What a difference a week — and essentially a whole new team — can make.
Before half a Southwest boarding group’s worth of players came north from Sarasota to join Low-A Delmarva, the Shorebirds hadn’t won a series since the beginning of July.
This week, thanks to an influx of the Orioles’ 2021 draftees, they swept Fredericksburg and outscored them 56-18, with none of the four pitchers who joined the team allowing a run and six of the hitters who came north having an OPS over .800.
They could all be featured in this Orioles minor league report, where 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 outfielder Ryan McKenna
McKenna hasn’t had an easy time when he’s been in the big leagues this year with the Orioles, playing sporadically and batting to a .615 OPS as a spare outfielder. Each time he’s sent down to the minors, though, McKenna hits so well that at another position he might warrant more regular time when he comes back up.
McKenna was optioned to the minors last Monday and played a full week in Charlotte for the Tides. He hit four home runs, plus a triple, and walked six times against seven strikeouts with two steals for a 1.806 OPS. In 22 Triple-A games, McKenna has a 1.135 OPS and 10 home runs. Before this year, he never hit more than 11 home runs in a full season.
Perhaps not being there regularly and having his good performances rewarded is helping him overcome the general malaise that can befall players in Triple-A. Whatever it is, it shows well for McKenna that he’s able to do this each time he goes down.
2. Triple-A Norfolk infielder Rylan Bannon
McKenna wasn’t carrying the offensive load alone at Norfolk this week, however, as Bannon continued “soaring,” to use the description of executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias. A week after swatting five home runs, he added four more in four games this week.
In this two-week stretch, which Bannon entered with a .495 OPS at Triple-A, he hit .438 with a 1.839 OPS and perhaps most notably played a lot of second base while doing it. The Orioles’ most pressing need seems to be at third at the moment, where Bannon played more in 2019. It seems more likely if he does hit his way to the majors with this stretch, a la Chance Sisco and DJ Stewart in 2019, it might be at third — especially considering Jahmai Jones is up to play second base now.
3. Low-A Delmarva second baseman Connor Norby
The Orioles’ second-round pick out of East Carolina didn’t have much to show statistically from his time in the Florida Complex League, but filled it up in his first week at Delmarva.
Norby was 5-for-18 with a. team-high 1.020 OPS in his first week of full-season ball, adding a double, a triple, and his first professional home run.
The NCAA hits leader this year will see plenty of opportunity in front of him, even as the Orioles have improved their infield depth in recent years. At second base, it’s been a difficult year for those ahead of him, including Adam Hall, Terrin Vavra, and Jones — all of whom have dealt with injuries.
4. Triple-A Norfolk left-hander Alexander Wells
Same as McKenna, Wells was taking his lumps a little at the major league level — his last start was the 13-1 loss to the New York Yankees on Aug. 3 that began this losing streak — and he was sent down, pitched once in relief, then was sent down again.
But similarly, he has done exactly what he’s supposed to when back at Norfolk and pitched well. The 24-year-old Australian allowed one hit and nothing more in five shutout innings Saturday, giving him two scoreless outings spanning 9 ⅔ innings with nine strikeouts and four baserunners allowed since returning to Norfolk.
The margins are finer up in the majors, as Wells has learned. But he seems to be applying the lessons he learned at this level quite well.
5. Triple-A Norfolk catcher Adley Rutschman
The upgrade in competition from Double-A Bowie to Norfolk hasn’t done much to slow baseball’s top prospect, who this week in Charlotte went 9-for-22 (.409) with a 1.049 OPS and his first Triple-A home run.
In two weeks for the Tides, Rutschman is batting .395 with a .970 OPS and four extra-base hits, walking three times with seven strikeouts. The Orioles won’t be surprised by his success there so far, but many hope he doesn’t end up performing too well there, or else he’ll force the issue of a call-up quicker than they’d planned.
The top prospect not featured so far
Right-hander Grayson Rodriguez made two starts at Double-A Bowie this week, striking out six in five innings of one-run ball Tuesday before having a rougher time Sunday, when he allowed five earned runs on six hits with two walks and seven strikeouts in 3 ⅔ innings.
Even with that, Rodriguez has a 2.92 ERA and a 0.91 WHIP and 95 strikeouts in 61 ⅔ innings at Double-A this season.
Mike Elias acquisition of the week
The last three Orioles draft classes (or in the case of 2020, undrafted free agent classes) have featured plenty of small-school mashers who the team believes can carry that over at the highest level, but corner infielder Toby Welk came first.
The Penn State-Berks product was one of the best Division III hitters in the country when the Orioles took him in the 21st round in 2019, and he had another productive week at Double-A when Bowie was in Reading, homering twice while batting .429 with a 1.571 OPS in five games.
Welk, 24, has a .753 OPS and 11 home runs between High-A Aberdeen and Bowie this year.
The best former top-30 prospect of the week
Cody Sedlock could have made another appearance here after the former first-round pick struck out six in five shutout innings on his Triple-A debut, but instead, it’s time again to highlight outfielder Lamar Sparks here. He played just three games at Aberdeen after being promoted last week, but homered and tripled twice in 11 plate appearances for the Ironbirds.
Time to give some shine to …
Like Welk, Jacob Teter came from a smaller school at Division II Florida Southern. But there’s nothing small about the 6-foot-6 first baseman, who drove in five runs with a pair of doubles while hitting .286 with an .873 OPS at Delmarva this week. Teter is a big swinger, but walked more times (four) than he struck out (three) this week and adds another name to a growing contingent of corner bats in the Orioles’ system.
An interesting tidbit came across my timeline this week from the Dominican Summer League. Of all the 17-year-olds there with at least 70 plate appearances, Orioles infielder Anderson de los Santos had the highest OPS by far at 1.029. That came down with an 0-for-4 Monday, but the $350,000 signee from the most recent international class is off to a good start in his professional career.