As Rich Dubroff wrote Friday, the Orioles’ high minors have been a disappointment so far. The Triple-A Norfolk Tides have struggled to a 7-11 record and the Double-A Bowie Baysox have been even worse at 3-13. Discouragingly, many of the Orioles’ most recognizable prospects — including Austin Hays, Yusniel Diaz and Dillon Tate — have been injured or unproductive.
But the news isn’t all bad in the Orioles’ minor league system. Further down the ladder, the Low-A Delmarva Shorebirds are taking the South Atlantic League by storm.
If you’re not paying attention to this plucky crew, you should be. Here’s why.
- They’re winning lots and lots of games.
The Shorebirds have gotten off to an incredible start, going 12-2 in their first 2 1/2 weeks of play. Their loss on Saturday snapped a 10-game winning streak, which was their longest since 2011.
Delmarva boasts not only the best record in the South Atlantic League, but the second-best in all of minor league baseball. They trail only the 14-2 Harrisburg Senators (the Washington Nationals’ Double-A affiliate) of the Eastern League.
The Shorebirds lead the Northern division by 1 1/2 games over the Hickory Crawdads.
- They have a flair for the dramatic.
Not only do the Shorebirds keep winning, but they’re winning in the most exciting ways imaginable. Only one of their victories was decided by more than three runs. Six of them came in their final at-bat.
The Shorebirds set their tone for 2019 with an extra-inning victory in their season opener. At Lexington, third baseman JC Encarnacion walloped a two-run homer in the top of the 10th to break a 4-all tie, and the Shorebirds hung on for dear life in the bottom half as the Legends scored a run and loaded the bases. Right-hander Tim Naughton struck out the final hitter to escape.
On April 9 in Kannapolis, the Shorebirds were down to their final out in the ninth when right fielder Robert Neustrom crushed a game-tying, three-run homer. Delmarva then scored four runs in the 10th to seal a come-from-behind 8-5 victory.
The Shorebirds have three walkoff wins, including April 15, when they blew a five-run lead in the ninth but won in the 10th, and April 17, when they beat Kannapolis in 11 innings on a two-out, RBI single by third baseman Andrew Fregia. The winning pitcher in the latter game was right-hander Tyler Joyner, who at that point had made four relief appearances and earned the victory in all four.
But no win was more improbable than on April 13 against Lakewood. Down 5-0 in the ninth, the Shorebirds were being no-hit by three BlueClaws pitchers. But Orioles Magic, apparently, can trickle down to minor league affiliates, and Delmarva mounted an epic rally. With one out, catcher Ben Breazeale ripped an RBI double to break up the no-hitter; a walk, two-run double and two hit batsmen brought the score to 5-3. Encarnacion stepped to the plate with the bases loaded and two outs and, in the shot heard ’round the Twitterverse, made the Shorebirds walkoff winners with a grand slam.
- Delmarva’s staff is fronted by the Orioles’ best right-handed pitching prospect.
You could remove right-handed from that sentence and, arguably, it would still be true. The Shorebirds’ Grayson Rodriguez is making a case as the best pitching prospect, period, in the Orioles’ organization.
Rodriguez was the Orioles’ first pick (No. 11 overall) in the 2018 amateur draft out of Central Heights High School in Texas. Entering this season, BaltimoreBaseball.com’s own Dean Jones Jr. ranked Rodriguez No. 6 on his “Dean’s Dozen” list, behind only Frederick lefty DL Hall (No. 3) and Norfolk southpaw Keegan Akin (No. 5) among pitchers. National prospect publications were equally enthusiastic about the right-hander. Baseball America, Baseball Prospectus and MLB Pipeline each ranked Rodriguez as a top five Orioles prospect (in each case, behind only Hall among pitchers).
Considering how Rodriguez has overpowered the competition so far in 2019, he could be climbing up those prospect standings in short order.
In his first taste of the South Atlantic League, the 19-year-old Rodriguez has been nearly unhittable. He debuted with a five-inning, 10-strikeout performance against Lexington on April 5, holding them to two hits and no runs. He upped the ante the next time out against Lakewood, again striking out 10 in a scoreless outing, this time going six innings and surrendering just one hit. Rodriguez was justifiably named the South Atlantic League Pitcher of the Week.
It’s a testament to Rodriguez’s dominance that when he gave up one run and struck out eight in 5 2/3 innings in his third start, it was almost a letdown.
Rodriguez has added a new weapon to his arsenal this season: a greatly improved changeup. Mixing that pitch with his quality fastball, curveball and slider has helped Rodriguez miss bats at an impressive pace. In his first three starts, Rodriguez generated 42 swings-and-misses out of 232 pitches, a rate of 18 percent. His 28 strikeouts rank second in the league.
If Rodriguez can continue to harness the changeup and throw four above-average pitches, his future appears to be bright.
- Their roster features a large chunk of the Orioles’ 2018 draft class.
Even for Oriole fans who don’t normally track the amateur draft very closely, last June’s event held special significance. It was, essentially, the Orioles’ first draft of the rebuilding era. The major league club had spiraled out of control, carrying a 17-41 record when the draft took place June 4, and it was clear the Orioles’ window for contention with their veteran roster had slammed shut. The 2018 draft was a chance to infuse the threadbare farm system with some talent as the Orioles turned their focus to the future.
It’ll be years before we know exactly how well the Orioles fared in that draft, but many of those players are with the Shorebirds, getting their first taste of full-season professional ball.
Nine players drafted last June are on the Delmarva roster, including the Orioles’ top five picks: Rodriguez (first round), infielder Cadyn Grenier (competitive balance round), right-hander Blaine Knight (third round), left-hander Drew Rom (fourth round); and outfielder Robert Neustrom (fifth round). Other 2018 draftees on the Shorebirds are catcher Cody Roberts (11th round), infielder Andrew Fregia (13th), outfielder Doran Turchin (14th) and right-hander Tyler Joyner (30th).
The top five guys have done well so far, led by Rodriguez. The next most promising prospect might be Knight, who placed No. 10 in Dean’s Dozen and MLB Pipeline’s rankings.
Knight, a University of Arkansas standout, also has been developing his changeup, with positive results. Rodriguez and Knight have formed a strong 1-2 punch in the rotation, with Knight going 1-0 with a 1.15 ERA in his first three starts. He’s struck out 18 batters in 15 2/3 innings.
Grenier, whose Oregon State Beavers defeated Knight’s Razorbacks in the 2018 College World Series, is a defensive stalwart but faces questions about whether he’ll hit enough to succeed as a major leaguer. So far, he’s holding his own, batting .250 with a .756 OPS, a homer and seven RBIs in 13 games. He’s tied for the team lead with 10 walks, and has a .371 OBP.
Rom and Neustrom come in at No. 28 and 29, respectively, on MLB Pipeline. The left-handed Rom, drafted out of Highlands High School in Kentucky, had a sensational Delmarva debut April 6. Pitching in long relief, he worked 3 2/3 innings and recorded all eight of his outs on strikeouts, allowing just an unearned run. His second relief appearance was also encouraging — four innings, one run and six strikeouts April 20 — but his one starting assignment was less successful (five runs in four innings April 13).
Neustrom, a University of Iowa alum, has been one of the breakout stars in the Orioles’ system in 2019. Neustrom leads the Shorebirds in home runs (3), RBIs (11), SLG (.560) and OPS (.995) to go along with a .320 average and .435 OBP. That’s not to mention his home run-robbing catches in the outfield.
The 2018 class should be fun to follow. Some might stay with Delmarva all season, while a few could soon be ticketed for promotions.
- These players may be key parts of the next contending Orioles team.
Rebuilding is going to be an arduous process. The Orioles, in all likelihood, won’t be competitive at the major league level for at least three or four years.
But guess who will be arriving in the majors in three or four years?
Some of the players suiting up for Delmarva could be big leaguers by then, helping to form the core — or at least supplement — the next wave of winning Orioles clubs.
That could mean a Baltimore rotation that features Rodriguez and/or Knight, a bullpen with Rom or an outfield with Neustrom. It could mean an infield that features not only Grenier but also Encarnacion and Adam Hall, the No. 13 and 14 prospects on MLB Pipeline. Encarnacion, acquired from Atlanta in the Kevin Gausman trade last July 31, has two homers and nine RBIs, a .235 average and .650 OPS. Hall is the Shorebirds’ leading hitter for average (.333) and OBP (.452). He’s picking up where he left off in Short-A Aberdeen in 2018, when he batted .379 with a .447 OBP in the second half of the season.
Not all of these players will make it, of course. The South Atlantic League is a long way from the majors, and there are bound to be some prospects who fizzle out. But there’s a good chance you’ll be seeing somebody — or multiple somebodies — from the 2019 Delmarva Shorebirds in an Orioles uniform in the not too distant future.