Minor league season wrap-up, Part 1
Labor Day doesn’t just mean September callups. It also means the end of the minor league regular season. All five Oriole affiliates wrapped up their regular seasons Monday, with the system as a whole producing a mixed bag. Low-A Delmarva and Double-A Bowie are headed to the playoffs.Short-Season Single-A Aberdeen was in the hunt until the regular season’s final day.
I’ll be looking at those three teams today, with a look at High-A Frederick and Triple-A Norfolk coming tomorrow.
On June 1, the Baysox were 19-35 and 14 1/2 games out of first place for the first-half title in the Eastern League’s Western Division. Since then, they’ve been on a tear. Bowie finished the first half winning 11 of 14 and carried that momentum to a 46-26 second half. After finishing fourth during the first half, the Baysox won the West Division second-half title and play the Harrisburg Senators in a best-of-five series starting Wednesday.
Buck Britton (pictured above) was named Eastern League Manager of the Year after guiding the turnaround.
“It’s a far cry from April,” Britton said. “But these guys have continued to battle all year and I’m happy for them.”
The Baysox have been powered by a strong starting rotation that has included almost all the top pitching prospects in the Orioles’ organization not named Grayson Rodriguez or DL Hall. Left-handers Zac Lowther and Alex Wells have given Bowie a dominant 1-2 punch, making up for their low-90s fastball with deception and never backing down from hitters. Lowther is first in the league in wins (13) and strikeouts (154), second in ERA (2.55) and fourth in innings pitched (148). Wells isn’t far behind, with a 2.95 ERA, 137 1/3 innings pitched and an 8-6 record.
Bruce Zimmermann and Dean Kremer were having similar results before their promotions to Norfolk. Zimmermann was 5-3 with a 2.58 ERA, and Kremer was a 9-4 with a 2.98 ERA. Michael Baumann, who is expected to start Game 1 against Harrisburg, was promoted to Bowie in July and hasn’t missed a beat, posting a 2.31 ERA in 13 appearances that include a no-hitter and complete-game shutout. Cody Sedlock has had his moments as well since being promoted from Frederick, posting a 3.71 ERA in 34 innings across nine appearances after posting a 2.36 ERA with the Keys.
While the Eastern League has been offensively challenged this year, a few Baysox stood out. Infielder Mason McCoy made his Bowie debut on May 6, helping stabilize the offense while outfielder Yusniel Diaz was recovering from a hamstring injury.
The Baysox were 7-23 and scoring under three runs a game when McCoy was called up, and that number increased to 4.5 runs per game over the next 24. McCoy set the tone with a .330 batting average over that stretch, helping the Baysox go 12-12 and set the tone for the rest of the season. He cooled off late, finishing the year hitting .266.
Despite numerous injuries, Diaz had a solid season, hitting .262 with 11 home runs and 53 RBIs. Rylan Bannon was a stable presence on both sides of the ball, hitting .255 with eight homers and 42 RBIs and creating a solid defensive infield with McCoy before his promotion to Norfolk.
After an abysmal start to the season in Baltimore and further struggles in Norfolk, outfielder Cedric Mullins has gotten some mojo back in Bowie, ending the year hitting .303 in his last 36 games after .193 in the first 15 after his demotion. The same can’t be said for another outfielder, Ryan McKenna, who after hitting .239 in 60 games for the Baysox last year, hit just .232 this season.
It’s been a historic season for the Orioles Low-A affiliate. The Shorebirds clinched a spot in this year’s South Atlantic League playoffs for the first time since 2005 by winning the Northern Division’s first-half title with a 48-21 record. That pace continued in the second half, when the Shorebirds won their franchise record 84th game with 13 games remaining and finished with a 90-48 record. They’ll take on the Hickory Crawdads in a best-of-three series starting Wednesday.
Despite having 15 players called up this year, manager Kyle Moore has created a clubhouse where winning and player development have gone hand-in-hand.
“The whole thing we’ve built this clubhouse vibe around is every single day we try to make everybody a little bit better,” Moore said. “We’ve really put all our energy to the time we wake up, to the time 7:05 that game starts. That’s what we put all our energy into. When the game starts, we just put all our energy into the game and have fun like a bunch of kids out there.”
Even with the call-ups, Delmarva’s roster still has plenty of prospects to get excited about. The Shorebirds’ pitching staff has been outstanding, setting a South Atlantic League record with 1,353 strikeouts. Nineteen-year-olds Grayson Rodriguez and Drew Rom have gotten the most attention, making a strong impression in their first full minor league seasons after being drafted in the first and fourth rounds last year. Rodriguez has lived up to the hype, posting a 2.68 ERA with 129 strikeouts in 94 innings. Rom isn’t far behind with a 2.93 ERA and 122 strikeouts in 95 1/3 innings.
Moore also noted that 23-year-old right-hander Gray Fenter is having an outstanding under-the-radar season. The 2015 seventh-round pick has struggled with injuries throughout his minor league career but has posted a 1.81 ERA and 122 strikeouts in 94 1/3 innings.
At the plate, Adam Hall has set the tone at the top of the lineup. The 2017 second-round pick hit .298 with a .780 OPS and 33 steals and has been playing shortstop full time since Cadyn Grenier was promoted to High-A Frederick. Outfielder Johnny Rizer has been solid since his call-up from Aberdeen, hitting .310 with a .760 OPS while joining Hall at the top of the order. Adley Rutschman was promoted on August 20 to join the playoff push, though he started 0-for-14 with Delmarva and hit just .154 in 12 games.
For Moore, the series against Hickory will serve two purposes: It will be the biggest games many players have played, and it will help build the winning culture the Orioles hope will carry over when players such as Rodriguez and Rutschman make it to Camden Yards.
“I don’t think for one second you can take a bunch of good players and have them go through the minor leagues mediocre and expect they’re going to win in Camden Yards in the AL East,” Moore said. “I don’t for one second believe that.”
While Rutschman was the main attraction at Ripken Stadium for nearly a month this summer, the IronBirds have been much more than the No. 1 overall pick.
Aberdeen’s 42-33 record was the best in IronBirds history, and they set team records for ERA (2.34) and strikeouts (681). Even though they finished with the third-best record in the New York-Penn League, they came up just short of the playoffs. The McNamara Division was the toughest in the league with all four teams finishing above .500. The IronBirds finished third in the division, one game behind the division champion Brooklyn Cyclones and wild-card Hudson Valley Renegades.
Aberdeen continued to fight for a playoff spot despite losing its best hitters. The first to go was Rizer, who hit .305 and the third cycle in IronBirds history on July 20. Rutschman was promoted after a 5-for-5 game, and corner infielder Toby Welk followed two days later.
Welk may be the most unlikely success story of this year’s draft. The 2019 D3baseball.com Player of the Year was on former scout Nathan Showalter’s radar as a junior. After an exceptional senior season for Penn State-Berks, he was drafted in the 21st round. It didn’t take long for him to adjust in the minors, where he had one of the best seasons in IronBirds history, hitting .344 with four home runs and 28 RBIs.
Aberdeen had the lowest ERA and WHIP in the New York-Penn League, and was third in strikeouts. Kevin Magee, a 2018 ninth-round pick, led the staff, posting a 2.04 ERA in 15 starts. International signee Leonardo Rodriguez and Ryan Conroy were NY-Penn League All Stars.