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Return of minor league baseball has Orioles’ current, former affiliates excited for 2021

If not for the coronavirus pandemic, the Frederick Keys’ 2020 roster likely would’ve featured the Orioles’ top two prospects in catcher Adley Rutschman and right-hander Grayson Rodriguez. Instead, they were among the teams sweating out the canceled season as the looming restructuring of the minor leagues drew closer.

Frederick was one of more than 40 cities whose minor league teams lost their affiliations to major league clubs, though the Keys’ inclusion as an inaugural member of the MLB Draft League means the franchise relatively landed on its feet. Still, at a time where the focus in the Orioles organization is primarily on the minor league system and prospects, the Keys will miss out on the benefits of that when the minor leagues return in May.

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For instance, in the wake of Rutschman getting promoted to the Aberdeen IronBirds in 2019, the Orioles’ short-season affiliate’s ticket sales skyrocketed.

“To see them starting to rebuild this organization and to look to the future and to invest in their player development has been really fun,” Aberdeen general manager Jack Graham said. “The impact of the Orioles’ investment in the talent level that’s going to be coming through Aberdeen is measurable, and it is valuable.”

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The reshuffling of the minors, a process focused on minimizing travel and improving facilities, ended with Aberdeen replacing Frederick as the Orioles’ High-A affiliate, while the ties at the other three levels — Triple-A Norfolk, Double-A Bowie and Low-A Delmarva — remained in place.

The IronBirds' Adley Rutschman follows through on his first-inning single against Vermont at Leidos Field at Ripken Stadium in 2019.
The IronBirds' Adley Rutschman follows through on his first-inning single against Vermont at Leidos Field at Ripken Stadium in 2019. (Kenneth K. Lam/Baltimore Sun)

For the four affiliates, minor league baseball returns in early May, a welcome sight for an Orioles organization hopeful their collection of young talent will eventually lead them back to the playoffs. The Triple-A season was slated to begin in April, but the league has since announced the 2021 season will begin with the alternate site setup that was a staple of the 2020 campaign.

Left-hander Zac Lowther, the Orioles’ No. 18 prospect per Baseball America, likely would’ve spent at least part of 2020 in Triple-A had there been a season. Instead, he went through what he’s called his “most beneficial two months … of development” between the alternate site and the Orioles’ fall instructional camp.

“You’ve got high-level coaches there with high-level players and such a small group that it’s very individualized with the work that you’re doing,” Lowther said. “You’re able to kind of hone in on some things that the game’s not going to let you do day to day, so you have just that streamlined practice of these coaches know the direction I want to go, and they’re going to help me get there.”

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Lowther’s work with the Keys in 2018 helped him earn a share of the Orioles’ minor league Pitcher of the Year honors. But Baltimore’s prospects won’t be going through Frederick anymore.

Having been an Orioles affiliate since their first season in 1989, the Keys will join five other formerly affiliated teams in the MLB Draft League, where college juniors and seniors who are eligible for the draft can showcase their talents for MLB scouts.

Keys general manager Dave Ziedelis said the on-field product won’t be all that different — “We’re still going to have top prospects in the game of baseball, hoping to work their way up” — while fans’ experience of being at the ballpark will be the same as it has been.

“We always have to be moving forward, and whether on the field or off the field, you can’t dwell on the past,” Ziedelis said. “Really, for all intents and purposes, the majority of our fans will not know the difference, meaning it’s about all the bells and whistles they’re used to seeing at Nymeo Field, the fireworks and giveaways and the Fun Zone and all the contests and promotions we did.

“Minor league baseball is about fun, affordable family entertainment. That’s our primary demographic. There is a certain segment that come to see future Orioles, but that’s a secondary demographic for us.”

Even as an Orioles affiliate, the IronBirds enter 2021 with the same mindset, Graham said. That won’t change as they go from a short-season to full-season affiliate.

“We’ve got the short-term challenges, which are that we’re planning a baseball season at what’s hopefully the tail end of a pandemic with potentially restricted capacity,” Graham said. “But the only other challenges that we see realistically are determining which of our games we’re going to shoot fireworks and which of our games is going to be Star Wars Night and determining how to keep fans engaged over a longer season.”

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