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For Orioles rookie hitters waiting for big league debut, what’s left to accomplish in the minors? | ANALYSIS

Last spring, even with a minor league track record worthy of praise, it was clear that Ryan Mountcastle was going to be starting his season in the minors to finish his development before the Orioles brought him to the majors.

The team was adamant that he work on his plate discipline and defense at his new position of left field, and while Mountcastle made progress toward achieving those developmental goals before he made his debut in August, it’s possible that could have been accomplished in the majors.

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No matter the path, he arrived in the big leagues with those goals intact. The question now becomes what this next crop of prospects needs to do before finally the Orioles finally call them up to the majors.

In Yusniel Diaz, Ryan McKenna and Rylan Bannon, the Orioles have three players on the 40-man roster who have track records of success in the minors but lack significant Triple-A experience. Bannon had two weeks at Norfolk at the end of 2019, and McKenna and Diaz would have likely joined him there in 2020 had there been a minor league season.

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Instead, they’re in spring training camp now making good impressions on manager Brandon Hyde, but too far down on the depth chart and lacking that finishing level of Triple-A on their resumes to put themselves on the brink of a call-up.

None of them, however, have the glaring resume needs that the Orioles felt Mountcastle did with his inexperience in left field or miniature minor league walk rate. So, for those three young prospects, what do they need to accomplish in Triple-A to warrant a call-up?

Orioles outfielder Yusniel Diaz gets ready to take his swings in the batting cage during spring training camp in Sarasota, Fla., in 2019.
Orioles outfielder Yusniel Diaz gets ready to take his swings in the batting cage during spring training camp in Sarasota, Fla., in 2019. (Lloyd Fox / Baltimore Sun)

Yusniel Diaz

Diaz has made apparent since the Manny Machado trade in July 2018 that he has all the tools to be a successful big leaguer, and in his spring training appearances so far, each has been on fine display.

But Hyde must be wondering where the actual in-game minor league production has been as he’s watching a player who can hit the ball to all fields with significant pull power, show decent plate discipline when he’s not in swing-away mode and use a strong arm with the ability to play all three outfield positions.

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Diaz has dominant stretches, but hasn’t replicated the consistent success he had in the Los Angeles Dodgers organization before the trade. He’s hit .257 with a .783 OPS since coming to the Orioles, and even doing that at age-21 and age-22 in Double-A leaves a lot to be desired.

It’s a different circumstance, but in 2019, both Chance Sisco and DJ Stewart put together dominant months in Triple-A before earning call-ups to the big leagues that were essentially permanent.

Diaz needs something like that over a few months to show he can lock in all of those tools and produce for an extended period. He doesn’t need to do any one thing better as much as doing it all consistently. And while that’s a challenge, it’s easier than having to improve a certain skill.

The Orioles' Ryan McKenna (65) steals second base as Braves second baseman Ozzie Albies avoids him during a spring training game Feb. 26, 2020, in Sarasota, Fla.
The Orioles' Ryan McKenna (65) steals second base as Braves second baseman Ozzie Albies avoids him during a spring training game Feb. 26, 2020, in Sarasota, Fla. (John Bazemore/AP)

Ryan McKenna

From his first major league camp in 2019 until this one, McKenna has matured both physically and in his game. He’s made an impression on Hyde for having improved last year at the Bowie training site between now and when he saw him last spring.

“Ryan’s got a lot of tools,” Hyde said. “He runs well, he throws very well, he can play center field, he can play both corner spots, adds some versatility to our outfield. … Still a young player, still learning, but he’s making some nice adjustments.”

McKenna, like Diaz, has been stuck at Double-A for a while. He has a career .684 OPS at the level, but there are still positives in that sample. In both 2018 after his midseason promotion and in his full 2019 there, he had walk rates above 10%. He had 41 extra-base hits in 2019.

So, it’s possible to either look at the low average and steadily high strikeout rate and see red flags, or look at him as being a roughly league-average hitter in the Eastern League despite being 22 years old in 2019.

The Orioles are heartened by some of the hard contact he worked to consistently make at the Bowie site. So looking at him, it might not be over-the-fence power that grows to show that he’s ready, but extra-base hits in general. Hard contact that finds gaps with his speed can mean doubles instead of singles and triples instead of doubles.

If McKenna is boasting better gap power once he’s finally able to get into Triple-A games this summer, the Orioles might believe they have another competitor for outfield playing time on their hands.

Orioles third baseman Rylan Bannon breaks for second base during a spring training game against the Red Sox on March 4, 2021, in Sarasota, Fla.
Orioles third baseman Rylan Bannon breaks for second base during a spring training game against the Red Sox on March 4, 2021, in Sarasota, Fla. (John Bazemore/AP)

Rylan Bannon

Bannon, another player the Orioles brought back in the Machado trade, has only played third base this spring but spent a lot of time at second base in the minors as well.

Like Diaz, he also was an incredibly productive hitter with the Dodgers before the trade but hasn’t hit those heights with the Orioles. But he had a .726 OPS in essentially a full season of Double-A after the trade and hit three home runs in his cameo at Triple-A Norfolk to end 2019.

For having such a big swing, plate discipline and striking out aren’t issues for Bannon. Neither is hitting for power, as his 47 extra-base hits in 2019 were second only to Mountcastle among Orioles minor leaguers. He might not have a true standout home in the field, but it might only be a lack of a representative sample of Triple-A at-bats that’s keeping him from the big leagues.

Some in the organization feel he’s ready if needed, and even Hyde speaks about his track record in a way he doesn’t other prospects.

“Rylan’s a guy who’s put up some minor league numbers,” Hyde said. “He missed last year because of the minor league season being canceled and so I just wanted to give him some looks at third, at second, just because he’s hit throughout his career. … He’s a strong kid that’s got a chance to hit and has done that in his minor league career. [We’ll] see if it translates into the big leagues.”

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