If a week’s worth of Norfolk Tides baseball is any indicator, just because the Orioles are defending division champions whose rebuilding phase is shrinking in the rearview mirror doesn’t mean the interest in their farm system is waning with it.

The rest of the full-season affiliates in Bowie, Aberdeen and Delmarva are set to open their seasons Friday, and the concentration of top prospects in Norfolk means there’s more dispersion — but not lack of talent — across the rest of the farm system.

Including with those high-flying Tides, here are the main things I’ll be watching based on each club’s break-camp roster and which factors will influence the continued upward trajectory of the club’s farm system.

Triple-A Norfolk

The hitters: I don’t know, in an Orioles farm system where there are a lot of slogans on a lot of T-shirts, if the phrase, “If you aren’t getting better, you’re getting worse” is on one of them. Where that club’s group of top prospects — Jackson Holliday, Coby Mayo, Heston Kjerstad, Kyle Stowers and Connor Norby — are concerned, that’s basically what this early portion of the season is about. There’s a mandate for each not to let performance levels dip — though their early-season success is at unsustainable levels — simply because the alternative is not being considered ready when a need arises on the club.

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Without relitigating why or for how long many of those players are there, the one true way other than hitting to ensure they’re at the level required for coming up to the majors is by playing good defense. The Orioles’ utility players, at present, are offering little on either side of the ball. But they have good defensive reputations, and that’s keeping them in Baltimore at the moment. Gawking at the slash lines and power of the top of Norfolk’s lineup in each night’s box score is fun. Also scroll down to the errors column. It’s a good night when they aren’t listed there.

Cade Povich threw six shutout innings, allowing one hit, in his first start of the season at Norfolk. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Banner)

The pitchers: Yennier Cano wasn’t even on the Orioles at this point a year ago, but he ended up being a massive part of the bullpen. Cade Povich, Justin Armbruester and Chayce McDermott can make themselves late-season options for the major league club on the prospect side, but the more immediate need is going to be bullpen depth because the plan to pitch Mike Baumann as often as possible can’t go on forever. Alternatives will be required. Be it someone on the roster such as Kaleb Ort or Matt Krook or someone off it such as Luis González, Wandisson Charles or Nolan Hoffman, the Orioles need to keep their string of unexpected contributors going. These are candidates who could do that.

Double-A Bowie

The hitters: Samuel Basallo, the 19-year-old top catching prospect, is the obvious headliner here, and he has the potential to make Prince George’s Stadium look quite small as he gets settled in the Eastern League. His quest to be the organization’s fourth No. 1 overall prospect in as many years will be a fun one, but it’s the depth that keeps the farm system at the level it has been, and this roster features candidates to fill out that next tier below him in Dylan Beavers and Jud Fabian.

Beavers is a talented outfielder with a great eye and hard contact ability who showed signs of breaking out at the end of 2023, and Fabian’s combination of elite power and center field defense makes for an intriguing package despite strikeout issues. Either one could end up as a top-five prospect in the organization with a big year and enough graduations above him. Having talented players like that with performance track records in the high minors will be what keeps opinions of this farm system strong.

The pitchers: To me, the Bowie pitching staff is split in two intriguing camps. First, you have last year’s breakout arms looking to continue solidifying themselves in the high minors: Trace Bright, Alex Pham, Ryan Long and Keagan Gillies most significantly. All have the stuff, makeup and growth trajectory to continue to impress in a pitching program that has demonstrated it can improve players consistently.

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Then there are the players whose 2022 or 2023 seasons were impacted by injury but were on the ascent beforehand. We know about Seth Johnson, and he tops this list, but that also includes Kyle Brnovich, Trey McGough, Zach Peek, Carlos Tavera and Brandon Young. Expectations will be tempered for all of them due to the last couple of years, but at one point each had considerable buzz. Reclaiming that is hardly out of the question. I’m fascinated to see who of this group pops in 2024.

At least one will.

High-A Aberdeen

Outfielder Enrique Bradfield Jr., last year’s first-round draft pick, has stolen 25 bases in 25 minor league games. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Banner)

The hitters: The 2023 draft class plays a significant role in generating interest in Aberdeen’s lineup every night, and if past is prologue, it might take a month or two for Enrique Bradfield Jr., Mac Horvath, Tavian Josenberger and Matthew Etzel to get used to the higher level of pitching.

It’s a copout to say Bradfield is the most fascinating of the bunch, but there’s a unique reason behind it for me. He can probably hit for a high average, get on base and leg out a ton of doubles while stealing bases as a base case in Aberdeen. His development calls for consistent elevated line drives that find outfield grass, though. As the season progresses, how well he does that and executes those goals will mean more than his stats, which by virtue of his speed and contact skills could be pretty eye-popping even if he doesn’t accomplish those line drives consistently. Whether he does may influence how long he spends in Aberdeen.

The pitchers: It’s a good sign for an Orioles draftee to begin his first full season in Aberdeen; recent examples include Armbruester and Bright, both of whom are among their top pitching prospects. That means they think highly of 2023 draftees Jackson Baumeister, Zach Fruit, Levi Wells and Teddy Sharkey. Those are some of the biggest names out of the most exciting pitching draft the Orioles have had under Mike Elias, and we might get to see with at least one and maybe several of them what an accelerated developmental timeline for a pitcher looks like. Ending in Bowie would be a success for any of them. Could any end up in Norfolk?

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Beyond that, there’s a fascinating group of pitchers acquired out of Latin America — Moisés Chace, Juan Nuñez, Luis Sánchez and Juan De Los Santos — who have big-time stuff but haven’t always had results to match. Now that Delmarva is behind all of them, there’s upside each can realize in a favorable environment for pitchers.

Low-A Delmarva

The hitters: The loss of short-season affiliated ball means Low-A is a massive jump from the complex league, and that gulf in competition has meant few if any players have made a quick, successful transition over the years. Among international players, who make up most of this year’s roster again, the success stories basically include just Frederick Bencosme and Basallo.

It’s a talented group trying to join them this year, headlined by switch-hitting infielder Leandro Arias, five-tool center fielder Braylin Tavera and power-hitting corner outfielder Thomas Sosa. Each showed the improvement in swing decisions and hard contact the organization seeks at the complex level, and each has an opportunity to distinguish himself by carrying that into a challenging environment in full-season ball.

The pitchers: On a staff filled with international signees and 2023 draftees, 20-year-old left-hander Luis De Leon stands out above the rest. De Leon has a mid-90s fastball and feel for multiple secondaries with his changeup and slider proving themselves to be weapons in 2023. He moved quickly to Delmarva on the strength of that pitch mix this year, and he has the potential to move out of the Carolina League as a result. Others are starting ahead of him in terms of level, but De Leon could end the year as the best internationally signed pitcher the Orioles have — if he doesn’t have that distinction already.

Jon Meoli is the Baltimore Banner's Orioles columnist and head women's ice hockey coach at Loyola University Maryland.

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