ABERDEEN—In a season in which more attention is focused on the Orioles’ minor league teams than any in recent memory, even more attention has been focused on the Aberdeen IronBirds.
Almost all of the focus has been on Adley Rutschman, the overall No. 1 pick in the nation who made his debut on July 27. But the IronBirds are more than just Rutschman.
For years, the IronBirds, who play from mid-June to Labor Day in the New York-Penn League, have been known for lovely Ripken Stadium, by far the nicest ballpark among Oriole affiliates and for being owned by Cal Ripken Jr.
Opened in 2002, the year after Ripken retired from the Orioles, the IronBirds have made the playoffs just once, in 2013.
This year, there’s a lot more than just Rutschman. Vi Ripken, the mother of Cal Jr. and Billy, who also has an ownership stake and widow of Cal Sr., is still a regular at the team’s games.
The games that Vi Ripken and other fans are watching include a much more talented roster than they’ve seen in recent years. Eighteen draft choices, including Rutschman, are from June’s draft.
Two of those draft picks, Jake Lyons (22nd round), Kyle Martin (15th) and undrafted free agent James Ryan, combined to throw the first no-hitter in team history on Monday.
Aberdeen is managed by Kevin Bradshaw, a 55-year-old in this third season. Bradshaw has been a coach, manager or instructor for 29 minor league seasons, and likes the team he has.
“I am impressed,” Bradshaw said. “We’re starting to get to the time of year where we’ve got to do reports. Overall, talking to the coaching staff and some of the reports we’re going to have to write, we can see these guys definitely playing up and through to Double-A, which in the past, we haven’t been able to see.
“We have had some talent here that you think,’ If they get to A-ball, they’re going to be lucky.’ This group, you can definitely see playing Double-A ball and maybe higher.”
Aberdeen is one of two short-season rookie teams, which serve as entry level in the Orioles’ organization. Prospects from high school are normally sent to Gulf Coast in Sarasota and college prospects to Aberdeen. Rutschman was briefly sent to Gulf Coast because he hadn’t played for several weeks.
The most accomplished current Oriole, Trey Mancini, began his professional career at Aberdeen in 2013. Five of his teammates on that team have played in the majors — pitchers Steven Brault, traded to Pittsburgh for Travis Snider; Donnie Hart; and Jimmy Yacabonis as well as catcher Austin Wynns and outfielder Mike Yastrzemski.
The Orioles will be disappointed if Rutschman isn’t joined by several teammates in the majors.
Bradshaw, who coordinated minor league spring training, likes what he sees on his team and throughout the organization.
“I felt like there were some guys that loved to play the game, Bradshaw said. “I don’t know if I thought the talent level is high, but as far as the want-to, we have a lot of those guys with that attitude. In spring training, I could see a big difference in how we were teaching stuff and when you combine a different way of teaching with a better way of teaching with some guys who now want to learn and some guys that have talent, you’re going to get some pretty good ballplayers.”
One of those teaching in a new way is IronBirds hitting coach Tom Eller, longtime coach at Harford Community College. Eller spent the first two months of the season with Low-A Delmarva before yielding to veteran coach Dan Radison, who wanted to work a reduced schedule.
Eller is a firm believer in analytics to monitor swings.
“He’s brought out the K-Vest, we got the blast [motion] on our bats,” Bradshaw said. “… All this stuff is adding up to improvements, and he’s brought that forward.
“I’ve typically been old school. I wasn’t into the analytics as much, so I’m learning a lot from him. We brought in [assistant general manager Sig Mejdal] and Tom brought in a guy for a two-day seminar on hitting, the analytical side of it. He’s brought in all the new, modern stuff that’s out there so now we’re combing the old school with the new school and hopefully the hitters are benefitting from it.”
One of those hitters is Andrew Daschbach, an 11th-round draft pick. Daschbach, outfielder Kyle Stowers (competitive balance round) and backup catcher Maverick Handley (6th) played together at Stanford, and against Rutschman, who went to Oregon State.
“It’s funny, I never thought I’d be playing with [Rutschman] or two of my former college teammates,” Daschbach said.
“It’s been a huge blessing more than anything. It’s fun for us to see a lot of faces that you know, competed with or against. All three of those guys are great players, whether it’s Adley or Mav or Stowers. It’s definitely fun playing with Adley. I love talking hitting with him. I drive him to the field and back every now and then, conversations about hitting.”
For Daschbach and his West Coast teammates, there is an adjustment.
“The heat and humidity are crazy, unlike anything I’ve ever experienced,” he said. “The ball doesn’t fly quite as well as I’d like it to with the heavy air sometimes.
“I think we have a great fan base here. They show up, night in and night out. The travel is very different from college … The baseball’s not that much different. You see a lot of similar quality arms and similar quality stuff.”