The beginning of the minor league season last week was much-anticipated after the influx of prospects and improvements made in the Orioles farm system over the past few years, and its return after a year away more than met expectations.
Top pitching prospects looked the part, trade acquisitions who haven’t suited up for the club yet impressed and the 2019 trend of top-to-bottom strong pitching seems to have picked up where it left off.
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.
The top performers
1. Second baseman Jahmai Jones, Triple-A Norfolk
With the Orioles’ second base spot in flux, seeing what Jones was posting in the box scores every night was likely a welcome sight. He doubled in the season opener and had two triples and a home run the following day. Though he had one hit in the next four games, it was still good for a .924 OPS the first week of the season.
It will be fascinating to see how the weekly series affect performance as the year progresses. It’s just as likely hitters perform well early and opposing pitching staffs adjust as it is that teams stack their best pitching prospects early in the week and performances improve later on.
Whatever the case may be, it was a good start to the week and thus a good week overall for Jones, who the Orioles acquired in February from the Los Angeles Angels for starting pitcher Alex Cobb. He’ll be a player they’re paying close attention to as this season goes on.
2. Left-hander DL Hall, Double-A Bowie
The Orioles’ 2017 first-round draft pick had scouts and fans alike buzzing as he struck out 10 while allowing a pair of hits and a pair of walks in 4 ⅔ innings in his Double-A debut for Bowie last Tuesday. Hall was a player who already had immense talent and was able to refine it over the past year without games, one he referred to almost as a cheat year in his development.
He knows the knock on him has been throwing strikes, and as long as he continues to be around the strike zone the way he was in his first start, he’ll be one to watch. Hall starts the home opener for Bowie on Tuesday at Prince George’s Stadium.
3. Right-hander Grayson Rodriguez, High-A Aberdeen
High-A Aberdeen was on a more traditional rotation, meaning the 2018 first-round pick got to start twice against Wilmington. He pitched well each time.
Over two starts, Rodriguez struck out 12 while allowing a run on five hits with four walks and a hit batter in 7 ⅓ innings. He seems to be on a pitch count early, as most of the Orioles’ farmhands are after last year’s stunted developmental season, but the top pitching prospect in the organization still looks like he’s carrying that kind of stuff with his mid-to-high-90s fastball and starter’s pitch mix moving up the minor league chain.
4. Shortstop Gunnar Henderson, Low-A Delmarva
Henderson, the Orioles’ second pick in the 2019 draft behind Adley Rutschman, was the youngest player at the team’s alternate site and overcame a steep learning curve to make himself one of the more interesting prospects to watch this season. He responded to that attention by homering in his first at-bat in affiliated baseball Tuesday at Delmarva, and added a second home run Thursday. Those were two of his four hits in give games this week, and he also stole two bases.
This could be a challenging year for Henderson as he finally experiences full-season baseball for the first time. He’s still young at age 19, but the last highly-drafted teenager challenged with that level at that age in the Orioles’ system turned out to be quite a fine hitter in Ryan Mountcastle.
5. Left-hander Nick Vespi, Double-A Bowie
With starters limited early, there are going to be plenty of multi-inning relievers of note early in the season across the Orioles’ system as everyone gets stretched out and makes up for lost innings in 2020.
Some will dominate the way 25-year-old Vespi did in two outings out of the Bowie bullpen, striking out 10 without a walk while allowing a run on three hits in 5 ⅓ innings.
Almost every pitcher in the Orioles’ system benefited from the team’s new direction in 2019, but few more than Vespi, who was in the Low-A Delmarva bullpen the year before. His pitch mix and bat-missing ability made him a candidate to be stretched out that year and he struck out 100 batters in 91 innings with a 1.12 WHIP and a 3.16 ERA.
If he keeps it up in the high minors, it might be hard to overlook him for much longer.
The top prospect not featured so far
The No. 1 prospect in the Orioles system, Adley Rutschman, had a mixed bag in his first week at Double-A Bowie. Rutschman homered on Thursday in impressive fashion in his only two-hit game of the week, and had four hits in five starts with nine strikeouts and a walk.
It took him a while to get locked in at the alternate site last summer before he started dominating, and it will be a welcome sight for the Orioles when he’s showing up in the box score this year for all to see.
The best former top-30 prospect of the week
Right-hander Blaine Knight is back in High-A after struggling badly at Frederick in 2019, and his first outing was encouraging as he aims to make his way up to Double-A this year. Knight allowed three hits with two strikeouts in four scoreless innings in his start for the IronBirds. Most importantly, considering he walked 4.20 batters per nine innings with the Keys, he didn’t issue any walks.
Knight was the Orioles’ No. 10 prospect according to Baseball America after he was their third-round pick out of Arkansas in 2018, beating every Friday night SEC starter on his way to the College World Series. He was great at Low-A Delmarva to begin 2019 but hit a wall with Frederick as he struggled to get his secondary pitches over and had his fastball hit hard. The Orioles haven’t given up on him, though.
Mike Elias draftee of the week
Shortstop Jordan Westburg impressed in the fall instructional league after the Orioles made him the No. 30 overall pick last year and is seen as an infielder of the future on the dirt at Delmarva with Henderson.
Westburg had a grand slam and drove in seven runs in a seven-hit week for the Shorebirds.
Time to give some shine to…
Infielder Patrick Dorrian didn’t play every day for Bowie last week, but made an impact when he did. The 25-year-old hit two home runs with a double, two stolen bases, and more walks (four) than strikeouts (three).
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Dorrian was the player to be named later in the Orioles’ 2019 trade with the Pittsburgh Pirates for pitcher Yefry Ramirez, and has a career .804 minor league OPS.