Every week now, the Orioles move a significant group of players up from one level to the next, signaling a few things about how they view this minor league season.
In some cases, at least early on, they had players a level below where they should have been just to ensure they weren’t fooled by what they’d seen in the spring.
Now, as the promotions grow in number to include this week’s bump of top infield prospect Gunnar Henderson to High-A Aberdeen, it’s showing just how quickly this organization will not only reward success but create new challenges for those who need them.
Henderson’s promotion comes after a rare down week, but plenty of others had big weeks in his stead.
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. Triple-A Norfolk second baseman Jahmai Jones
Since returning from an oblique injury earlier this month, Jones has been on fire at the plate. He’s batting .385 with a 1.079 OPS since coming off the injured list for the Tides and had at least one hit in every game he played except Sunday, when he walked three times. Jones was 10-for-25 with a home run this past week.
This is all happening amid a continued pit of production at second base for the Orioles, with Stevie Wilkerson and Pat Valaika each in cold spells at the plate and not playing their best defense, either. For Jones, who began his career as an outfielder and has limited second base experience, the Orioles have to weigh whether it’s worth bringing him up to learn on the job in the field or continue that work in the minors.
Considering how strict they’ve been with the likes of Ryan Mountcastle on such things, it’s not hard to see which one they’re choosing right now.
2. Double-A Bowie right-hander Grayson Rodriguez
A week in which a starter pitches twice and gives up two runs in each outing is a good one for many pitchers, but such has been the level of success that Rodriguez has achieved this season that they almost felt like letdowns. Of course, he struck out 14 in 9 ⅔ innings with two walks and six hits allowed, so it’s not as if there’s a lot to be concerned about.
Rodriguez, the Orioles’ top pitching prospect and, according to Baseball America, the top-ranked pitching prospect in baseball, has a 2.29 ERA with a 0.92 WHIP and 28 strikeouts in 19 ⅔ innings over four starts at Bowie this month. At this rate, it would be a surprise if he doesn’t see Norfolk by the end of the summer.
3. Triple-A Norfolk left-hander Zac Lowther
When the Orioles selected the contract of Thomas Eshelman to start Friday when Lowther was on turn to pitch that day and already on the roster, it either showed their reticence to start him again in the big leagues or showed a commitment to letting him get some consistent work in the minors as opposed to being an up-and-down arm as he has been this year.
If it’s the latter, that’s certainly working out. Lowther struck out six in five innings of three-hit, shutout ball while walking just one. Since his two relief innings with the Orioles on June 2, he’s started twice for the Tides and not allowed a run while striking out 10 in nine innings with 10 base runners allowed.
Lowther and fellow left-hander Alexander Wells are settling in nicely with the Tides this month and, with both players on the roster, it stands to reason they could get some kind of rotation look this summer with the Orioles.
4. High-A Aberdeen right-hander Kyle Brnovich
Rare is the week when one of the four pitchers the Orioles acquired last December for right-hander Dylan Bundy in a trade with the Los Angeles Angels doesn’t have an impressive outing. This past week was not one of those weeks.
Brnovich, who will make his next start at Bowie, finished his Aberdeen stint with 5 ⅓ shutout innings Friday, striking out seven with one hit and one walk allowed. In eight starts for the IronBirds, he allowed fewer than three earned runs in each for a 2.36 ERA while striking out 48 in 34 ⅓ innings with a 0.845 WHIP. Hitters haven’t been able to square him up much, as evidenced by nine extra-base hits allowed all year.
Brnovich joins a stacked group in Bowie that, even without DL Hall (elbow), still features Rodriguez, Cody Sedlock, Blaine Knight, Ofelky Peralta, Cameron Bishop and Gray Fenter.
5. High-A Aberdeen first baseman J.D. Mundy
If Brnovich giving up nine extra-base hits all season is impressive, so too is Mundy hitting eight in six games this past week for the IronBirds. The senior undrafted free agent out of Radford had four home runs and four doubles this week while walking four times and striking out seven times for Aberdeen. He drove in 10 runs and scored 10.
Such a prolific week isn’t anything new for Mundy, who hit .324 with a 1.038 OPS and four home runs in 20 games for Low-A Delmarva and has seven home runs in 13 games since being bumped to Aberdeen. The power is one thing, but so too is the fact that he’s doing it with fewer than a strikeout per game (30 in 33) while walking 23 times this year.
The top prospect not featured so far
Adley Rutschman broke his Sunday home run streak at five Sunday, and as a result had his first week of the season without an extra-base hit. Rutschman had six singles — including an incredibly hard-hit one Wednesday — but also walked six times with six strikeouts. In 40 games for Bowie, Rutschman is batting .293 with a .961 OPS and 10 home runs.
Mike Elias acquisition of the week
Most of the Delmarva pitching staff was from the 2019 draft, with some minor acquisitions and 2020 undrafted free agents mixed in. They’re largely indistinguishable from afar, but mostly because each seems to be getting acclimated to full-season ball just fine and posting the kind of strikeout numbers the organization would want while having some general in-game success.
This past week, four of those pitchers — Jake Lyons, Ignacio Féliz, Griffin McLarty and Brandon Young — all pitched at least four innings with at least seven strikeouts and two or fewer walks. These kinds of outings are the ones that show the bat-missing ability the team will hope for at such an early stage in these pitchers’ careers.
The best former top-30 prospect of the week
Thursday in Bowie, a pair of former top pitching prospects combined for an efficient win that showed why each has seen their stock bounce back up of late. Former first-round pick Cody Sedlock allowed one earned run in five innings to lower his ERA to 3.12, and passed it off to Blaine Knight, the 2018 third-round pick who has spent this spring erasing the bad memories of his time in Frederick in 2019.
Knight allowed a run on one hit and one walk with two strikeouts to lower his ERA at Bowie to 2.40 in three appearances and continue to show he’s refined whatever ailed him two summer sago. He’s walked just three batters in 33 ⅔ innings over two stops this year.
Time to give some shine to …
Full credit to Austin Hays (hamstring) and Anthony Santander (ankle) for clearly playing through pain at the major league level, but if they need a rest, the Orioles can do worse than having Ryan McKenna bring his strong defense and what’s become a hot bat to the big leagues from Norfolk.
McKenna had two home runs and three doubles while batting .333 (8-for-24) for the Tides this past week. Like for Lowther, just getting to play every day and not be on the big league bench might be more valuable to him than anything else at this point. If the Orioles need him, however, he seems to be in a good spot.
Brnovich wasn’t the only one traveling to a new club on Monday’s universal day off. Outfielder Yusniel Diaz ended his rehab assignment at Bowie and went back to Norfolk, along with first baseman J.C. Escarra.
Infielder Toby Welk and outfielder Kyle Stowers are joining Brnovich in Bowie from Aberdeen, while Henderson and outfielders Trevor Kehe and Dylan Harris were promoted from Delmarva to Aberdeen.
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To take their places with the Shorebirds, infielder Yorkislandy Álvarez and outfielder Lamar Sparks joined Delmarva from the Sarasota complex.