Sometime after I have a half-cup of coffee, my family is out the door and I set off to work every morning, I have what I imagine is a common thought for those invested in the Orioles: Is this the day the top prospects join the team?
To have that thought, to use any occasion I have to advocate for it and to ultimately have them remain in Norfolk allows for plenty of time to reflect on why the Orioles so frequently choose other routes. I recently arrived at one reason that doesn’t change my belief that Jordan Westburg and Colton Cowser should be playing for the Orioles but at least makes sense in explaining why they aren’t.
It comes down to value and the realization that the Orioles probably don’t distinguish between the low-cost production they can get from a homegrown prospect versus the low-cost production that comes from the second-chancers and reclamation projects they continue to prefer.
By way of caveats, it’s important to note a few things. First, it’s in no one’s interest but the Orioles’ to look at production from a financial standpoint, and acknowledging this dynamic doesn’t make for an endorsement, especially considering how many low-cost players who also weren’t that good we saw in the lean rebuilding years. Also, I still believe they should do everything in their power — spending in free agency, calling up prospects or trading them for established stars — to be as good as possible, now and going forward.
This particular line of thought has helped them stay good this year — hand up on being wrong so far on Aaron Hicks — so it feels worth exploring.
Prospects are a particular source of fascination in the Mike Elias-era Orioles because he touted an elite talent pipeline on his hiring and has delivered in every way imaginable. On a basic level around the game, they’re valuable for plenty of reasons: developing your own talent is far more cost effective than signing major league free agents; they can fetch major league talent from other teams in trades; and perhaps most important to a certain segment of big league clubs, they don’t make a lot of money.
Players have to accrue six years of major league service before they reach free agency. For the first three years of that, in many cases, they make around the league minimum. That’s $720,000 per year in 2023, though more experienced players can make more. Ryan Mountcastle is making a reported $738,000 this year. After three seasons, all players can get raises through salary arbitration until they reach free agency.
That still rarely fetches players the kinds of salaries their performance would warrant on the open market, and it means developing prospects and having them in their prime production seasons create value for teams.
It doesn’t take much background with the way the Orioles have operated in recent years to know this is of value. They took advantage of it in their rebuilding years, using waiver claims on players from other organizations making the league minimum to fill out their lineup as they waited for the inherited prospects to be ready and lost at near-historic clips to earn high draft picks who would represent their next championship core.
They’re already enjoying the fruits of that with Gunnar Henderson and Adley Rutschman producing well-above-league-average rates at the top of their lineup. Other prospects, such as Cowser and Westburg, are in Triple-A and are various degrees of major league ready. Yet every time there is an opportunity to bring them up, the preference seems to be other players who are making at or near the league minimum.
The Orioles telegraphed this a bit as they collected minor league slugger types on waivers and in minor league free agency this winter, betting on their hitting program’s ability to smooth over the preexisting weaknesses on these players and accentuate their strengths.
Ryan O’Hearn is the best example of this, though he had already agreed to a $1.4 million salary through the arbitration process before he was waived and claimed by the Orioles. They attacked deficiencies in his lower-body movement during spring training that allowed him a better base to make hard contact on all pitches, and worked to improve his swing decisions. He’s chasing a bit less often than years past, is more aggressive on pitches over the heart of the plate he can drive, and as a result has a .991 OPS and five home runs in 76 plate appearances.
It may not be sustainable, but it’s a level of production over a small sample that has the potential to deliver significant value to the Orioles — which, in the interest of winning games, is really all they’re seeking.
Hicks is a different story entirely, though from the same cloth. He was owed $27.6 million on the remainder of his contract when the Yankees released him last month, and the Orioles are on the hook only for the prorated league minimum. He came in as cover for an injured Cedric Mullins and, when he did, Orioles hitting coaches Ryan Fuller and Matt Borgschulte quickly identified a difference in his stance from when he was at his most productive. Hicks went back to that, and he has a 1.154 OPS in two-plus weeks since joining the Orioles.
Elsewhere on the roster, Josh Lester is getting opportunities after hitting 14 home runs in 52 games for Norfolk. With Ryan Mountcastle out with vertigo, he’ll get some starts, as he did Wednesday.
This doesn’t change the benefits the Orioles gain in terms of long-term club control and maintained trade value they get by keeping prospects in Norfolk. They would probably argue those are overblown, and with the dual goals of winning in 2023 and maintaining sustained success going forward, they’re able to achieve both with how they’ve gone about it.
Focusing on the means of cheap production the Orioles are eschewing — the prospects — instead of the players making an impact at a low cost on their current roster discounts the scouting, development and coaching that go into what they’ve done to achieve that production.
Cheap production, however it’s obtained, is valuable. And, in many ways, it’s helping keep this team near the top of the league.