A group of top Orioles college picks played prominent roles in Aberdeen's playoff run, and were exposed to new challenges to bring them into the offseason.
MLB’s removal of short-season affiliated baseball outside the complex league, plus the July draft, has created some fascinating development choices for organizations when it comes to breaking in their new draftees.
The Orioles’ approach to this seems to be evolving. Considering their proclivity for college players, the roadmap almost always seems to be getting them to full-season baseball as quickly as possible after an introductory stint at the Sarasota complex.
Last year, the Orioles’ draftees got four weeks at Low-A Delmarva, with many of the hitters then beginning at High-A Aberdeen this spring.
But for a group of this year’s draftees, Aberdeen’s playoff berth created an opportunity for more baseball and a select group was challenged even further, gaining an experience the Orioles believe will be valuable to kick-starting their development into the offseason to prepare for productive first full seasons.
First-day picks Dylan Beavers, Max Wagner, and Jud Fabian, plus catcher Adam Retzbach, spent most of September with the Ironbirds being exposed to a challenge that they simply didn’t seem to be getting in Delmarva.
“I think a big part of the challenge is going from Low-A, where some guys are still learning some command and maybe developing some pitches – usually the secondaries,” Aberdeen hitting coach Zach Cole told me this week. “Here, the fastball usage drops a little bit. We’re starting to see some nastier sliders, and maybe some changeups – Beavers especially, being a lefty and seeing a ton of righties. But just getting pitched a little bit differently with some better stuff is a big adjustment, and we’ve got a lot of guys on this team that are here to face that challenge right now. They’re handling it well.”
For the top threesome in particular, their plate discipline and the level of pitching at Delmarva after a season of Power Five college baseball combined with an adherence to the swing decision system the Orioles introduced them to made for an almost too-smooth transition. They walked 29 times and struck out 33, with Fabian in particular dominating the level and Beavers posting the best swing decision series Delmarva had all year in one of his first weeks there. (Top pick Jackson Holliday excelled at that aspect too, with 15 walks and 10 strikeouts at the level, but his young age meant the Orioles didn’t push him beyond Delmarva this summer.)
The elevation to Aberdeen gave them more of a challenge, with pitchers around the strike zone much more and further on the spectrum of trying to attack hitters’ weaknesses as opposed to just trying to hone and throw their best pitches.
The group seemed to come around as their brief spell in Aberdeen went on. Fabian was the first up and had to leave the team for a brief spell, but ended up with a .786 OPS, four extra-base hits and eight walks against 16 strikeouts in 55 plate appearances including the playoffs.
Beavers reached base in each of his 10 games with the Ironbirds, ending with an .855 OPS and six walks to 11 strikeouts in 48 plate appearances. His at-bats in the second game of the championship game against Bowling Green were particularly impressive, working a leadoff walk in the first inning and then manipulating the count full in his second before hitting his first professional home run in his second.
The Cal product is already embracing everything the Orioles’ offer when it comes to swing work and challenging training, and being at the level introduced him to another facet of his game to address with those practices.
“The game is changing a little, and this is the challenge you have to work through, and that’s what we believe in as an organization,” Cole said. “But a good example is Dylan Beavers, probably usually from righties getting a lot of fastball-changeups. Now, he’s starting to see right-handed sliders and he hasn’t had to face that a ton in his life.
“He’s here and he’s starting to get flipped a lot so he came in and said, ‘We’re going to hammer sliders today. Let’s set up a machine with some sliders, let’s go all sliders in BP with the arm.’ Just really hammering away at it until I can find a solution and take it to the next level, whatever my training is.”
Wagner, the least experienced of the group by virtue of being drafted as a sophomore after a breakout season with 27 home runs at Clemson, enjoyed the least success there. He was particularly challenged with high fastballs by opposing pitchers, and was made to wait until the last two playoff games to collect his two extra-base hits. He had a .511 OPS with five walks and 11 strikeouts in 46 plate appearances, though he fared better in the playoffs as he got used to the level.
All three are likely to return to the level to begin 2023, and the tools that made them such high picks were apparent in the handful of games I saw them play this year. Fabian generates consistent hard contact and has impressive range in center field. Beavers is a tremendous runner with plate discipline and power potential. Wagner showed range and a good arm at third, and such a small sample of professional at-bats didn’t raise any red flags about his bat.
Other draft-eligible sophomores in the last few years, such as Hudson Haskin and John Rhodes, have proven to be on different developmental paths than the Orioles’ more experienced high picks. But the group seems on a path to, if they develop as the Orioles expect, to be in the high-minors by next year. Beavers and Fabian seem the types who can replicate Kyle Stowers, Adley Rutschman, Colton Cowser, and Connor Norby have accomplished by getting to Norfolk in their first full professional seasons.
The Orioles’ aggression with moving players up to appropriately challenge them and spur on development hasn’t backfired much, if at all, over the last two seasons under this player development set-up. (This is true even if the standard seems to be completely different for players succeeding in Triple-A when a major league opportunity is imminent and mildly undermines the premise.)
It stands to reason, though, that high-level college players can handle High-A in their draft year to prepare for that level in their first full seasons. The Orioles didn’t push anyone in 2021, but might have a blueprint to help get players a head start on the 200-250 plate appearances they seem to require at Aberdeen before getting them to Double-A as quickly as possible. The introduction to a challenge can only help in their estimation.
“It’s OK to struggle, and it’s OK to make mistakes,” Aberdeen manager Roberto Mercado said. “That’s where you make adjustments – from mistakes. It’s great learning opportunities for them.”
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