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Orioles minor league report: Yusniel Diaz hits well at Norfolk; top pitching prospects pile up strikeouts

With two Orioles teams opening play in the Florida Complex League, the club’s minor leaguers are almost in full swing, with play set to begin in the Dominican Republic next month.

That means even more action every day for the players the Orioles hope will help get them back to consistent winning, and more to pull attention away from a major league season that finds new ways to frustrate on a daily basis.

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The nearly two months of action so far has been full of promising performances on the Orioles farm, though, both from players who have long been tapped as future fixtures at Camden Yards and those brought in recently in drafts and trades.

Each week, The Baltimore Sun will break down five of the top performers in the Orioles’ prospect ranks and hand out some superlatives for those who didn’t make that cut.

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1. Triple-A Norfolk outfielder Yusniel Diaz

Perhaps sensing the opportunity with some banged-up outfielders in the big leagues, or perhaps just healthy and performing the way he does when that’s the case, former top prospect Yusniel Diaz had a good week on his return from a rehab assignment for the Tides.

Diaz hit .368 with a double and a home run, with two walks helping him to a 1.033 OPS in his first week back for Norfolk. He’s played just 12 games for the Tides this year thanks to his hip injury, and the Orioles are going to make him earn his way up to the big leagues with a lot more work than that. It remains true, though, that he can do a lot of things to impact the game when he’s at his best. More weeks like this will ensure he can do that with the big league team before long.

2. Triple-A Norfolk right-hander Kyle Bradish

This space no longer doubles as a weekly Kyle Bradish update since he left a dominant April in Bowie to go pitch at Triple-A, but the gleam is hardly off this rising Orioles pitching prospect. He struck out 10 while allowing two runs on three hits with three walks in five innings Friday, bouncing back from a short start the week before.

Bradish had a 0.88 WHIP and didn’t allow a run in three starts for Bowie before his promotion, but he’s nearly allowing double the base runners in Triple-A with a 1.66 WHIP. His 12.24 strikeouts per nine with Norfolk is still impressive, and that’s the type of thing the organization will be looking at over the course of the season to show that the stuff plays at this level. Bradish is shooting up the system faster than most pitchers have in recent years.

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Orioles top pitching prospect Grayson Rodriguez delivers during a game with Double-A Bowie on June 15, 2021.
Orioles top pitching prospect Grayson Rodriguez delivers during a game with Double-A Bowie on June 15, 2021. (Kenneth K. Lam)

3. Double-A Bowie right-hander Grayson Rodriguez

Speaking of shooting up the system, what are the Orioles supposed to do with their top pitching prospect and one of the best overall in the game if he keeps doing this all summer? Rodriguez struck out eight in five shutout innings with one walk and one strikeout in his start this week for the Baysox, and has a 1.82 ERA and 0.81 WHIP in five starts there while striking out 36 in 24 ⅔ innings after similarly dominating at High-A Aberdeen in his first five starts of the year.

At this rate, the least they could do for Rodriguez is give him a glimpse of Triple-A at the end of the season so he knows what he’ll be up against in big league spring training and into 2022. But there’s certainly diminishing returns in having even the most sturdy pitching prospect spend a year dominating every level of the minors instead of just taking advantage of the talent and seeing how he performs at the highest level. The Orioles aren’t close to that stage yet. But they should be preparing for what they do when it arrives.

4. High-A Aberdeen left-hander Drew Rom

The Orioles’ system is long on left-handers who get results without premium fastball velocity, and Rom has been carrying that flag at the lower levels the past few years. This week at Aberdeen, he struck out seven while scattering five hits and a walk in six innings Friday to lower his ERA to 3.59.

Rom is striking out 9.91 batters per nine innings this year, but has also cut down on his walks from 3.12 per nine to 1.90, which despite the increase in hits allowed has helped him lower his WHIP to 1.17. He’s allowed two or fewer runs in all but one of his nine appearances.

5. Low-A Delmarva right-handers Zack Peek and Houston Roth

Peek and Roth, a pair of 23-year-old right-handers making their full-season debuts this year for Delmarva, pitched in tandem this week and carved up Fredericksburg. They combined to strike out 22, with Peek fanning eight in five shutout innings Tuesday followed by four shutout, hitless innings with seven strikeouts from Roth. On Sunday, Peek pitched four one-run innings with five strikeouts before Roth struck out four and allowed a run on two hits in four innings of relief.

Peek, one of four pitchers acquired in the December 2019 trade of Dylan Bundy to the Los Angeles Angels, has 46 strikeouts in 33 ⅓ innings with a 1.140 WHIP and a 2.97 ERA in 10 games, while Roth, a 29th-round pick in 2019, has a 3.90 ERA and a 1.082 WHIP with 36 strikeouts in 32 ⅓ innings.

The top prospect not featured so far

A double and a home run with four RBIs while going 5-for-22 in six games isn’t the kind of eye-popping week top prospect Adley Rutschman has made observers of the Orioles farm accustomed to this season, but there was one aspect to it that shows what kind of special production he’s capable of: Rutschman didn’t strike out all week, and walked five times.

Rutschman’s plate discipline and intent to swing at pitches he can drive is exemplary in an Orioles system looking for more of that, and a week without striking out shows that skill is particularly in tune right now.

Mike Elias acquisition of the week

One of two pitching prospects acquired for shortstop José Iglesias in a December trade with the Angels, Garrett Stallings has had an up-and-down season and has been hurt by the long ball — he’s allowed 10 home runs in his past seven starts — but had one of his best outings for the IronBirds on Wednesday.

Stallings struck out seven without a walk while allowing two runs on four hits in six innings, helping bring his ERA down to 5.49 and WHIP to 1.244. He’s walked just four batters all season with 8.3 strikeouts per nine, presenting a unique challenge to the Orioles’ pitching program to keep him around the strike zone and help him miss bats while eliminating some of the hard contact.

Aberdeen IronBirds second baseman Jean Carmona plays a ground ball in the eighth inning of a New York-Penn League baseball game against the Vermont Lake Monsters in 2019.
Aberdeen IronBirds second baseman Jean Carmona plays a ground ball in the eighth inning of a New York-Penn League baseball game against the Vermont Lake Monsters in 2019. (Steve Ruark/Baltimore Sun Media Group)

The best former top-30 prospect of the week

After infielder Jean Carmona was part of the Orioles’ return for Jonathan Schoop in the July 2018 deadline trade with the Milwaukee Brewers, Carmona didn’t impress much at Short-A Aberdeen either that summer or the following one and wasn’t at an affiliate to begin 2021 — an ominous sign. However, the Orioles’ 26th-best prospect according to Baseball America in 2019 joined Delmarva two weeks ago and hit .333 (6-for-18) with a double and a stolen base last week for the Shorebirds.

Still just 21, Carmona has plenty of time to pan out and deliver the Orioles some more value from those trades, albeit in a much more crowded infield mix than he joined three summers ago.

Time to give some shine to…

The breakout star of the early part of the Orioles minor league season came back down to earth some as the season wore on, but with two home runs and two doubles while going 11-for-25 this past week, infielder Patrick Dorrian was back starring for the Baysox. His backstory is a unique one, and he certainly didn’t take the easy way to the high minors with the Orioles. But he and Rutschman, the second-best prospect in all of minor league baseball, have an identical .937 OPS this season.

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