Mike Elias made it clear this winter: The Orioles are no longer a rebuilding club.
“I believe that our rebuild is behind us,” the team’s executive vice president and general manager said in early February.
Elias added that the “focus” of the organization is now more on putting the big league club in a position to make the playoffs than on the development of its farm system.
At the same time, though, the Orioles’ future success is still heavily dependent on how the current crop of prospects in the minors perform. Some of them will arrive at Camden Yards in the future to join the likes of Adley Rutschman and Gunnar Henderson. Others, however, could be used as trade chips for Elias to acquire a star at the deadline. Either way, the players in Norfolk, Bowie, Aberdeen and beyond are still important.
When looking at the farm system, there are plenty of names to get excited about. As the worst team in the majors from 2018 to 2021, the Orioles picked in the top five of the draft for four straight years and accumulated a stockpile of talent as part of their rebuild.
Now, for the first time since Baseball America began ranking minor league systems in 1984, the Orioles are on top as the best farm in baseball with eight players inside the top 100 and several others worth following.
Here are the 10 most interesting Orioles prospects to follow throughout the minor leagues in 2023.
The Triple-A infielders
This group of middle infielders — all top 10 Orioles prospects and top 100 on Baseball America’s list — is expected to start the year in Triple-A, but each player also has the opportunity to play their way onto the big league club in 2023. They ended their 2022 campaigns in Norfolk, with all three sharing the field in September.
Jordan Westburg: With the most Triple-A experience of this group, Westburg could be seen as the next man up after Henderson’s call-up late last season. Westburg, who can play second, third and shortstop, was named the Orioles’ Brooks Robinson Minor League Player of the Year in 2022 after tallying 69 extra-base hits and driving in 106 runs in 138 games — 91 of which came in Triple-A.
Connor Norby: Norby’s 2022 season was unusual, as the second baseman actually hit better as he moved up through the Orioles’ system. The 22-year-old posted a .736 on-base plus slugging percentage in High-A, a .960 OPS in Double-A and a 1.123 OPS in nine games with Norfolk. Norby, a second-round pick in 2019, led all Orioles minor leaguers with 29 home runs in 2022.
Joey Ortiz: If Norby and Westburg are the muscle, Ortiz is the finesse. The 24-year-old is a “defensive wizard kind of shortstop,” according to Elias. However, while Ortiz is well-regarded for his glove, his bat is what opened more eyes in 2022. After hitting .251 in his first 91 minor league contests in Aberdeen and Bowie, Ortiz slashed .284/.349/.477 in 137 games last season between Double-A and Triple-A.
The outfield sluggers
These three outfielders — the top three in the Orioles’ system — all have a career minor league OPS above .850. All three were also high selections by the team in each of the past three drafts. While the Orioles’ infield depth is why their prospect stash is so coveted, these outfielders are also key pieces within the system.
Colton Cowser: The fifth pick in the 2021 draft, Cowser could be the next Orioles prospect to play at Camden Yards. Cowser, who turns 23 in late March, hit his way from Aberdeen to Bowie to Norfolk last season, amassing 36 doubles, 19 home runs and 18 stolen bases while posting a .406 on-base percentage. According to Baseball America, Cowser is the fourth best prospect in Baltimore’s system and No. 41 in the sport.
Heston Kjerstad: If Kjerstad ends up playing for the Orioles, his path to get there will be as unconventional as perhaps anyone in the sport. The No. 2 overall pick in the 2020 draft, Kjerstad didn’t make his professional debut until 2022 because of a heart condition and a severe left hamstring strain. The 24-year-old dominated Low-A pitching (.463 batting average in 22 games) before struggling at High-A (.233 average in 43 games). But in the fall, he showed why he was a first-round pick, winning the Arizona Fall League Most Valuable Player award after logging a .357 batting average and hitting five homers.
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Dylan Beavers: After selecting Jackson Holliday first overall in the 2022 draft, the Orioles took Beavers in the Competitive Balance A round following his standout junior season at Cal. Beavers, 21, played only 23 minor league games last season, but he slashed .322/.438/.460 and ended the year in Aberdeen. 2023 will be a crucial year for the Orioles to learn what they have in the young outfielder.
The unheralded pitchers
Of the 10 Orioles on major top prospect lists (Baseball America, Baseball Prospectus, MLB Pipeline), only two are pitchers. And both of them, Rodriguez and left-hander DL Hall, are expected to spend all or most of 2023 in the majors. Once they graduate, who will be the next arms to follow?
Cade Povich: As the main prospect the Orioles got in return for All-Star closer Jorge López last summer, Povich could be the organization’s top pitching prospect at the end of 2023. The 22-year-old left-hander posted a 4.50 ERA in 114 innings between High-A and Double-A last year. Povich, a third-round pick by the Minnesota Twins in 2021, has recorded 12.1 strikeouts per nine innings in the minors.
Ryan Watson: A 25-year-old right-hander, Watson has perhaps flown under the radar, but not by the Orioles. Last season, Watson was named the Orioles’ Jim Palmer Minor League Pitcher of the Year after going 7-5 in 107 1/3 innings between Bowie and Norfolk. Watson, who signed as a free agent after not being selected in the five-round 2020 draft, ranked third in both ERA (3.44) and WHIP (1.10) among Orioles minor leaguers who pitched 75 or more innings last season.
Since Elias took over, the organization has built up its international scouting department, spending more than $1 million on four players in the past three signing classes. Most of the Orioles’ top teenage talent, including 16-year-old shortstop Luis Almeyda and 18-year-old outfielder Braylin Tavera, will likely spend the year in rookie ball. Oh, and then there’s Holliday.
Samuel Basallo: Perhaps the best Orioles prospect to come from the international market, Basallo could spend 2023 in full-season ball after playing in the Dominican Summer League in 2021 and the Florida Complex League last year. Basallo, an 18-year-old catcher from the Dominican Republic, slashed .279/.350/.424 in 43 rookie ball games last season. The Orioles gave him a $1.3 million signing bonus in 2021.
Jackson Holliday: The 19-year-old shortstop is on track to become the Orioles’ top infield prospect — and potentially the organization’s overall best — later this year when Henderson, the consensus No. 1 prospect in the sport, and right-hander Grayson Rodriguez, the Orioles’ second-best prospect, lose their eligibility. Holliday, the son of former All-Star outfielder Matt Holliday, posted a .911 OPS in 20 games between the FCL and Low-A Delmarva last year. He spent the beginning of spring training in major league camp, which Elias said is atypical for a high school player the year after he’s drafted. However, Elias believes “he was ready for it.”