As the shine on the rebuilding Orioles continues to wear off approaching Memorial Day, the focus has naturally shifted to some of the club’s high-profile minor league talents.
Many of them were stashed at Triple-A Norfolk to begin the season, with the goal of finishing some of the development that was interrupted when the Orioles hurried them to the majors in past years.
Both executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias and manager Brandon Hyde said this week that several players were soon going to be given chances to make a major league impact. Gary Kendall, the manager of the Norfolk Tides, said the focus of his players isn't to simply get to the majors — though of course they all want to — but to develop to the point that they stick once they get to Baltimore.
The key to that seems to be the performances down on the farm by the likes of first baseman Ryan Mountcastle, catcher Chance Sisco and outfielder DJ Stewart — all of whom are posting gaudy stats through the first two months in the International League.
"I think that there's some guys swinging the bat down there that [are] pushing the envelope a little bit," Hyde said. "I'm really happy with how some of these guys are performing at the Triple-A level, and I think there's a chance you're going to see, over the summer, you're going to see guys come up. That's going to be fantastic."
Kendall, who managed at Double-A Bowie for eight seasons before making the jump to Norfolk this year, has extensive history with many of the players on his roster this year. Since he last had them, several have had major league time and have been sent back to the minors for developmental purposes.
Here's what Kendall has to say about some of the standouts on his Tides roster, with an emphasis on how they've improved and what their minor league assignment should be accomplishing at this stage.
While Elias said Mountcastle, just 22, was in a different category than the others because this is his first taste of Triple-A, the success he's having comes under familiar circumstances for him. In 2017, Mountcastle moved from shortstop to third base upon his midseason promotion to Double-A Bowie, and the jump in level plus his new position made for a lousy end to the season.
A year and a half later, the Orioles gave him another new position, first base, albeit at the beginning of spring training, and there have been no such adjustment pains.
"A lot more maturity," Kendall said. "He's a much more mature kid. I think when I first saw him, he was 18 in the instructional league, and I think I had him maybe for a stretch at 19 or so. But seeing him now at 22 years old, it's not only a different body but a different person as far as how he handles failure, how he comes out of a tough night where he went 0-for-4, and he was pitched tough to. I'll give you an example of that, [Tuesday] night.
“[On Tuesday], he struck out on a high heater, got tied up on a ball inside and popped up, and then he winds up late in the game hitting a fastball out to right field that he back-spun and went the other way with. He's a guy that can turn a tough night into a good night. That's the sign of a good hitter — a guy that can make adjustments. And he's making them."
Defensively, Kendall said Mountcastle is "coming along well" at first base, and works daily at "becoming a good receiver over there, taking throws from across the diamond, up high and low and picking balls in the dirt."
But first base is just a way to find Mountcastle a position where a team can get his bat in the lineup every day. He's still playing some third base, and Elias noted he could get some outfield time soon. It's all to create avenues for a good and still improving bat to get into the lineup, even if that might not be soon, with Elias saying they're "erring very carefully on the side of his development" as he entered Saturday batting .326 with 21 extra-base hits in 43 games.
"What he's done offensively, Ryan is a guy who in the past people have talked about, 'Oh, he needs to walk more, he needs to do this, he needs to do that.' But I like his aggression,” Kendall said. “His barrel — he's got such a good swing path. There's certainly balls that he's hit hard that have helped us, but there's also some balls that because of his swing path and his strength that allow that line drive to fall in there.
"But the big thing with Ryan is we want to get him to a point where once he gets up to Baltimore, he stays in Baltimore. There's no, 'He needs more of this and he needs more of that.' There's no rush with this guy. We want to try and make him as thorough as possible, because he's part of what we're going to be as a franchise."
After a slow start with the Tides this season, Stewart has swung one of the hottest bats in the International League. He had a three-hit day Wednesday and entered Saturday batting .458 with 16extra-base hits in May to bring his season average to .308 with a 1.011 OPS.
Elias said his performance is "very much on our radar right now," but with Trey Mancini and Dwight Smith Jr. entrenched in the corner-outfield spots, "it's just hard to find an easy way to get him here.”
"We would love to have him join this team, and I'm hopeful we can figure that out, a way to do that on the sooner side," Elias said.
Kendall said the version of Stewart that has gone on this tear at Norfolk is what he could look like at his best, and the difference was him finding that form as the season got started. When Stewart, 25, wasn't getting pitches to hit early in the season, he'd get overzealous and expand.
"He knows a strike from a ball, and what makes him best is during that actual period where he was absolutely raking, he was getting his fair share of walks," Kendall said. "He's one of the league leaders in base-on-balls, and that gets even more magnified when he starts producing offensively. Now, all of a sudden, he's 2-for-3 instead of 2-for-5, and he's picking up two walks, scoring three runs. That's what kind of player he needs to be — stay in the strike zone. Certainly a strong guy. He can fend for himself because of his strength.
"But I would say just staying in the strike zone, and not getting too away from his game, and his game — and not to say you want a guy to walk but you want a guy to be selective. You want guys to get good pitches to hit. Hitting is hard enough, but it magnifies it even worse when you're up there just hacking and swinging at their pitch, or an elevated fastball at your neck, or something down in the dirt. You're not giving yourself a chance."
Elias certainly gave no indication that the Orioles have moved on from the previous regime's idea that Sisco, 24, is the catcher of the future,
"Sisco’s somebody that we’re counting on and we care a lot about and we want to get him up here at the right time, and maybe that’s soon, too," Elias said.
There's a lot that goes into when that time will come for Sisco, and the fact that the conversation is being advanced is because he entered Saturday hitting .272 with seven home runs and seven doubles, even if all of those home runs came in a nine-game stretch from April 30 to May 12.
Kendall sees a hitter with more power and a better eye than the one he had in 2016 with Bowie, and he's been preaching consistency as well as a steady number of high-quality at-bats for Sisco and so many of his young players.
But what will get Sisco to the big leagues will be his defense, and Kendall said there's been strides in his blocking and receiving the low pitch.
"He's communicating better," Kendall said. "Chance is not a guy that's really aggressive, and a take-charge guy. It's not kind of in his persona, but he's been doing more of it. He's got to be a leader back there behind the plate, and that's been conveyed from our big league staff, and he's reminded about it here. I see improvement.
"There's a lot of ways that he can improve with his throwing, with his release, when pitches are kind of tough pitches to handle, to still be able to get a good throw off, a solid throw off, and to be able when guys aren't as quick to the plate, to be able to compete and put something there at the bag. That's just something that he's going to continue to improve on, but all in all, he's hitting in the middle of our lineup. He's putting up some pretty good numbers.”