Dean Jones Report: Updating our Orioles' prospect rankings - BaltimoreBaseball.com

Dean Jones Report

Dean Jones Report: Updating our Orioles’ prospect rankings

The 2019 season unofficially begins Saturday morning.

That’s when the Orioles will welcome thousands of fans to the Baltimore Convention Center for their annual FanFest. If you’re a season-ticket holder, you can get in at 10 a.m. Everyone else needs to wait until 11 a.m., but the festivities will last throughout the day.

After the weekend, we’ll look ahead to spring training. It starts in just over two weeks. Pitchers and catchers report Feb. 12 and the full squad on Feb. 17.

It’s the beginning of a new era in Birdland.

As we all know, the Orioles endured a brutal 2018 season. They finished in last place in the American League East Division for the second straight year, posting a 47-115 record.

That led to the departures of executive vice president Dan Duquette and manager Buck Showalter. In their places, the Orioles hired Mike Elias and Brandon Hyde, respectively.

While Elias and Hyde have started to mold the organization the way they would like to – including hiring analytics guru Sig Mejdal as assistant general manager – the Orioles still have a lot of work to do on many fronts. A successful turnaround won’t happen overnight.

Of course, the Orioles’ minor leagues will play a critical role in the success of the rebuild.

With low expectations for the major-league squad this season, fans will focus on what’s happening with the club’s top prospects. It’s the same thing that happened a decade ago.

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In the “dark years” before the Orioles surprised the baseball world with a wild-card berth in 2012, everyone wanted to know how catcher Matt Wieters, shortstop Manny Machado, left-hander Brian Matusz, and others were playing. The major-league club took a backseat.

With my annual “Dean’s Dozen” rankings of the Orioles’ top prospects – and the “Dean Jones Report” updates throughout the season – I hope to give a bit of guidance on some of the players who could factor into the club’s rebuilding efforts in the coming years. And as always, I’d love to hear your thoughts. Share your comments at the bottom of the post.

Also, I plan to re-evaluate my rankings before the minor-league season kicks off in early April. If any of the players make the Orioles’ Opening Day roster – or if any other minor leaguers step up heading into the season – I’ll have to find a spot for them on the list.

One final note: Baseball America released its annual Top 100 prospects list this week. The Orioles have three representatives – outfielder Yusniel Diaz (No. 37), left-hander DL Hall (No. 54), and infielder Ryan Mountcastle (No. 90). As you’ll see below, those three players are atop my initial list, too. But notice that they’re in a different order – for now, at least.

Meanwhile, MLB.com is set to unveil its Top 100 rankings this weekend. I believe it’s scheduled to take place during a broadcast on MLB Network at 8 p.m. Saturday.

With all of that out of the way, let’s get to the updated Dean’s Dozen rankings…

No. 1: Ryan Mountcastle, 3B
2018 Statistics: .297, 13 HRs, 59 RBIs, 19 2Bs, 4 3Bs, 63 runs in 102 games (Double-A Bowie)
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A year ago, I ranked the 2015 first-round pick (36th overall) at No. 2 in my preliminary 2018 rankings – behind outfielder Austin Hays. As Hays struggled, Mountcastle – who will turn 22 on Feb. 18 – eventually rose to the top spot. But right now, the same thing I said about Mountcastle before the 2018 season is still true: The biggest uncertainty remains what position he’ll play over the long term. I’m curious to see if Elias and his new hires make any changes on that front before this season begins – or as it plays out. For now, Mountcastle is at the top of my rankings after another solid offensive year at Bowie. He’ll likely start the upcoming season with Triple-A Norfolk. From there, we’ll see what happens.

No. 2: Yusniel Diaz, OF
2018 Statistics: .314, 6 HRs, 30 RBIs, 10 2Bs, 4 3Bs, 36 runs in 59 games (Double-A Tulsa); .239, 5 HRs, 15 RBIs, 5 2Bs, 23 runs in 38 games (Bowie)
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Overall, the Cuba native failed to live up to the initial hype during his short stint with the Baysox in 2018. Diaz, 22, only batted .239 in 38 games after joining the club in mid-July from the Los Angeles Dodgers’ organization – including just .188 in 23 games at Prince George’s Stadium in Bowie. While those struggles are a little concerning, you must realize that it’s a small sample size. Before he was acquired in the deal that sent Machado to the Dodgers, Diaz hit much better at Double-A Tulsa (.314 in 59 games). And he showed the ability to perform on the big stage, hitting two homers in the All-Star Futures Game at Nationals Park on July 15. Both Baseball America and MLB.com list Diaz as the Orioles’ top prospect, but I’m going to slot him in just behind Mountcastle to begin the year. He’ll likely start the season at Norfolk. If all goes well, he’ll be playing at Camden Yards soon enough.

No. 3: DL Hall, LHP
2018 Statistics: 2-7, 2.10 ERA, 100 Ks, 42 BBs in 94 1/3 innings (Low-A Delmarva)
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While looking back at our BaltimoreBaseball.com Orioles’ Minor League All-Star Squad from last fall, I realized I could have easily picked the 2017 first-round pick (21st overall) – or even left-hander Zac Lowther – instead of selecting left-hander Keegan Akin. Hall, 20, went 2-2 with an incredible 0.84 ERA in 11 games (10 starts) after the South Atlantic League All-Star break. He struck out 64 hitters and only gave up 32 hits in 53 2/3 innings over that span. In other words, he had two strikeouts for every hit allowed in the second half. We’ll see if Hall can carry the momentum into 2019. He’ll start the season in Frederick’s rotation.

No. 4: Austin Hays, OF
2018 Statistics: .242, 12 HRs, 43 RBIs, 12 2Bs, 2 3Bs, 34 runs in 66 games (Bowie); .189, 0 HRs, 3 RBIs, 6 runs in 9 games (Short-A Aberdeen)
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For now, we’ll call it a lost season for the 2016 third-round selection. Hays, 23, earned the Orioles’ Brooks Robinson Minor League Player of the Year award in 2017 after batting .329 with 32 homers, 95 RBIs, and 32 doubles in 128 games between Frederick and Bowie. And as you’ll recall, he finished that season with 20 games in the majors. But last year, Hays stumbled out of the gate. Through the first two months, he batted .224 with 43 strikeouts and only 18 RBIs in 43 games. Then, he missed more than two months because of an ankle injury before returning in early August. The Orioles initially selected Hays for the Arizona Fall League, but he didn’t play because of lingering soreness in his ankle. Finally, in mid-September, Hays underwent surgery to repair a stress fracture. He’s expected to make a full recovery, but it’s a situation worth monitoring during spring training. At best, he’ll be on the Orioles’ Opening Day roster. At worst, he’ll begin the year in the Tides’ outfield.

No. 5: Keegan Akin, LHP
2018 Statistics: 14-7, 3.27 ERA, 142 Ks, 58 BBs in 137 2/3 innings (Bowie)
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The 2016 second-round pick collected a lot of awards in 2018. The Eastern League selected Akin, who will turn 24 on April 1, as its Pitcher of the Year. The Orioles honored Akin and Lowther as co-winners of the organization’s Jim Palmer Minor League Pitcher of the Year award. And perhaps most important, as I mentioned earlier, he earned the “starting pitcher” spot on BaltimoreBaseball.com’s third-annual Minor League All-Star Squad. I’m joking, of course. But Akin truly dominated Double-A last season, leading the Eastern League in wins (14) and strikeouts (142). His 14 wins were just one shy of right-hander Brad Bergesen’s franchise record in 2008. With the Orioles under new management, I’m curious to see what happens with Akin. I would think that he will get a chance to make the major-league team out of spring training. And if nothing else, he should be pitching for the Orioles this summer.

No. 6: Grayson Rodriguez, RHP
2018 Statistics: 0-2, 1.40 ERA, 20 Ks, 7 BBs in 19 1/3 innings (Rookie-Level Gulf Coast League Orioles)
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Rodriguez, 19, surrendered five runs – two earned – and five hits in 1 1/3 innings as the GCL Orioles fell, 10-4, to the GCL Red Sox on Aug. 9. If you take out that start, the 2018 first-round selection (11th overall) would’ve finished with a miniscule 0.50 ERA in 18 innings during his first professional season. Nevertheless, he still posted a 1.40 ERA in 19 1/3 innings. Rodriguez struck out 20 batters and only allowed 17 hits. If I were running the show, I’d be aggressive and move Rodriguez up to Delmarva this year. It’ll be at least a few years before he pitches at Camden Yards.

No. 7: Zac Lowther, LHP
2018 Statistics: 3-1, 1.16 ERA, 51 Ks, 9 BBs in 31 innings (Delmarva); 5-3, 2.53 ERA, 100 Ks, 26 BBs in 92 2/3 innings (High-A Frederick)
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Among qualifying pitchers in the Orioles’ minor-league system last season, the 2017 competitive balance round B pick finished first in strikeouts (151) and ERA (2.18). And Lowther, who will turn 23 on April 30, only walked 35 hitters in 123 2/3 innings between Delmarva and Frederick. If you’ve read my updates over the past couple of years, you know I’m more optimistic on Lowther’s future than most others who cover the Orioles’ prospects. But I think we’re all in agreement on one thing: This will be a critical year for Lowther. As he moves into the upper levels – almost certainly beginning at Bowie on Opening Day – we’ll see if he can continue to shine or if more experienced hitters will get the best of him.

No. 8: Dean Kremer, RHP
2018 Statistics: 5-3, 3.30 ERA, 114 Ks, 26 BBs in 79 innings (High-A Rancho Cucamonga); 1-0, 0.00 ERA, 11 Ks, 3 BBs in 7 innings (Double-A Tulsa); 4-2, 2.58 ERA, 53 Ks, 17 BBs in 45 1/3 innings (Bowie)
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Kremer, 23, pitched well in eight starts last season after coming over to the Orioles from the Los Angeles Dodgers in the deal for Machado. The Dodgers’ 2016 14th-round selection went 4-2 with a 2.58 ERA and 53 strikeouts in 45 1/3 innings. Overall, Kremer struck out 178 hitters – which led all minor leaguers in 2018 – in 131 1/3 innings while splitting the season between the High-A and Double-A levels. We’ll probably see Kremer at Norfolk to begin the year. If he continues to excel, a major-league call-up could come this summer.

No. 9: Ryan McKenna, OF
2018 Statistics: .377, 8 HRs, 37 RBIs, 18 2Bs, 2 3Bs, 60 runs in 67 games (Frederick); .239, 3 HRs, 16 RBIs, 8 2Bs, 2 3Bs, 35 runs in 60 games (Bowie)
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Let’s never forget that the 2015 fourth-round pick batted .377 in 67 games for Frederick at the start of the 2018 season – including .397 in 28 games in May and .423 in 16 games in June before moving up to Bowie. But McKenna, who will turn 22 on Valentine’s Day, experienced some growing pains with the Baysox. In 60 games, he only hit .239. His on-base percentage dipped from an amazing .467 with the Keys to .341 in Double-A. With that said, it isn’t time to quit on McKenna. He’ll likely get another crack at Bowie to begin the year. An aggressive track could see him in the major leagues by sometime in 2020.

No. 10: Blaine Knight, RHP
2018 Statistics: 0-1, 2.61 ERA, 8 Ks, 3 BBs in 10 1/3 innings (Aberdeen)
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Last summer, the Orioles only saw the 2018 third-round selection pitch four games within their organization. That’s because Knight, 22, didn’t sign until early July after leading Arkansas into the College World Series best-of-three finals against Oregon State – which, coincidentally, featured the Orioles’ 2018 competitive balance round A pick Cadyn Grenier. With Aberdeen, Knight went 0-1 with a 2.61 ERA in 10 1/3 innings. The Orioles will probably take a conservative approach and put Knight at Delmarva to start the 2019 season. However, with significant college experience, he could quickly move to Frederick if he does well – similar to what Lowther and right-hander Michael Baumann did in 2018.

No. 11: Dillon Tate, RHP
2018 Statistics: 5-2, 3.38 ERA, 75 Ks, 25 BBs in 82 2/3 innings (Double-A Trenton); 2-3, 5.75 ERA, 21 Ks, 9 BBs in 40 2/3 innings (Bowie)
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Reportedly the cornerstone of the trade that sent closer Zach Britton to the New York Yankees last July, the Texas Rangers’ 2015 first-round pick (fourth overall) underwhelmed in seven starts with Bowie in 2018. Tate, who will turn 25 on May 1, went 2-3 with a 5.75 ERA. Opponents hit .302 in 40 2/3 innings against him with the Baysox. The Orioles added Tate to their 40-man roster in the fall to protect him from the Rule 5 draft in December. But with so many other young pitching prospects in the system now, he needs to bounce back in 2019 if he wants to remain in the club’s future plans. With a strong showing in the spring, Tate could enter the discussion for a rotation spot. However, he’ll likely begin in Norfolk.

No. 12: Cadyn Grenier, SS
2018 Statistics: .216, 1 HR, 13 RBIs, 12 2Bs, 2 3Bs, 23 runs in 43 games (Delmarva)
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I considered putting many other players in my preliminary Top 12 rankings – including Baumann, right-hander Brenan Hanifee, and third baseman Jean Carlos Encarnacion. But ultimately, I decided to go with Grenier, 22, in the final spot. After initially struggling offensively in his first professional season, Grenier rallied to finish with a .216 average in 43 games for the Shorebirds. He was hitting a season-low .163 on Aug. 11 before going 19-for-64 (.297) with 11 runs in his final 16 games. Better known for his defense, Grenier will need to hit a little bit in order to keep advancing through the organization. He’s still at least a couple of years away from the majors, but we’ll probably see him in Frederick in 2019.

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