Monday’s release of the annual Top 100 prospect rankings from industry leaders Baseball America brought some good news for the Orioles, who had five of their best young players listed among the brightest future stars in the game.
Top prospect Adley Rutschman was No. 2 overall, with right-hander Grayson Rodriguez No. 22, left-hander DL Hall No. 59, and outfielders Heston Kjerstad and Ryan Mountcastle checking in at No. 62 and No. 63, respectively.
It was an honor for each in its own way. Rutschman is behind only the returning top prospect in Tampa Bay’s Wander Franco, while Rodriguez and Hall are the sixth- and 22nd-best pitchers on the chart. Four of the five pitchers ranked above Rodriguez pitched in the big leagues in 2020, too, while Hall is the seventh-best lefty on the list.
For Kjerstad, a somewhat surprising pick at No. 2 overall in 2020, to be so close to Mountcastle — who played well in his debut this summer — is a fitting starting point on these rankings for the type of impact corner outfield bat he could become.
The arrival of each of these top prospects and their subsequent establishment on the Orioles roster will be significant markers of progress in the club’s rebuild, but the true sign that the efforts of executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias and his staff to build a holistic player development machine will be determined in next year’s rankings by one thing: will any of their infielders make the cut?
This will all be moot if the Orioles’ selection with the fifth pick in the 2021 MLB draft is an infielder. But that would only be the latest major investment to patch up the most significant hole in its future.
For a variety of reasons, the Orioles before Elias was hired were in a terrible drought of top infielders in the era after Manny Machado and Jonathan Schoop came to the majors. In the 2010s, Mountcastle and Cadyn Grenier were the only infielders the Orioles selected in the first round. Mountcastle is now a left fielder, while Grenier has struggled hitting despite a good defensive reputation. Expand that to the second round, and Jason Esposito (2011), Adam Hall (2017) and Gunnar Henderson (2019) qualify.
Henderson, the highest-rated Orioles prospect not to make the Top 100, was the beginning of the organization’s efforts to lessen this deficiency early in the 2019 draft. The Orioles also like the progress of second-day infielders Joey Ortiz and Darrel Hernaiz from that draft, and beginning with 30th overall pick Jordan Westburg in the 2020 draft, added several more infielders to the mix with college shortstop Anthony Servideo and high school third baseman Coby Mayo.
And those are just the domestic efforts. The Orioles’ return to the Latin American amateur market in 2019 featured 10 infielders. Dominican shortstop Leonel Sánchez seems to be the most promising in the early going. When the 2020 signing period opened belatedly last week, one of the top signees was Venezuelan shortstop Maikol Hernández, who received one of the club’s first-ever seven-figure signing bonuses. He was one of five infielders in the 17-player class, all of which are shortstops.
Senior director of international scouting Koby Perez said the team focused on up-the-middle players in their search for talent this year.
It’s already been seven seasons since the Orioles brought a homegrown Latin American infielder to the big leagues in Schoop, who debuted at the end of the 2013 season. These two classes represent the Orioles’ first chance to change that, though the typical development time for all but the absolute superstars signed from Latin America mean it will have been over a decade since Schoop’s debut if any of these players make the Orioles roster.
They’ve also supplemented the infield ranks with trades, especially over the past year with Tyler Nevin and Terrin Vavra acquired from the Colorado Rockies for Mychal Givens, AJ Graffanino and Greg Cullen from the Atlanta Braves for Tommy Milone, and young Dominican infielders Isaac De Leon from the Miami Marlins for Richard Bleier and Victor González from the New York Mets for Miguel Castro.
The trade group might not crack the Top 100 list next year, but serves as valuable depth to make up for some of the team’s issues in drafting and signing infielders last decade. They wouldn’t count as homegrown anyway.
Where the impact will come, though, is likely from Henderson or Westburg. Scouts at the team’s instructional camp had those two (along with Rutschman, of course) as the major league bats on the field, and the Orioles’ player development staff has been impressed by both since June.
Either of them being able to climb into Baseball America’s Top 100 by this time next year, though, will likely be dictated by how much of a season there is in the low minors in 2021. Their progress in 2020, with Henderson impressing at the Orioles’ secondary site and Westburg exceeding expectations at the fall camp, is only worth so much.
Getting them on the field and performing that well in games, though, would likely make them candidates. As for international signings such as Sánchez and Hernández, the Dominican Summer League season is similarly in jeopardy this summer.
Sánchez could end up in the Gulf Coast League, and with two teams planned for that circuit and relatively small position player pools from the past two drafts, the Orioles could push for some of their top Latin American prospects to jump stateside quickly to get them in games after the pandemic affected their development in their teenage years so much.
Any one of those players popping up to the level of being ranked among the game’s best prospects would mean one of the biggest challenges of the Elias front office is being met. With Rodriguez and Hall already in place and improvements from so many others already accounted for, they’ve done well to build up the pitching infrastructure. Outfield depth was never an issue, and Rutschman will own the catcher position for this entire decade.
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Bringing an impact homegrown infielder through an organization that’s been bereft of them might have been their most daunting player development task two-plus years ago when Elias was hired, but the 2021 season could be when that becomes a much more realistic one to accomplish.