For all of their investments in the international arena under this front office regime, the Orioles likely remain at least three years away from any of the Latin American teenagers they’ve signed under executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias and senior director of international scouting Koby Perez actually reaching and contributing at the major league level.
César Prieto, though, is no teenager. As part of the Orioles’ $6.3 million international signing class Saturday, Prieto, a 22-year-old infielder, received a bonus of $650,000, tied for the second largest in the class and the fourth largest Elias and Perez have ever given out. Given his age and his success playing in his native Cuba, Prieto will likely begin his professional career in the “mid to upper levels” of the minors, Perez said, with the other members of the class bound for the Dominican Summer League. He is positioned to be the first product of Baltimore’s recent international investment to reach the majors and might even do so sometime in 2022.
“There’s a lot of excitement around César Prieto, and we’re excited that we were able to land him,” Perez said. “He is a high-profile human who has a very good track record of hitting.”
In May, Prieto defected while in Florida with the Cuban national team for an Olympic qualifying tournament. Before doing so, he established himself as one of the country’s premier players, leaving amid a national record 44-game hitting streak. Playing for his hometown team in Cienfuegos, Prieto hit .403/.463/.579 in his last season in the Cuban National Series with seven home runs and only 11 strikeouts in 360 plate appearances.
Perez said the Orioles have scouts who compare Prieto with Chicago Cubs second baseman Nick Madrigal, a former top-five draft pick who was teammates with Baltimore top prospect Adley Rutschman at Oregon State. Although Madrigal hits for minimal power, he is already one of the game’s premier contact hitters, with the lowest strikeout rate in the majors over the past two seasons.
“[Prieto has] the on-base skills, the bat-to-ball, he walks much more than he strikes out, and he brings a lot of baseball knowledge to the game,” Perez said. “I think we would be happy if he turns out to be that type of player.”
Because Prieto is under 25 and had played fewer than six professional seasons, he was eligible to sign with a major league organization only under the international bonus pool system. When Major League Baseball ruled him eligible in November, many teams had already committed most if not all of their pool allotments for the upcoming period to other prospects. That left the Orioles, who were tied for the largest bonus pool in the league, able to sign a talented player for less than what his value might have been otherwise.
“He decided on us,” Perez said. “There was other suitors, and we’re excited that he wants to take this journey with us.
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“Sometimes, you’ve got to wait for the late bloomer, or sometimes these guys from Cuba come out unexpectedly, and you want to be prepared to be able to get them. It played right into our hands in this situation.”
Perez noted that because Prieto has been in the country for only a handful of months, he’ll have an adjustment period in learning the language and the culture. He’ll possibly get his first official work with the organization later this month at the Orioles’ Ed Smith Stadium complex in Sarasota, Florida, where the team is holding mini-camps mostly for prospects set to begin their first full seasons.
“I think we’re gonna try and put him in a situation where he can succeed and feel good,” Perez said.
The Orioles thus won’t rush Prieto to the majors, as a player or as a person adjusting to living in a new county. It’s worth noting that Cuba’s national league is considered similar to a low minor league level in terms of overall talent, but a prospect hitting .400 with a 3% strikeout rate in High-A would be eye-popping, regardless. His high on-base and slugging percentages are largely derived from his plump batting average, rather than necessarily being indicators of his patience and power.
But Baltimore has openings around its infield in 2022, and prospects already in the system such as Gunnar Henderson and Jordan Westburg, their second selections in the 2019 and 2020 drafts, respectively, might be another year away after neither spent much time above High-A in 2021. There’s the intriguing possibility of those two and Prieto forming Double-A Bowie’s starting infield to open the season, given Perez said he projects Prieto as an average defender at second base and the Orioles had Westburg and Henderson switch off at shortstop and third base when they shared an affiliate in 2021.
If Prieto handles his first assignment in the same way he did playing in his home country, the Orioles likely wouldn’t wait to promote him, as they showed a desire to make sure prospects were consistently being challenged because that’s when they believe growth takes place. Although promotions to the majors come with other considerations, such a move would enter him in a pool of infielders that currently features Rougned Odor, a veteran who has largely struggled in recent seasons, and a collection of players who are still trying to establish themselves at the major league level in Ramón Urías, Jorge Mateo and Kelvin Gutiérrez. The Orioles feel Prieto can handle short and third if needed, Perez said, a utility skill set that would be beneficial in the majors.
It certainly won’t be by Opening Day, but if Prieto plays at the level he’s established he’s capable of, he could prove before the end of this year he gave the Orioles even more of a discount than they thought.