Three Oriole affiliates — Double-A Bowie, High-A Aberdeen and Single-A Delmarva — begin play on Thursday. Triple-A Norfolk began play last Friday. For the Orioles’ minor league system, rated tops in baseball for the fourth consecutive survey by MLB Pipeline, these are exciting times.
“I think everyone here feels an elevated level of excitement,” said Matt Blood, the Orioles’ director of player development. “A lot of it is because we’re now a few years into this process, and we’re seeing the fruits of the labor getting closer, some of them already providing value in the major leagues.”
Since Blood arrived in September 2019, he has watched the minor league and the major league teams get better. Three players drafted in 2019 — Adley Rutschman, Gunnar Henderson and Kyle Stowers — are with the Orioles, and more prospects should be coming soon.
“You see the talent stacking,” Blood said. “A lot of us are excited to see what happens with that but also understand the challenge of the younger players at the lower levels in getting them to the same point, being ready to perform at the major league level. We’ve seen it happening while also understanding we want to do that again with the younger players. I think we’re all very excited about that.”
One of the biggest differences in this year’s spring training was that even in the late innings of games, there were compelling players to watch. Jackson Holliday, the overall No. 1 pick in the 2022 draft who’s beginning his season at Delmarva, would often enter a game in the late innings. So might the No. 1 picks in 2020 and 2021, outfielders Heston Kjerstad and Colton Cowser.
“The games now are really exciting, every single inning because there are good players all over the field and very few, if none, filler players to get you through the game,” Blood said. “Everyone going out there is exciting. They’ve had some sort of experience or exposure to our minor league coaches and process. Just being able to see the talent and the tools that are running out there, every single hitter, every single position, it’s really cool.”
Besides MLB Pipeline, other publications, including ESPN.com, Baseball America and The Athletic, have rated Orioles prospects highly.
“We don’t really pay too much attention to that,” Blood said. “It provides some credibility to the outside world. Internally, I think we’re very focused and very much believe in what we’re doing and we understand that we’re sort of in this infinite game of always wanting to strive to do better and we’re not going to get too excited or too complacent with being ranked No. 1 by a publication. Ultimately, our job is to help the major league team win games. That’s what we’ll get excited about when the players are doing that.”
Kobe Perez, who heads the Orioles’ international scouting division, arrived about eight months before Blood did. Players Perez has signed, including catcher Samuel Basallo, are populating the Aberdeen and Delmarva rosters.
“It’s very exciting tor the entire organization to see the rise of these Latin American players,” Blood said. “Now a fully stocked Low-A team as well as a few that have reached High-A. Going forward every year after this, you’re going to start to see them matriculate higher and higher throughout the organization.
“When that first one reaches the major leagues, it’s going to be sort of like breaking through the door. It should hopefully be more and more over the years to come. It just provides a level of depth to our [organization] in regards to talent that was missing here in the past and we’re just really excited to get those players into our pipeline.”
After four years of choosing from among the first five picks, the Orioles are picking 17th this season, but Blood isn’t concerned about the farm system not being supplied with quality players.
“I think if you look at the drafts since Mike Elias has been here and, obviously, Adley and Kjerstad and Cowser and Holliday, they’re all very high picks,” Blood said. “If you remove them, you still have a whole host of players that were drafted after the first 30 picks, starting with Gunnar, that have developed into legitimate major league prospects. [Infielders Connor] Norby,[Jordan] Westburg and [Joey] Ortiz, Gunnar. You can keep going, you’re going to find players.
“That is going to continue, I would say. We’ll pick where we pick. I think that Mike Elias is one of the best, if not the best, at acquiring talent and what we have going for us. What we have going for us is our development process and system is very much aligned with our player acquisition system and so players when they arrive here, they develop efficiently. That just gives them a better chance to succeed in the future.
“It doesn’t concern me. It will be harder to get that generational talent, but we got Gunnar, and he was the second pick that we had in the draft. It’s possible. That’s going to be our goal is to continue to develop the players better than where they were drafted.”
After last season’s 31-game improvement by the Orioles, the message Blood has for the Orioles’ minor league managers is unchanged.
“Our message has been the same from Day 1,” Blood said. “We’re development first. We harp incessantly on providing the players with a clear and consistent message and that we have prioritize development over everything else.
“We just want to provide the players with a world-class development experience that gives them the best chance possible, gives them their best chance possible to reach the major leagues. That’s our job and we take that very seriously. We know that the players’ future is partly in our hands. A big part of that is in their hands, too, but we take it very seriously that everything we do gives them the best chance possible to be a major leaguer.”
Blood thinks fans should keep their eye on some other less publicized prospects.
“[Catcher] Samuel Basallo is one that I think the Orioles world should keep an eye on. He’s a young player, and he’s going to be 18 years old this season. He’s going to be playing in Delmarva, has a chance to be a top 100 guy after this season and even could do some pretty special things. We’re excited about him.”
He also mentioned left-handed pitcher Cade Povich who’ll be at Bowie, and outfielder Dylan Beavers, starting at Aberdeen.
“Frederick Bencosme is really interesting. A real young kid will be in High-A and can hit and plays middle infield,” Blood said. [Infielder] Max Wagner has made a nice impression on us, offensively and defensively.”
Wagner will join Bencosme with the IronBirds.
“There are players that are sort of famous that are going to get their major league time,” Blood said. “Because the organization is so deep, some of these other players probably aren’t as well known yet but as players graduate you’re going to see the ascension of more that aren’t being recognized yet. That’s our goal, every year to just continue to provide options for the major league team going into the future.”
Follow Rich Dubroff on Twitter @RichDubroffMLB