When top Orioles pitching prospect Grayson Rodriguez joined the rotation at Double-A Bowie this week and struck out eight in five innings for a successful debut, it made the most exciting collection of talent anywhere in the team’s farm system even more so.
Rodriguez joined fellow strikeout machine and former first-round draft pick DL Hall in a Bowie rotation to create an unrivaled top of pitching combination.
Baseball America updated its Top 100 prospects list Monday and bumped Rodriguez to No. 11, making him the game‘s top pitching prospect, while Hall was up to No. 44.
The group already had former top pick Cody Sedlock, left-hander Kevin Smith, hard-throwing right-hander Ofelky Peralta, left-hander Cameron Bishop, right-hander Gray Fenter and 2018 third-round pick Blaine Knight, who also joined this month. Earlier in the year, Kyle Bradish was so dominant for Bowie that he earned a quick promotion to Triple-A.
If the idea of a prospect-laden and at-times dominant Bowie rotation sounds familiar, it’s because for years that’s been a choke point where all the organization’s top arms have seemed to eventually come together, most recently in 2019.
That rotation, for most of the year, featured Dean Kremer, Mike Baumann, Zac Lowther, Alexander Wells, and Bruce Zimmermann. All five of those pitchers had ERAs under 3.00 and impressive peripherals as they helped Bowie climb from an early-season slump to a playoff bid.
And everything that’s happened for those pitchers since — from the 2020 minor league season they lost to the coronavirus pandemic to the injuries and stop-and-start progress they’ve made in the big leagues — shows that all the promise in the world on a Double-A mound still calls for a bit of restraint. There’s a lot standing between where the current exciting group is now and major league success.
Zimmermann and Kremer each debuted in 2020 despite limited time in Triple-A, and have ERAs of 5.30 and 6.19 since, with each pitching very well at times but experiencing some inconsistency and shuffling between the majors and Triple-A Norfolk this year. Lowther was limited by an oblique injury in 2020 but was added to the roster in the offseason anyway, and has pitched three times for the Orioles around short outings.
Wells had an oblique injury of his own this spring and struggled in May at Norfolk before getting back on track with four shutout innings Thursday.
Baumann might be the best prospect of the bunch, but he had a flexor mass strain last summer at the alternate site, had to restart his season preparation after it stayed sore in spring training, and is still building up with rehab outings. He still hasn’t pitched at Triple-A.
Those five starters, entering what would have been the 2020 season, were among the Orioles’ top-16 prospects, according to Baseball America. Each still has the talent and makeup to pitch in a major league rotation. But the intervening years haven’t really gone according to plan for any of them, for a variety of reasons. That should give pause as the rightful excitement grows about the Bowie group this year.
That doesn’t take away from what Rodriguez and Hall have done this year. They rank among the minor league leaders in strikeouts and are one of the most dynamic combinations of young pitchers in any of the league’s 30 farm systems. Them both being in Double-A at this point makes it realistic that one or both could be in the majors at this time next year. Having two premier starters join the Orioles rotation would be the first major sign that the team is ready to compete again, which is really all anyone cares about.
Smith, Sedlock and everyone else could join in climbing to Triple-A and eventually the big leagues with them. Bradish will be waiting and could move quickly to the big leagues himself. Whenever they arrive, they could still encounter some of the last Bowie rotation trying to finish off their development and get to a point where they can stick in the big leagues.
The lost 2020 minor league season did a lot of things, but the combined impact of delaying the 2019 Bowie rotation’s maturation to the big leagues and accelerating the likes of Hall, Rodriguez and Bradish with what they did at the alternate site means the waves of pitching prospects might be jumbled together before long.
What’s to come?
A pair of days off around a two-game series with the New York Mets this week will be welcome, but not what follows: 21 games in 21 days before a July 1 day off.
As such, the Orioles are using this set of days off (including one last Thursday) to give their starters extra rest. As John Means’ shoulder strain that landed him on the injured list showed, that’s not always going to work. But it’s possible the Orioles could reset their rotation for that 21-game stretch after Zimmermann and Matt Harvey pitch Tuesday and Wednesday with three rookie starters in Zimmermann, Keegan Akin and Lowther.
Kremer could also be recalled from Triple-A Norfolk to rejoin the starting rotation when an empty turn arises.
What was good?
Cedric Mullins’ two-hit game last Sunday seems to have sparked something special for the Orioles’ center fielder. He used that game to start a seven-game hitting streak, and was 13-for-24 (.542) with a 1.690 OPS thanks to three doubles, a triple, three home runs and four walks.
From his last at-bat Friday through Saturday’s five-hit game with two home runs and into Sunday, when he hit a leadoff home run as well, Mullins had a run of nine straight hits and reached base 11 straight times.
From his game-turning catch in the Orioles’ 14-game losing streak-busting win Tuesday through this weekend’s star turn, Mullins said he’s most proud of how he didn’t let his mind wander during this run.
“Just maintaining focus, I think that’s the big thing,” Mullins said. “I know sometimes, focus can kind of go in and out. the weather is kind of hot today and every once in a while you might let an at-bat go, then you reflect on that and are like, ‘[Darn,] I wish I had a little more concentration. But I feel like I maintained it the entire game, the entire series.”
Mullins is a better overall hitter than he’s been at any point in his career, owing to his going exclusively left-handed instead of switch-hitting. But he’s always been streaky, and this season has shown that while the highs are still quite productive, the lower periods aren’t nearly as hard to stomach — especially when he’s playing such good defense.
“He’s always had the raw power,” manager Brandon Hyde said. “For me, now he’s becoming a better hitter — he’s squaring up more balls and his power is showing up because of it — a little more contact, a little more of a line-drive swing, and he’s catching it out in front and it leads to more power.”
Ryan Mountcastle (11-for-25 with four home runs this week) was also very good.
Before Sunday’s game, Hyde said he felt like outfielder Anthony Santander was “close to getting hot,” and his three-hit game Sunday proved that. He really needed it.
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Santander provided an immediate boost to the Orioles’ lineup when he returned from a month sidelined with a sprained ankle in late May, but he entered Sunday without an extra-base hit in seven games after collecting seven doubles and a home run in his first eight games off the injured list.
“I give Anthony a ton of credit,” Hyde said. “He is playing with a really sore ankle, playing banged up, trying to post every day. He wants to be in the lineup.”
Any kind of production resembling his first week-plus back would be much preferred to what’s happened since, and even as Mountcastle seems to be showing he’s back to the form that’s made everyone envision him as a middle-of-the-order bat, there’s no denying having all of their good hitters hitting well will make the Orioles a much more competitive team.
On the farm
Top prospect Adley Rutschman had two hits in his first 12 at-bats over this week’s series in Hartford, but his great weekend more than made up for that. Rutschman homered in a three-hit day Saturday and added another home run along with an infield pop-up double Sunday while walking twice to bring his OPS back over 1.000.
Tuesday, 7:05 p.m.
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