways from this year’s list:

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Orioles executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias, pictured at Orioles FanFest in 2019, has helped reshape the team's farm system with an analytical approach.
Orioles executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias, pictured at Orioles FanFest in 2019, has helped reshape the team's farm system with an analytical approach. (Ulysses Muñoz/Baltimore Sun)

These rankings seem to reflect the priorities and beliefs of the new regime.

Three years isn’t exactly a short amount of time, but considering two of those years featured a shortened draft and that there wasn’t much trade value on the major league roster when Mike Elias took over as executive vice president and general manager in November 2018, it’s striking to see how much the new top 10 reflects the new front office’s thinking.

Just like the Orioles under Dan Duquette believed they had to develop pitching to compete and drafted accordingly, this front office has prioritized impact bats with proven track records almost exclusively. That’s reflected in their top prospects this winter.

Beginning with Adley Rutschman (No. 1 overall) and through succeeding top picks Heston Kjerstad and Colton Cowser, they’ve taken players who pass muster with their scouts and analysts thanks to impressive profiles at the plate.

With later picks, they added potential impact infielders in Gunnar Henderson and Jordan Westburg, and their hitting program has helped a pair of recent draftees with prolific raw power — Kyle Stowers and Coby Mayo — take their game to the next level.

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That the two most talented pitchers — Grayson Rodriguez and DL Hall — were taken with top picks before the new regime arrived allowed the Orioles to focus on hitting, but it’s also baked into their belief system (and statistical models) that hitters are the safer bets and can help the major league club quicker than a pitcher.

It’s only been one year, but it’s hard to argue with the results. There’s far less attrition with top hitting prospects, and the Orioles seem to keep finding more of them at every turn. They’re counting on some of these players to be cornerstones for many years to come. While that’s a big ask, the possibility they have a few of those types of players is a lot closer to reality than it would have been a few years ago.

Grayson Rodriguez, the Orioles' top pitching prospect throwing a pitch for Bowie on June 15, is No. 2 on the team's top prospect list, according to Baseball America.
Grayson Rodriguez, the Orioles' top pitching prospect throwing a pitch for Bowie on June 15, is No. 2 on the team's top prospect list, according to Baseball America. (Kenneth K. Lam / Baltimore Sun)

The three pitchers in their top 10 is the fewest in a decade, and a lot went into that.

Entering the 2012 season, the Orioles’ top 10 at Baseball America featured top prospect Dylan Bundy, right-hander Parker Bridwell and reliever Dan Klein. Every year since, there have been at least four pitchers in the top 10 and as many as six in 2019, when Rodriguez, DL Hall, Keegan Akin, Hunter Harvey, Dean Kremer and Blaine Knight were featured in the first part of their list.

That changed this year with just Rodriguez and Hall (Nos. 2 and 3) near the top and Kyle Bradish in the next tier. Mike Baumann narrowly missed out on the No. 10 spot, a combination of lingering effects of his elbow injury from the alternate training site in 2020 and the elevation of some of the organization’s breakout hitting prospects.

Baumann has long been in a cluster of prospects in the 7-15 range in the Orioles’ system along with Akin, Kremer and Bruce Zimmermann, all of whom graduated in 2021 after debuting last summer. Zac Lowther and Alexander Wells, also in that mix, had mixed major league experiences that will be reflected in where they end up ranked.

But absent all of them, and with the Orioles taking only a handful of pitchers early in the past few drafts, there weren’t many pitchers even in consideration for the top 10 outside the four listed. The Orioles have a group of pitchers who began 2021 in the low minors and could push higher if they build on this year’s success, including Drew Rom, Brandon Young, Kyle Brnovich, and Zack Peek. But until the Orioles’ plan of bringing along these pitchers without top-of-the-draft pedigrees pans out, this is going to be a hitter-heavy system for awhile.

Aberdeen infielder Jordan Westburg, pictured on July 25, batted .285 with 15 home runs between Delmarva, Aberdeen and Bowie in 2021.
Aberdeen infielder Jordan Westburg, pictured on July 25, batted .285 with 15 home runs between Delmarva, Aberdeen and Bowie in 2021. (Matt Button / The Aegis/Baltimore Sun Media)

The infield depth has been addressed in an impressive way.

Ahead of the 2017 season, Ryan Mountcastle was a shortstop. A year later, he’d been moved to third base, and by the time he made his major league debut in 2020, it was as a first baseman and left fielder. But for awhile, he was the only Orioles infield prospect of note, and the major league team reflected it once Manny Machado and Jonathan Schoop left.

But beginning with Henderson’s selection early in a 2019 draft that also brought infielder Joey Ortiz to the organization and continuing on through selections and seven-figure signings of Westburg and Mayo in 2020 and Connor Norby in 2021, the Orioles have addressed the infield in myriad ways.

Trades of major leaguers brought a handful of other infielders the Orioles like, including Terrin Vavra from the Colorado Rockies, and they’ve also traded for and signed several teenage infielders from Latin America to further fill out the depth chart.

Henderson, Westburg and Mayo each having impressive seasons were only a small part of why they jumped into the top 10. Each has thrived in the Orioles’ new hitting program and are working to swing at pitches they can do damage on and start tapping into more power without sacrificing contact or whiffing more.

There was a time when the only hitters in the Orioles’ top 10 lists were outfielders, and all of them are in the majors right now. Before long, they’ll be pushed by another wave.

Aberdeen outfielder Kyle Stowers hit 27 home runs, the most of any Orioles minor leaguer in 2021.
Aberdeen outfielder Kyle Stowers hit 27 home runs, the most of any Orioles minor leaguer in 2021. (Matt Button / The Aegis/Baltimore Sun Media)

Kyle Stowers’ emergence could help mitigate the uncertainty with Heston Kjerstad.

It’s been over a year since the Orioles had to explain Kjerstad’s absence from their fall instructional camp as a non-baseball medical issue, one we now know to be myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart muscle that has lingered for the better part of a year. He had a recurrence of it this summer that shut down his progress, but he was back swinging a bat in September and showed off his progress on social media. Now, he’s at fall camp.

Kjerstad’s selection as the No. 2 overall pick in 2020 came down to the fact that the Orioles believed he was going to be a power-hitting corner outfielder who could get to the majors quickly. There’s simply no way to tell whether he’ll be able to regain whatever strength he lost and slug his way to the majors. But in his absence, another power-hitting corner outfielder emerged in Stowers, who led the Orioles’ minor leaguers with 27 home runs over three levels and shared the organization’s Minor League Player of the Year award with Rutschman.

Stowers, selected with their third first-day pick in 2019, was a bit of a question mark internally when the team took Kjerstad a year later. Stowers didn’t have the best pro debut, and his strikeout concerns were enough to tamp down expectations for what he could be. He still struck out a lot, mostly because of his aggressive swing, but he also hits the ball hard as consistently as anyone in the organization. The Orioles are working to cut down on his swings-and-misses in the strike zone to help him punish mistakes, and he’s already shown he can hold his own controlling the plate.

Of course, it would be better to have both Kjerstad and Stowers both healthy and thriving. The Orioles’ 2020 draft would look a lot better if Kjerstad had played, and the questions about the club’s strategy (which were overblown at the time anyway) would have looked silly if he had hit 20-plus home runs while climbing three levels of the minors like a few of the other top bats who started at Low-A Delmarva. But Stowers’ year means the Orioles aren’t exactly smarting from having their right fielder of the future miss all of 2021. Now, Kjerstad has some competition to overcome when he returns.

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