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Orioles minor league report: Farm system climbs to highest ranking ever; Rylan Bannon breaks out at Norfolk

As the Orioles continue to bottom out at the major league level, praise keeps coming in for the work they’re doing on the farm.

Baseball America released its updated farm system rankings with the Orioles at their highest station ever: No. 2, behind only the Seattle Mariners. This comes on the heels of FanGraphs naming them owners of the the top farm system in baseball.

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The improvement comes down to top-end talents like Adley Rutschman and Grayson Rodriguez, but also improved depth. That was on display with a raft of promotions that make all four of their full-season affiliates chock full of prospect talent.

Among the highlights are 2021 top picks Colton Cowser and Connor Norby, along with many of the other recent draftees, joining Low-A Delmarva, with breakout 2020 draft pick Jordan Westburg earning a second promotion and joining Double-A Bowie after reaching base in his last 38 games at High-A Aberdeen.

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The talent and performances that warranted these high picks and promotions have been a bright spot in an otherwise dismal year for the Orioles, whose minor league progress is paramount to believing in this rebuilding project.

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.

1. Norfolk infielder Rylan Bannon

With so much upheaval on the Orioles infield, it must have been frustrating for Bannon to watch what was happening at Camden Yards and know that, if not for either injuries or poor performance, he might be there already.

Aberdeen's Rylan Bannon puts the ball in play for Aberdeen on June 29. Last week, he broke out for Triple-A Norfolk to hit .500 with five home runs and five walks in five games against Memphis.
Aberdeen's Rylan Bannon puts the ball in play for Aberdeen on June 29. Last week, he broke out for Triple-A Norfolk to hit .500 with five home runs and five walks in five games against Memphis. (Matt Button / The Aegis/Baltimore Sun Media)

Last week was a nice step to removing at least the latter part of that. After struggling all season with the Triple-A Tides, Bannon broke out to hit .500 with five home runs and five walks in five games against Memphis.

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With Maikel Franco’s continued struggles in the big leagues, a few more weeks of Bannon’s upswing might get him up to the majors for September.

2. Norfolk right-hander Kyle Bradish

When Bradish opened the season with three scoreless starts at Bowie to show he needed to move up to Norfolk, he pitched to Rutschman in only one of those. It hasn’t been as smooth since, but their reunion certainly seemed to bring out the best in Bradish during the past week.

Bradish pitched twice for Norfolk — once piggybacking Bruce Zimmermann, and against starting Sunday — and didn’t allow a run while yielding three hits and two walks with 12 strikeouts in eight innings. The 24-year-old right-hander, acquired in the Orioles’ December 2019 trade of Dylan Bundy to the Los Angeles Angels, has lowered his ERA at Norfolk from 5.75 to 4.35 in his past four starts.

Bradish is one of several additions to the 40-man roster the Orioles will have to make this offseason, so if his progress continues, perhaps he’ll get a chance to be added early and pitch in the big leagues in September.

3. Bowie outfielder Zach Watson

Power wasn’t a significant part of what made Watson the Orioles’ third-round pick in 2019, not with his top-of-the-lineup center field profile. But he homered four times during the past week to solidify himself as one of the organization’s most prolific power hitters this season, giving him 16 home runs between Aberdeen and Bowie.

With his productive week against Richmond, Watson is batting .286 with an .897 OPS and seven home runs in 21 games for the Baysox. He’s been overshadowed at times, but Watson will before long be pushing to break into the major league radar, where he’ll find a crowded outfield mix. His speed and defense, however, will make him a factor in it.

4. Bowie right-hander Grayson Rodriguez

The Orioles’ top pitching prospect continued his impressive season apace Wednesday with eight strikeouts in five shutout innings without a walk, showing off all the ways he’s grown into a pitcher many — including himself — consider the best prospect in the minors.

Rodriguez has had some hiccups along the way, as will be expected by a 21-year-old pitcher in Double-A. But among all the encouraging things that have happened on the Orioles’ farm this year, his continued progress and all he has shown have to be high on the list.

5. Delmarva right-hander Jean Pinto

Before the Orioles promoted half of their FCL rosters to Delmarva, it was the 20-year-old Pinto making that jump in impressive fashion — and he hasn’t slowed down. In two starts during the past week, Pinto struck out nine while allowing a run on seven hits and two walks in 10 2/3 innings.

He’s pitched 12 times (11 starts) between Sarasota and Delmarva, and has a 1.88 ERA and a 0.87 WHIP with 70 strikeouts in 52 2/3 innings.

Though Pinto was signed by the Angels and acquired in last year’s José Iglesias trade, having Latin American pitchers filtering through the lower rungs of the minor league system will add a new dimension to the Orioles’ pitching operation going forward.

The top prospect not featured so far

Rutschman’s first week as Norfolk’s catcher was a success by many measures, with the pitching staff coming around after some recent struggles and baseball’s top prospect batting .381 (8-for-21) with a pair of doubles, five RBIs, and an .885 OPS in five games for the Tides.

Mike Elias acquisition of the week

The Orioles are miles away from where they need to be pitching at the major league level, but a pair of undrafted free agents from last year’s draft show they know what they’re looking for when it comes to identifying who to develop.

Right-hander Ryan Watson struck out 10 in four innings of one-run ball for Aberdeen on Friday, and right-hander Brandon Young struck out 10 in five innings while allowing one run Saturday. Each had an impressive season at Delmarva and has had tough adjustment periods at Aberdeen, but seem to be back on track with these outings.

The best former top-30 prospect of the week

Former top pick Cadyn Grenier had an explosive stretch at Bowie offensively at the end of May and into June, then quieted for most of July before breaking out last week against Richmond. Grenier hit three home runs and three doubles while batting .368 with a 1.455 OPS.

Time to give some shine to …

Reliever Félix Bautista made his first three appearances at Norfolk this year, striking out five and allowing an unearned run in 3 1/3 innings. It continued a dominant run for the 26-year-old reliever who began the year at Aberdeen. He last allowed a hit and an earned run on July 2 for Bowie, and has allowed just two hits (albeit with 18 walks) in his past 17 2/3 innings over 19 appearances.

Over three levels this year, Bautista has 57 strikeouts in 31 2/3 innings with a 0.85 ERA and a 1.01 WHIP.

Short-season snippets

The FCL Orioles Orange played three times last week, while the Black team played just once. One of the more encouraging aspects of the games they did have, though, was infielder Terrin Vavra getting back into games on a rehab assignment. He had four hits in six at-bats. The Bowie team he’ll likely rejoin soon will look much different from the one he left before his back injury.

(Many) minor moves

The promotions of the 2021 draftees to full-season ball set off quite a chain reaction across the system.

Right-handers Blaine Knight and Cody Sedlock were promoted from Bowie to Norfolk; right-handers Tyler Burch, Garrett Stallings and Morgan McSweeney, plus infielders Andrew Dashbach, JD Mundy and Jordan Westburg were promoted from Aberdeen to Bowie; right-handers Noah Denoyer, Griffin McLarty and Adam Stauffer, infielders TT Bowens, Jean Carmona and Ryne Ogren, plus outfielders Lamar Sparks and Cristopher Cespedes were promoted from Delmarva to Aberdeen.

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Cowser, Norby, Mayo, plus infielders Collin Burns and Jacob Teter, outfielders John Rhodes, Reed Trimble and Donta’ Williams, and right-handers Daniel Federman, Conor Grady, Preston Price, Carlos Tavera and Peter Van Loon were promoted from the FCL to Delmarva.

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