The Orioles got an infielder into the top-100. What will the next sign of progress for the farm be?
Recent league-wide top-100 prospect lists leave plenty of gaps for the Orioles to prove their player development prowess in as their rebuild roles on.
Whenever I learn about a certain database or system at my new job, I tell the person explaining the platform to me that such organization is not my strong suit and knowing where to find such things would be a lot easier than my old system.
Case in point: for the last 20 minutes, I searched Google using my name and various keywords to find what I wrote when Baseball America’s top-100 prospect list was released last January. It didn’t work, but searching the equally-unorganized iCloud with my stories and notes from the Sun days led me where I wanted to be.
This time last year, the Orioles’ representatives on that list were Adley Rutschman, Grayson Rodriguez, DL Hall, Heston Kjerstad, and Ryan Mountcastle. Nowhere among them was an infielder, a position the Orioles had neglected or drafted poorly at from pretty much the moment Manny Machado and Jonathan Schoop arrived in the big leagues until 2019, the first draft under executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias.
The next important step, at that point, was to get an infielder into the mix, and Gunnar Henderson made that happen this year.
That Adley Rutschman and Grayson Rodriguez are at and near the top of the list is an achievement. DL Hall’s talent keeping him on it despite his recent health issues is positive as well, and top pick Colton Cowser’s pro debut made him worthy as well. Henderson will be the one the Orioles are most proud of, though, considering how his progression as a prep draftee has been aided and bolstered by the player development group’s mentality and philosophies.
To break down which prospects could crack the list this time next year would be an exercise in basically reciting the rankings in order.
If the Orioles’ development program keeps improving apace, it won’t be about the quantity of top-100 prospects in the organization going forward. It will be about the demographics of who represents them on the list. Here are the next set of challenges that will mark their progress when I’m fumbling through the archives next January to try and find this particular article.
Don’t get cute with the No. 1 pick
Not as easy as it sounds, right? These are the same Orioles who surprised by taking Kjerstad No. 2 overall in 2020 and to a lesser extent Cowser in 2021 at No. 5, and they haven’t been proven wrong in either choice yet. Kjerstad’s health issues make it hard to evaluate that pick, and Cowser has been as-advertised so far.
But those are also not the first overall pick, and the Orioles set a high standard for themselves in ending up with Rutschman in 2019. He’s the game’s top prospect now, and was rated in the top-10 in the game almost immediately.
Every draft is different, but the expectation should be they replace Rutschman near the top of the league-wide rankings with someone else of that ilk. Even though Elias often couches the value of such publications’ rankings when he’s citing them, he still cites player and farm system rankings, and the team has pumped them up as well.
Imagine next year’s No. 1 pick being rated No. 41 overall like Henry Davis is in BA’s most recent rankings. Unless the Orioles have real, tangible big league progress to point to, they’d be hard-pressed to spin that the way they want to given how built-up the pick will be.
Whether the player proves great or not will be what matters, but perception does too.
Who will the next pitcher to make a list like this be?
Assuming it won’t be the No. 1 overall pick, which is a fair assumption given the Orioles’ recent draft tendencies, there’s absolutely no telling who the next top-100 pitching prospect will be beyond Rodriguez and Hall.
Those were first-round picks in their drafts, and Elias has noted it’s hard to find such talents outside the first round of the draft. The Orioles gave early-round money to Carter Baumler in 2020 before his elbow injury, but he’s the exception the last three years. So it begs the question of when, without using top picks on such players, they’ll push another pitcher up into that tier of the prospect rankings.
They have pitchers closer to the majors on their own prospect lists like Kyle Bradish and Mike Baumann, but that’s not the type of profile that makes a league-wide list.
My gut tells me the next top-100 pitching prospect with an Orioles logo next to his name isn’t in the organization yet. They could make a big trade that includes on, or take one that has fallen with one of their top few picks in July.
Baumler might be the best bet for someone inside the organization, unless someone from the Latin American program absolutely pops off. This doesn’t seem like it will be a box successfully checked by this time next year, but is one they’ll be striving for nonetheless.
Who emerges as the crown jewel of the Latin American program?
One of my own blind spots is evaluating (or truthfully even knowing where to begin with) the teenage Latin American talents that find their way onto these lists. The Orioles didn’t have them for years, so when they started becoming candidates for their organizational rankings in the last year or two, it was hard to know what to do with them.
The last time a homegrown Orioles international signee made a top-100 list was in 2014 when Eduardo Rodriguez and Jonathan Schoop represented their Latin American program. This year, 30 of BA’s top-100 were international signees. I’d venture to say almost every team has been represented by an international prospect on a top-100 list since the Orioles were, but when will one of their recent signees pop off and change that?
Logic shows that it will be one of the top players from one of the last two classes that makes it. Their offseason rankings featured three signees from the 2020 class in catcher Samuel Basallo, shortstop Maikol Hernandez, and infielder Anderson de los Santos. With those players set to play in the Florida Complex League, the avenue to such prospect status would be eye-popping performance and the tools to match it.
For someone like Braylin Tavera, who signed for a club-record bonus last weekend, it will be hard to crack such a list playing in the Dominican Summer League. The wildcard is Cuban infielder Cesar Prieto, who could be in the high minors and producing against other top prospects next season. His age and talent profile means that, with some production, he could push into that mix as well.
The areas the Orioles are represented in currently are a decent cross-section of what they’ve done well in this rebuild–identify hitters atop the draft, and bring along the top pitchers from the last front office.
They know the areas that will represent the next level of progress, and any of the above would qualify.