Matt Blood, the Orioles’ director of player development, is not surprised that the club’s minor-league affiliates are having success.
The Orioles have placed an emphasis on evaluating players, getting them into the system and preparing them to take the next step.
The pandemic in 2020, which canceled the minor league season, created new challenges but Blood said the Orioles haven’t altered their process toward rebuilding with young talent.
“That’s the goal. They are all highly motivated,” Blood told BaltimoreBaseball.com. “Our coaching staff is doing a great job helping them along. I think you’re going to see a steady flow work its way into the major leagues over the next three years from this group. We’ll have a draft this year and another international signing and hopefully the pipeline replenishes itself.”
Low-A Delmarva, High-A Aberdeen, Double-A Bowie and Triple-A Norfolk have been competitive this season despite the movement of players. There is a sense of excitement among the minor-league clubs.
For Blood, it’s the pleasure of watching competitive baseball again after last year’s shutdown.
“It’s been great just to see them playing baseball games,” Blood said. “With the year off last year and all of the things we had to do virtually, teams playing and players accumulating stats, that has been awesome. It’s nice to see progress from a whole host of players. We’re seeing good performances from both pitchers and position players. We also see progress from players you see on the prospect lists and that’s very encouraging.”
The marquee player in the Orioles’ minor-league system is catcher Adley Rutschman, who is the No. 2 prospect in Major League Baseball behind Tampa Bay shortstop Wander Franco. Rutschman is playing up to expectations, and he was selected to participate in the MLB All-Star Futures Game on July 11th in Denver with Norfolk reliever Marcos Diplán.
Fans are eager for Rutschman to make his major-league debut, but Blood said the team is going to remain patient.
“There’s no timeline,” Blood said. “As crazy as this may sound, it’s still his first full professional season. Allowing him to go through that is really the most important thing for him to experience — the ups and downs of the season.
“He is doing a great job. He is a very steady, very process-oriented kid. It’s been impressive to see him work and to lead in a very steady way … He’s the same guy every day, regardless of how he performs in a game. I think he’s highly respected because of that and also because he’s incredibly talented.”
Bowie’s Grayson Rodriguez is also showing the potential to be a dominant pitcher. Rodriguez, MLB.com’s top-ranked pitching prospect, has a fastball that touches 100 miles per hour and a changeup that looks like a screwball.
Rodriguez was named the Orioles’ Jim Palmer Minor League Co-Pitcher of the Year with Mike Baumann in 2019 after finishing the season with Class-A Delmarva, going 10-4 with 2.68 ERA. The 6-foot-5, 21-year-old right-hander was also named the 2019 South Atlantic League Most Outstanding MLB prospect.
Rodriguez has gone 6-1 with a 1.70 in 11 starts with the IronBirds and Baysox this season.
“He has elite stuff,” Blood said. “He’s a highly competitive guy. He’s athletic. He’s still young. There’s a ton of upside and future value in Grayson.”
Blood said he has not been surprised by any players’ success. The Orioles have gotten solid pitching performances from Kyle Bradish (Norfolk), Kyle Brnovich (Bowie), and DL Hall (Bowie), who’s on the injured list because of tendinitis in his left arm.
The position players attracting the most interest are Gunnar Henderson (Aberdeen), Jordan Westburg (Aberdeen), Johnny Rizer (Bowie), Yusniel Diaz (Norfolk) and Hudson Haskin (Delmarva).
“What’s most important is they’re at a level that challenges them appropriately so that their growth is encouraged,” Blood said. “We don’t want players at levels just to play with other levels. We want them to move up and go to where they are going to be exposed a little more so they know where they need to improve and what they need to work on.”
Some other players, such as infielder J.D. Mundy at Aberdeen, have caught the attention of coaches. Mundy is batting .302/.400/.616 with 12 homers and 40 RBIs. Mundy, who signed as an undrafted free agent in 2020, was named the organization’s top position player for June.
“It’s been really great to see J.D. Mundy perform the way he has,” Blood said. “We didn’t really have any real experience with him before this year. He came to spring training and it was the first time we ever saw him and he’s hit from Day One. That’s been great. I wouldn’t say anything has been a surprise, but it’s been nice to see the success that players are having.”
Recent promotions include:
Infielder J.C. Escarra from Bowie to Norfolk.
Brnovich, infielder Toby Welk and outfielder Kyle Stowers from Aberdeen to Bowie.
Outfielders Trevor Kehe and Dylan Harris from Delmarva to Aberdeen.
Infielders Yorkislandy Alvarez and outfielder Lamar Sparks to Delmarva.
“We’ve promoted some players aggressively and want to see them catch up to the levels where they are and start to excel more,” Blood said. “They all have things that they’re working on. They have specific goals for what they need to accomplish to get to the next level.”
The Orioles say the rebuilding plan is working and that general manager Mike Elias is laying the foundation for long-term success.
The Orioles have the fifth-ranked minor-league system among the 30 major-league teams, according to MLB Pipeline. The question is whether this minor-league talent will make the transition to everyday major-league players.
Blood likes what he sees.
“I think Mike Elias and the player procurement group has done a fantastic job of replenishing the system with talent up and down,” Blood said. “Our coaching staff is doing a great job at helping these players develop. It’s very evident that those two things combined are leading to success. We are winning a lot of games, but the players are performing and they’re getting better and that’s what’s most important.
“We are at a much better place than we were a few years ago and it’s going to show up in the major leagues.”
Means on the mend: John Means allowed one run and one hit with two strikeouts in two innings in his first rehab start with Aberdeen on Sunday. Means was forced to leave the game against the Cleveland Indians after facing just five batters on June 5th because of shoulder tightness. He underwent an MRI that revealed a strain in his left shoulder. He had the same injury in 2019. He also opened the 2020 season on the injured list because of shoulder fatigue. Means is expected to return to the Orioles’ rotation after the All-Star break.
Arms race: The Delmarva Shorebirds had a league-best 2.84 ERA in June with 276 strikeouts just 91 walks in 221 2/3 innings. Opponents hit .203 against Delmarva in June. Ryan Watson, another undrafted free agent (1.04 ERA in 26 innings) is among eight pitchers who have an ERA under 2.00. Delmarva pitchers went a stretch of nine games (June 18-June 30) in which they didn’t allow more than three runs in a game and, at one point, recorded 16 consecutive scoreless innings.
Jones heating up: Norfolk second baseman Jahmai Jones has reached base safely in 23 consecutive games. He was hitting .308 (25-for-81) with 12 runs, five doubles, two home runs, 14 RBIs, 20 walks and a hit-by-pitch since returning to Norfolk on June 8th.