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Five takeaways from the Orioles’ top prospect rankings on Baseball America

It has become almost a fixture in the semiregular updates Orioles executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias gives on the state of the organization to note where the team’s farm system is ranked among the 30 major league clubs. Of late, he’s noted how high it’s climbed.

He also notes that these rankings are largely subjective and not the end-all, be-all of an organization. But, they’re still a fair snapshot of where the organization’s players stack up to one another.

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This year’s ranking of the top 10 Orioles prospects at Baseball America is out now, and I was fortunate to be asked back for another year of breaking down the future of the Orioles.

A pandemic that shut down the minor league season and prevented the firsthand observations that often drive these rankings — both the ones I make and the ones that countless rival scouts contribute — made it more difficult to compile.

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But after taking the opportunity to peruse the finished product, here are five takeaways from compiling the rankings that inform opinions about where the Orioles farm is headed.

The shortened season robbed this list of a remake ...

In this exercise last fall, one of the takeaways was that there would be “a real problem” if many of last year’s top 10 were in it again, alluding to the likelihood that Austin Hays, Hunter Harvey, Ryan Mountcastle and Keegan Akin were all going to graduate from rookie status and thus not be eligible for this year’s set.

At the risk of not holding myself accountable, I think the coronavirus pandemic counts as a real problem. It doesn’t make it less disappointing that so few of those players got enough major league time to graduate. Only Hays, who was right on the cusp of graduating last year, did so in 2020. Mountcastle came a few at-bats shy of graduating, and Harvey simply got passed by others. But Akin, who spent all of 2019 in Triple-A and has occupied the same 7-11 range on these rankings for the past four years, was eligible again.

The good news is all the 2020 debutantes in Mountcastle, Akin, and Dean Kremer all performed at a level that made it easy to include them here. Two years into this rebuild, though, this list still looks a lot like it did at the end of the Dan Duquette era.

… but new names still pushed for the top 10.

Even with so many holdovers and a lack of graduations, there were still fresh names pushing to knock some of those big league rookies out of the rankings.

Right-hander Kyle Bradish, one of four pitchers the Orioles got from the Los Angeles Angels in the December 2019 trade of Dylan Bundy, was one. He impressed coaches and player development staff with a lively fastball that was in the mid-90s mph at the Bowie camp, and some believe his slider is the best in the organization.

Likewise, shortstop Jordan Westburg, the 30th overall pick in the 2020 draft out of Mississippi State, was right on the cusp. The whole 2020 draft class was hard to slot in, with not as much known about them without a full spring season and only their work at the fall instructional camp.

And those are just the new names. This time last year, it would have been players such as infielder Adam Hall and possibly outfielder Kyle Stowers who seemed most primed to break into the top 10.

As much as the Orioles are hoping for a minor league season to get these players in games, so too are those on the outside who want to see just what kind of progress they were able to make in a year without games.

The Rodriguez-Hall duo is primed for a big leap, on and off the field.

There are a few teams who can boast better duos of pitching prospects than the Orioles have in top pitching prospects Grayson Rodriguez and DL Hall, but many of those combos above them have major league experience and won’t be on the prospect scene for long.

That will mean, as long as the gains in their stuff and delivery from the 2020 camps hold over into real games, there could be plenty of buzz about the Orioles' top two pitching prospects next year.

There’s already been some chatter among scouts down at the fall instructional league games that they’ve been some of the most impressive arms on the circuit, which checks out considering their fastballs have been in the high-90s all year and each has several different ways to get hitters out with their secondary pitches.

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All of the pitchers who debuted in 2020 are the kinds to help stabilize an unsteady rotation, but it’s top-flight arms like Rodriguez and Hall who can make a true impact.

There’s been plenty of efforts to address the infield deficit that are clearer in a wider view.

With Mountcastle’s future now seemingly on the outfield grass, there’s only one infielder in the top 10 in Gunnar Henderson. Westburg easily could have been included, though, and was the talk of the instructional league as a future big league middle infielder.

For a team that hasn’t produced a homegrown infielder (non-first base edition) who made meaningful contributions since the days of Jonathan Schoop and Manny Machado, addressing the issue was much-needed. Taking Henderson and Darell Hernaiz early in the 2019 draft, and going with some more advanced college infielders like Westburg and Anthony Servideo in this year’s draft, provided some talent on that front. Adam Hall lost a year of development with the shutdown, but he’s still in the mix, and the team will also get a chance to turn this year’s fourth-round pick Coby Mayo into a big leaguer.

Rylan Bannon is probably the closest to the big leagues when it comes to infield prospects, but he’ll certainly be pushed once he does arrive. This is an area of the farm that’s really changing for the better.

Real prospects were left off this list.

While the top 10 provides a snapshot of familiar and well-known names in the Orioles' system, the influx of new young talent made for a complicated process after the top 10 cutoff. A new six-player draft class, over a dozen player acquired in trades in the last year and a still-unknown 2019 draft group made for some complicated evaluations.

The end result was that players who have been included in recent years got bumped not only out of the top 10, but out of the top 30 altogether. These are players who can be in Baltimore within a year and have real major league value, but this is just a harder list to crack than it has been in past years.

Any kind of meaningful minor league season in 2021 will make this process a little more clear next time around. For now, though, the fact that real players were left off and the last few spots of the list weren’t just a sampling of good statistical performers or lottery tickets who might make the author look smart is a sign of what kind of progress the organization is trying to make.

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