As the Orioles were wrapping up their best season in decades — a 101-win, division-championship season that’s propelled them back to the playoffs for the first time since 2016 — their Triple-A affiliate in Norfolk was having similar celebrations.
The Tides last week won both the International League championship and then the Triple-A National Championship, and they did so with a talented lineup full of once and current top-10 prospects in the organization.
Jackson Holliday was there, too, but others have spent far more time at the level and have been applying the lessons from there and the majors for most of the season. Taken together, the Tides lineup holds so much of the Orioles’ promise for the next wave coming to Baltimore. Here’s how they finished their seasons.
Mayo was the MVP of the Double-A Eastern League for his work before joining the Tides, but he was just as impressive in his two-plus months with Norfolk. He had a .905 OPS with 12 home runs in 62 games, all while walking more and striking out less often than he did at the previous level.
Hitting coach Brink Ambler said Mayo’s main adjustment was learning how well pitchers at that level can execute exactly as they want and not leave mistakes in dangerous areas of the plate, forcing Mayo to continue to develop his approach and learn to combat some pitch types, shapes and locations he hadn’t dealt with as often.
In particular, the amount of right-handed pitchers with two-seam fastballs that worked in on Mayo’s hands was an adjustment, because those pitches have the tendency to open up vulnerabilities to any hitter on the outer third of the plate. Pitchers followed that plan against Mayo early and then did a lot more changing speeds and mixing pitches later in his time at the level.
Ambler said Mayo, who is just 21, “can make very rapid adjustments” and has throughout his time in Norfolk.
“I think it’s a lot for him of continuing to remind him of what his strengths are and that he can trust that those will continue to be there,” Ambler said.
Mayo has jokingly referred to inner-third pitches that he can turn on and pull to left field as in the Coby Zone; that’s one of those strengths they’re finding is carrying up levels.
“He doesn’t need to look for pitches that are in, the same way that he doesn’t ever need to cheat to fastballs, because he is a guy who loves velo,” Ambler said. “He hits velo very well, and so for him it puts him in a better position when he’s able to, you know, really look for things that are out over the plate, really stay on things that are perhaps a little bit softer, and then trust in the fact that if he does get something that shows up in the Coby Zone, or he does get a fastball, even if he’s not looking for it, that his bat is plenty quick enough to turn it around.”
The Orioles’ top pick in 2021 was flying high at Norfolk when he was promoted in early July, with a .996 OPS and 10 home runs in Triple-A. He had a tougher time of it in the majors and, since returning to Norfolk on Aug. 16, has a .777 OPS while striking out in 34.2% of his plate appearances.
Ambler said Cowser, who helped Norfolk with a grand slam in Saturday’s Triple-A championship game, learned “really valuable lessons” in the majors and came down with a plan to improve from the major league hitting staff. He also found himself in a new position, going from trying to prove he deserved a debut to ensuring he’ll be good enough to stick next time an opportunity arises.
“Sometimes, the actual performance in Triple-A at that point is maybe not as important if there’s a specific assignment these guys are working on,” Ambler said.
The strikeouts, it seems, come from a mandate for Cowser to be more aggressive. Triple-A utilized an automated strike zone in 2023, and it has played smaller than the major league zone. Combine that with the highest-caliber pitchers in the majors, and simply waiting for pitches one can drive doesn’t always work.
“Big league guys are able to edge three pitches and then the at-bat is over, or they edge one and you’re starting every at-bat 0-1, so finding ways to combat that,” Ambler said. “He definitely wanted to make a point of being more aggressive to try and do damage here, just because he knows and everyone else knows that his ability to swing at good pitches and make good swing decisions is always going to be a skill set that he has in spades. … He’s not going to lose that.”
Some Tides have been up and down this season, and some arrived later in the season. But no hitter on the Orioles’ top prospect list stayed there longer than Norby, who also homered in Saturday’s championship game. He played all season for the Tides, with an .842 OPS and 21 home runs in 633 plate appearances.
Ambler noted how well Norby finished the season, and credited him with playing through times when his body and swing weren’t 100% while adjusting to a league that as the year progressed had plenty of information on how to attack him.
“It’s just a constant cat-and-mouse game that’s being played,” Ambler said. “But I thought he’s done a really nice job with attacking, as the season has gone on, continuing to make sure that he’s continuing to turn the way that he wants to turn, he’s still being fast through the ball. He’s been willing to do some things that were maybe a little bit unconventional, but it’s just because his standards are so high. …
“He’s that guy that is going to have four great at-bats and on the fifth he’s just going to miss a pitch and that pitch that he missed will haunt him. And he’ll get after it the next day because he doesn’t want to miss that pitch. He’s an awesome guy. He really works hard, and I’m just so happy for him that he was able to put together a year in the way that he was.”
Ortiz had a chance to make his debut and enjoy several stints with the Orioles this year, but a majority of his time was spent in Norfolk trying to put to work the lessons pitchers taught him in those runs with the major league club.
He had an .885 OPS in Triple-A, all while playing his standout middle infield defense and continuing to build on last year’s offensive breakout.
“When he’s going well, he’s got the ability to work line to line and hit the ball really hard and he’s got the ability to put the ball in play at good angles,” Ambler said. “He spins the ball well, especially to the back side. He has this ability to hit low-flight balls backside, where he sort of gets these doubles and triples down the right field line or into right-center. He did a nice job and it’s been unfortunate that we haven’t been able to have him for this last little stretch. He’s wanted to be out there and we obviously wanted to have him, but it’s been a good year for him. The thing for him is always going to be the fact that his glove is so good that the bat, as long as it’s able to be a positive influence in his game, that’s really what he needs it to be.”
It was a stop-and-start year in many senses for Stowers, who broke camp with the Orioles but struggled early in the season before a shoulder injury. After he returned to Norfolk on July 15, Stowers had 13 home runs with a .931 OPS, with his September impacted by a broken nose after he was hit in the face with a pitch.
“There’s just all kinds of things that he’s dealt with that he’s done a really nice job, and it’s been great to see him have some success after coming back from both of those things,” Ambler said. “He’s really put some impressive nights together, some impressive swings. … This is what he’s capable of doing. He looks much more like the old Stowers, swing-wise and the balls that he’s putting in play and the balls he’s getting to looks like his old self.”