Another first for the Orioles’ developing farm system came Wednesday, with Baltimore coming in fourth in Baseball America’s latest organizational rankings.
It’s the first preseason top-five ranking for the Orioles, though they ranked second in the most recent midseason edition. In addition to the Seattle Mariners, who retained the top spot, Baltimore also trails its American League East rival Tampa Bay Rays and the Pittsburgh Pirates.
The Orioles entered last season with the No. 7 farm system in Baseball America’s view, with executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias inheriting a farm system that was 22nd in 2019′s preseason rankings. They jumped to 12th before the next season, largely fueled by the addition of catcher Adley Rutschman, selected with the first overall pick in the 2019 draft.
Now, Rutschman is a near-consensus pick for baseball’s top prospect, while Baseball America has right-hander Grayson Rodriguez, selected in the first round a year earlier by the previous front office regime, as the No. 6 overall prospect, the highest-ranked pitcher.
That pairing will give Baltimore a boost in any ranking of farm systems, with the hope that they’ll eventually be contributing to major league wins and playoff contention. But this top-five status shows the “elite talent pipeline” Elias promised after he was hired is well under construction.
Although having the No. 1 farm system is less of an organizational goal than contending for World Series titles, it’s not as if they’re juxtaposing aspirations. As Baseball America noted, 16 of the past 17 teams to be atop its preseason farm system rankings reached the postseason within the next two years, with the exception being a Kansas City Royals organization that made consecutive World Series appearances beginning the third year after being No. 1.
That the Orioles have now slightly slipped in the rankings to a place where three teams are in front of them shows there’s still room to grow, and each of those teams offers an element Baltimore is trying to match.
Mariners: Top-tier depth
With baseball’s top hitting and pitching prospects leading the Orioles’ system, it’s tough to argue that another organization has a better pairing of highly ranked minor leaguers. The Detroit Tigers are the only other team with two top 10 prospects in outfielder Riley Greene (4) and infielder Spencer Torkelson (5).
Seattle comes close, with outfielder Julio Rodriguez (2) challenging Rutschman for the top spot and right-hander George Kirby (12) joining Rodriguez and Rays right-hander Shane Baz as the clear-cut top three among pitching prospects. And although the Orioles have as many top 100 prospects as the Mariners, Seattle has two more ranked in the top 50, including shortstop Noelvi Marte at No. 18.
Fifty is somewhat of an arbitrary cutoff, given Baltimore’s third- and fourth-ranked prospects came in at 52nd (left-hander DL Hall) and 57th (infielder Gunnar Henderson). Both could easily play their way into the top 50 by the next edition of the rankings, though it’s also possible at least Rutschman will have graduated by then.
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Still, although Baltimore has the strongest top two of any major league team, there are teams that beat them out in terms of depth. With recent high draft picks in Henderson, Colton Cowser, Jordan Westburg and Heston Kjerstad poised to climb up the system in 2022, it’s possible that won’t be the case this time next year even if Baltimore’s top three prospects all have significant major league time in 2022.
Rays: Major league experience
The organizational goal is obviously not to have baseball’s No. 1 farm system, but a minor league system that perpetually produces top talent to feed a consistently contending major league team. In many ways, the Orioles are trying to echo the Rays.
Despite low payrolls, Tampa Bay keeps finding ways to produce young talent and win major league games. The Orioles hope their methodology of the former will soon lead to the latter, but the Rays’ knack for acquisition and development will be tough to match. Despite graduating several top prospects over the past year — including phenom Wander Franco, whose promotion to the majors soon led to Rutschman’s ascension to the No. 1 spot — the Rays retained a highly ranked system. Tampa Bay has had a preseason top-five system for five straight years, and this year, the Rays have five top 100 prospects. Although that matches Baltimore’s total, Tampa Bay’s top three prospects have already appeared in the major leagues. Of the Orioles’ top 10 prospects, only Rutschman, outfielder Kyle Stowers and right-hander Kyle Bradish have even reached Triple-A.
That’s not only a sign of the readiness of the Rays’ top prospects, but also a byproduct of their major league success. They turned to prospects when they needed help to win games, while Baltimore’s focus remains on minor league development rather than major league contention.
Pirates: International signings
Last month, the Orioles secured their largest international signing class in terms of financial investment, giving out the biggest bonus to a Latin American teenager in franchise history and signing their top five commitments to a collective $4 million. But even as the Orioles’ investment into Latin America has skyrocketed — with a facility in the Dominican Republic also under construction — the fruits of those efforts have yet to reach the upper levels of their farm system or top prospect lists.
The Pirates have six top 100 prospects, with half having signed out of Dominican Republic as teenagers. Although international prospects could make up a third of the Orioles’ top 11-30 range, none of those players appear in their top 10.
When Elias’ front-office regime took over, the group recognized this as a deficient area and has quickly worked to revamp it. But given that it’s a process that generally involves signing players half a decade or more away from sniffing the majors, Baltimore seemingly has yet to see the full impact of those efforts reflected in organizational rankings. With the early returns, though, it figures to be only a matter of time.