Matt Blood can feel the excitement.
The Orioles’ director of player development is counting down the days to when the team’s minor league affiliates get back on the field after games were shut down last year because of Covid-19.
There’s much hype surrounding the organization’s top prospects, who begin play with their teams on Tuesday.
“We’re extremely excited,” Blood said. “You can just feel it with the players, the coaches. Everyone has just extra energy about getting to go. The work we did down in spring training was fantastic. The players had a great attitude. The coaches worked really hard. I think it paid off. There’s kind of a buzz going on.”
Orioles executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias prioritized strengthening the team’s minor league affiliates when he took over in late 2018 by adding young arms and international talent to the organization. So far, that strategy has been a success.
According to MLB Pipeline, the Orioles have the fifth-best minor league system in the major leagues. Baseball America rates it seventh.
“We have more talent, we have more depth of talent and so we’re working with those guys on the things they need to work on,” Blood said. “What is different is we have a significant amount of competition going on, which is very healthy. The players are pushing each other. They see the talent around them and it’s raising their skill level as well.”
The Orioles four affiliates are:
Triple-A Norfolk, affiliated since 2007; GM Joe Gregory, manager Gary Kendall
Double-A Bowie, 1993; GM Brian Shallcross, manager Buck Britton
Class A Advanced Aberdeen, 2002; GM Jack Graham, manager Kyle Moore
Class A Delmarva, 1997; GM Chris Bitters, manager Dave Anderson
In addition, the Orioles have two Rookie ball teams in the Florida Complex League.
Frederick is no longer the Orioles Class-A Advanced affiliate. Instead, the Keys are part of a new six-team MLB Draft League that functions as an unaffiliated showcase league for college juniors eligible for the MLB draft.
“The difference is the 180-player limit and so you have to fit your players into that,” Blood said. “But at the affiliates we’ll have actually larger roster sizes so we’ll be able to have more players at full-season clubs than ever before. It’s not really a big deal.”
There is more buzz surrounding the IronBirds, owned by Hall-of-Famer Cal Ripken. Aberdeen will have an even bigger role in the development of players.
“What’s exciting is that each roster we have, there are several prospects that are very interesting, likeable guys on the roster — a bunch, actually,” Blood said. “These teams are going to be fun to watch because they’re going to be competitive and playing good baseball. You’re also going to be able to say, ‘that’s a prospect, and that’s a prospect and I want to follow how they are doing.’ That makes it really fun. It’ll be good to see the communities get back and follow us live.”
The lack of minor league games last season was detrimental to the game, but the players made adjustments to make the best use of the time. The front offices, coaches and players are excited to get back on the field in a true competitive environment.
“Certain players need failure, different types of failure,” Elias said. “They need game experience. They need to face unpredictable, different competition on different nights. They need to get used to the professional game, whatever that may be. We’ve all kind of been accustomed to what minor league baseball provides in terms of rearing these guys for big-leaguers and also showing us who are the big-leaguers and who aren’t. [This year] is not going to be the same as 2019, but it’s going to be better than 2020.”
The Orioles’ top 15 prospects heading into the minor-league season are:
Adley Rutschman, catcher (Bowie)
Grayson Rodriguez, right-handed pitcher (Aberdeen)
Heston Kjerstad, outfielder
DL Hall, left-handed pitcher (Bowie)
- Gunnar Henderson, shortstop (Delmarva)
Jordan Westburg, shortstop (Delmarva)
Dean Kremer, right-handed pitcher (Orioles)
Michael Baumann, right-handed pitcher
Yusniel Diaz, outfielder (Norfolk)
Keegan Akin, left-handed pitcher (Norfolk)
Zac Lowther, left-handed pitcher (Norfolk)
- Terrin Vavra, second base (Bowie)
13. Adam Hall, shortstop/second base (Aberdeen)
14. Kyle Bradish, right-handed pitcher (Bowie)
15. Ryan McKenna, outfielder (Norfolk)
The Orioles’ pitching prospects will get plenty of action with the team embracing the concept of piggybacking, which means having two starting pitcher candidates split time in a game — one opens, the other pitches the middle innings. This will allow the minor league affiliates to have at least a half-dozen starters on each team without having a six-man rotation.
“You’ll do that on a regular basis throughout our system,” Blood said. “It’s a good way to manage innings while also building up more length types of pitchers versus one-inning guys. It gives you an opportunity to give more guys longer outings.”
To further strengthen the infrastructure of the minor league system, the Orioles are building a new Dominican training academy in Guerra, which will span 22.5 acres and house the Orioles’ Dominican player development operations.
“I think our whole baseball operations is improved, including all of our minor leagues and affiliates. Our minor league system is showing [improvement],” said Koby Perez, the Orioles international scouting director. “That’s definitely helped. I think a lot of what’s helped is Mike Elias has made about four trips down to the Dominican Republic with me.”
The new site, scheduled to be completed in 2022, will include three full fields, an agility turf field, batting and pitching tunnels, administrative buildings, dormitories and educational facilities.
“This is a long time coming, and a major milestone in this organization’s commitment to a full and aggressive and correct approach to acquiring and developing international talent,” Elias said. “A big part of our strategy going forward. It’s a big part of being successful in major league baseball today.”