César Prieto easily could have been lost in the shuffle on the Orioles’ long list of infield prospects.
Instead, he came back for his second season in professional baseball with a better understanding of how to use his advanced contact ability and get the most of his potential.
“He proving to be a guy that has a real feel to hit, and he’s developing a little more slug and on-base ability, and he’s showing some versatility defensively,” Orioles director of player development Matt Blood said. “He’s a left-handed infielder that is able to produce some offensively. A guy like that is pretty valuable.”
Now with over a full season of experience at Double A, Prieto is using his second stint there to show how far he’s come since signing in January 2022 for $650,000 after defecting from Cuba.
He entered Sunday with a .977 OPS while batting .386 with more walks (9) than strikeouts (7), and he has done so by better utilizing his elite bat-to-ball skills within the Orioles’ hitting framework. While Prieto is still one of the more aggressive swingers in the organization, he’s made significant strides in their swing-decision scoring metrics by cutting down on his chase below the zone. In 2022, he made contact on those pitches but often hit the ball on the ground, leading to outs.
Prieto had a 51.3% ground-ball rate in Bowie in 2022, and he was down to 42% through Sunday, with his line-drive rate basically absorbing the difference.
“This year, he looks a little stronger and he also has a better understanding of our philosophy and values and he’s doing a better job of swinging at good pitches and hitting them at good angles,” Blood said. “Whereas last year, he’s always been someone who can put the ball in play but not necessarily thinking about doing it at the right angles, and now he’s bought into that so you see him being more productive with his at-bats, versus just being able to put it in play.”
Bowie manager Kyle Moore has noticed a physical difference in Prieto, in addition to the progress in his swing decisions that has allowed Moore to bat him leadoff – such is his belief that Prieto will let borderline pitches go and be a table setter in that role.
“He’s got a little more juice in there,” Moore said. “He’s put on some weight, physically, which we wanted him to do. Coming over and it being his first year in the States last year, I think it took him a while to adapt to just how we do things, how we eat here, how we move here, how we play every day. He played over 100 games last year for the first time in his career. I think his offseason was huge. … We hope it’s because we’re doing the right things as we have him here, but I also think he put in really good work in the offseason. He has to get some credit for that.”
Many of the issues adjusting to pro ball after so long away from the game after he left Cuba, as well as the cultural assimilation, were expected for Prieto. He left the team at an Olympic qualifier in May 2021. He spent that time adding strength, and that was evident in his early-season success at Aberdeen last year.
Once he got to Bowie, Gunnar Henderson and Jordan Westburg were promoted shortly thereafter, leaving Prieto as one of the main offensive presences at a level that proved challenging as pitchers used his aggression against him to induce contact on the ground.
But the Orioles kept hammering his development points, and he added experience in the Arizona Fall League last year. Over the last few years, the Orioles have targeted amateur talent with bat-to-ball ability with the express purpose of getting them into their hitting program. The expectation is that their quality of contact and power will develop once they focus only on pitches they can hit hard and in the air.
Prieto shared a roster at one point last year with Henderson, Westburg, Connor Norby and Joey Ortiz. Henderson, Ortiz and Terrin Vavra all count as rookie infielders on the major league roster, while Westburg is dominating Triple A and Norby is getting primary second base reps with Norfolk. It creates a crowded infield depth chart for Prieto to stand out on, but the Orioles believe the way he’s progressing is showing he can be in that mix before long.
“It’s exactly what we want to see,” Blood said. “That’s what player development is all about, helping players with skill sets to use their skill sets, as well as develop the other necessary ones for them to have success, and to his credit he’s an incredibly hard worker. He’s got an infectious personality, and he’s bought into the process and is seeing some success from it. Hopefully, he can just continue that trajectory towards the major leagues.”