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The Orioles sent top prospects to minor league camp this week. Did Mike Elias shed any light on when they'd debut?
Mike Elias talked 2022 prospect debut timelines in a way only he can Monday, which is to say there's a lot to read into when they'll occur.
By virtue of calling a media session to announce that two of the Orioles’ top pitching prospects – DL Hall and Kyle Bradish – plus former top prospect Yusniel Diaz were all being optioned out to minor league camp, it’s fair to assume Mike Elias wanted to get the rationale for the moves out there and control the expectations about those players’ potential roles in 2022.
He covered the basics: there’s only so many innings in camp for their pitchers, everyone needs to finish off every developmental level before making the big leagues, and the team still has high hopes for all involved.
Elias also breadcrumbed several different scenarios for the Orioles’ top prospects and how quickly they’ll get to the majors – at once cementing that group plus top pitching prospect Grayson Rodriguez and outfielder Kyle Stowers (to say nothing of No. 1 overall prospect Adley Rutschman) as part of the Orioles’ 2022 plans but giving nothing for anyone to pin hopes on that their arrivals are assured to happen quickly.
Considering the fickle nature of these young athlete’s bodies and everything else that can go wrong when charting a prospect’s course to the big leagues, leaving some flexibility is warranted. Given how Orioles camp has been covered, and the perception issues around their low payroll and roster construction though, there’s likely to be some external pressure for the future that was promised to become reality quickly. The prospects have largely been the focus, and will be until they become big leaguers. So judging by Elias’ comments, what can we read into how quickly that will be.
What it means for the hitters
Four times now, Yusniel Diaz has impressed in major league camp with the Orioles only to be sent to the minors with instructions to keep his body right and his performance consistent to make himself an option for the big league club. The three prior times, it hasn’t exactly panned out, his lost 2021 season most notable in that. Perhaps because it’s what he has to say, but also perhaps because a corner has been turned, Elias spoke as if it was fated this year would be different.
“I fully expect he’s going to make his major league debut at some point this year as well, and that’s our hope and plans,” he said.
As Elias dove deeper into that, he laid out a couple meaningful markers for not only Diaz but the rest of the team’s hitting prospects.
“We view it’s important that you have demonstrated some success in Triple-A, hopefully, before coming up, unless in very special cases,” Elias said. “For hitters, it’s almost always the case that you play in Triple-A nowadays, at least for a little bit.”
You don’t need to be Ryan Mountcastle and get stashed at Norfolk for an entire year to realize that’s the case, but it’s notable combined with his comments about Stowers, who remains in major league camp as a non-roster invitee. He said Stowers’ Triple-A statistics in 2021 – a .773 OPS and three home runs with 32 strikeouts in 22 games – ”was solid but it’s not something that can’t be built upon,” noting how short his time there was.
Rutschman, who hasn’t played in games due to a triceps injury, had twice as many plate appearances and had an OPS over 100 points higher (.895). Would that have been enough? We won’t know, but eventually, an answer of how long the Orioles require a player to be in Triple-A will be answered. For players off the roster like Mountcastle, it really might be a full year.
The Orioles are clearly preparing Stowers to be on the team this year by his spring workload and the experiences they’re getting him, and the same would be true for Rutschman. But it doesn’t seem like either of the outfielders – Stowers or Diaz – will ascend quickly. Rutschman only will when he’s healthy.
The top three pitchers, and lessons learned from 2021
The highly-ranked trio of Rodriguez, Hall, and Bradish represents the class of the Orioles’ pitching program at this point, and their developmental paths have each in the high minors at vastly different stages.
Rodriguez spent most of 2021 at Double-A Bowie and isn’t on the 40-man roster, but dominated at that level and is set for Triple-A this year.
“If he checks a couple of boxes for us, I think there might not be much left to prove there,” Elias said.
Hall was similarly impressive at Double-A Bowie last year, but missed most of the season with an elbow injury that he’s still coming back from. As such, Elias said it’s likely Hall will remain in Sarasota when minor league camp breaks to slow-play his innings progression in extended spring training and ensure he’s able to pitch a full season this summer.
Elias said: “We want him to be able to sustain the type of success that he’s shown when he’s been out there, so from a health standpoint and from an innings coverage standpoint, being able to get deep in games, get through the order three times, we want to be able to sustain that. He’s learning how to do that. He’s very gifted, and he’s a young guy who’s learning how his body works, and he’s really maturing and becoming smart on the mound by the day. I think it’s going to happen quickly, but there’s only so much that he needs to show, I think, at the minor league level before he can come help this team and do it in a sustainable, long-term way where he’s never going back.”
Elias also noted how impressive Bradish, the centerpiece of the December 2019 Dylan Bundy trade, was in his spring cameos. That’s what the Orioles hoped for when, after carving up Double-A hitters in 2021, he struggled some at Norfolk only to rediscover his best attacking mindset late in the season.
Speaking on Hall and Bradish jointly, Elias said the Orioles “hope to have both of those guys up and impacting the major league team as soon as possible but more importantly as long as possible, and without going back down to the minor leagues.”
That last part is important. There is a prescribed amount of innings each will have, and when they start to be major league innings is probably prescribed too. I’d guess that was true each of the last two seasons, and the Orioles only really got to see it play out in 2020.
That year’s shortened 60-game season meant Keegan Akin and Dean Kremer had to wait until around halfway through the season–into mid-to-late-August–for their chance. That gave them about a month in the big leagues, which was sufficient for experience but also not enough for the league to figure them out. The latter part meant there was plenty of work to do in 2021, a year when other pitching prospects like Zac Lowther and Alexander Wells made major league debuts in unfamiliar roles because of issues on the major league staff.
Speaking about Diaz, but also casting a wide net to the Orioles’ rookies in 2021, Elias said: “That happened to a lot of our guys last year before they were really ready, and it doesn’t lay the foundation for success, for sustained success, in the major leagues that we know is for the benefit of the player and gives us a better idea of what we’re evaluating and being fair in our evaluation when they do get to the big leagues.”
The Orioles seem like they could be between two minds on the pitchers. They don’t want to waste bullets in the minors when the stuff could clearly play in the majors, but they don’t want to bring them up before they’re fully healthy. They don’t want to rush their development, but in the case of all of these pitchers, there’s not a lot they need to accomplish in the minors.
And yet, it’s desperately important that the Orioles have three quality major league pitchers among these three–two holdover top picks that this front office has burnished, and a third who is the centerpiece of their biggest trade. They can’t risk calling them up and having it not go well, and they can’t wait too long to show there are real fruits to this rebuild.
From the sound of everything he had to say today, Elias is quite aware of all that. At this point, the only correct answer is whatever is written in pen on the players’ pitching plans. Following them means they’re healthy, they’re pitching well, and no outside factors forced the team’s hand – which is to say each of these young pitchers will be well and truly ready.
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