It’s only going to get harder from here.

Not for the likes of Adley Rutschman or Gunnar Henderson, the uber-talented top prospects who immediately slot into a regular role with the Orioles, but for Kyle Stowers and eventually Jordan Westburg and Colton Cowser and so many other highly-regarded prospects who Stowers is, after a surprise demotion, joining down in Norfolk.

At some point, these players will have achieved all they can in Triple-A and need the challenge of regularly seeing major league pitching to both continue improving and prove they deserve to play at the highest level. And for a player development department that moves players up levels aggressively from every other affiliate, this prospect pileup at Triple-A might be a permanent fixture to navigate going forward.

“When you get more talented in the big leagues, it’s hard to break through, and we have a bunch of guys in Triple-A right now that are off to good starts and playing well and have a lot of talent, and that’s what good teams, good organizations have,” manager Brandon Hyde said.

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The Orioles, by most accounts, are now both. They have as deep a roster in the majors as they’ve had since the Buck Showalter years and began the season with Stowers and Terrin Vavra, both well-regarded prospects, on the bench. But with an outfield of Cedric Mullins, Austin Hays, and Anthony Santander pretty well locked in, playing time for Stowers was sporadic.

His lack of involvement feels, to me, more curious than controversial. Maybe they don’t need three catchers, but if that’s what they want, it’s probably for a reason. Perhaps if James McCann didn’t have an oblique injury and started the season with the major league team, they wouldn’t have had to add Anthony Benboom to the roster and could have kept someone like Franchy Cordero in the organization and had Stowers start in the minors to avoid this situation. Now that McCann is back, Benboom’s continued presence allows Adley Rutschman and McCann to both be in the lineup against the left-handed starters Oakland will run out this week.

Stowers showed last year in Norfolk that he could hit lefties, but hasn’t been given the chance to do that often in the majors. Given that, he was optioned Saturday night and he arrives in Norfolk as a cautionary tale to both the prospects that litter the Tides’ clubhouse and the organization.

Terrin Vavra (77) homers at Ed Smith Stadium in the sixth inning of a game against the Minnesota Twins on 2/25/23. Vavra also scored Colton Cowser (76). The Baltimore Orioles hosted the Twins for their home opener as the Florida Grapefruit League started on Saturday. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Banner)

For the Orioles’ front office, Stowers joining a Norfolk group whose lineup features four other top-10 prospects — Cowser, Westburg, Connor Norby, and Joey Ortiz — plus well-regarded outfielder Hudson Haskin creates a talented core there. It’s an example of the kind of prospect depth they’ve built through the draft these last few years. That group is as deep and robust as it is because they chose this winter not to use that talent capital in trades to bolster the major league team, partially because matches didn’t materialize but also because they believe so much in the players and their player development structure that they think the players will be better in a few months and thus able to help the major league team or yield more in a trade.

The question is, when do the returns diminish on that approach? It’s a pillar of this organization’s development process to aggressively move players to the next level once it seems they have mastered one. They believe being challenged is the most clear path to development, and it’s not uncommon for players to earn two minor league promotions in a season when their talent and performance warrant it.

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Stowers was in that category in 2021, having begun at High-A Aberdeen before climbing to Norfolk in a season when he shared organizational player of the year with Rutschman. He spent most of 2022 there with an .884 OPS and 19 home runs, earning plaudits from player development staff for maintaining his power production while walking more and striking out less. When he was called up in August, it was fair to say he’d done all he needed to do in the minors.

That remains the case now. I imagine many in the Warehouse know Stowers getting four at-bats every night against major league pitching will benefit him much more than those four at-bats happening for Norfolk. No one particularly deserves to lose their regular lineup spot through the early part of the season, though, so this suboptimal solution was still the best in their minds.

Jordan Westburg (82) gets caught between first and second base before getting tagged out by the Pirates’ Chris Owings (79) at LECOM Park during the fifth inning of a game against the Pittsburgh Pirates on 2/28/23. The Baltimore Orioles lost to the Pirates, 7-4, in their Florida Grapefruit League matchup. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Banner)

The question now will be how they avoid this in the future. Westburg, last year’s organizational player of the year, hit his second home run of the season Sunday. It was his 20th home run in Triple-A over the last two years, and he entered Sunday with an .860 OPS in 443 plate appearances at the level. He can probably stand to strike out less, but he’s doing that so far. He’s being introduced to left field, a new developmental checkpoint to clear. Even with that, the point where he feels he’s done what he’s been asked to do there and deserves to be in the majors is nearing. When will his frustration about the lack of a chance for promotion arrive, if it hasn’t already? He may eventually benefit from the inconsistency of Ramón Urías and Jorge Mateo and be viewed as an upgrade if either hits a skid, though to this point that hasn’t happened.

Cowser, Ortiz, and Norby are earlier in their Triple-A careers, so barring any kind of disastrous spell of major league injuries, the Orioles’ track record in trying to get players close to a full season in Triple-A means their promotions are likely not going to be realistic until the second half. They have developmental goals to hit in the meantime. Cowser can improve his strikeout rate and performance against lefties. Ortiz needs to build on last year’s second-half surge and expand his sample size of success. Norby has room to improve at second base.

Their Orioles’ prospect talent in the high minors is the result of so many things worth praising — an improved draft process that not only brings them talented players but high-character ones, as well as quality hitting instruction up and down the farm system to help bring them along. But they can’t keep the fruits of that on the shelf forever.

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The ones who are still gaining experience at the level can, and probably will, improve. Stowers and Westburg can, too. But the longer the Orioles wait to either create space for them in the major leagues on a regular basis or move them, the more issues can arise. Players can get hurt. Other teams can cool on them as they have more time to nitpick their flaws. Discontent can emerge, especially if the opportunities to advance after such rapid climbs through the system all of a sudden disappear.

None of this is a problem until it is. It’s also not set to subside, not with another wave of players like Coby Mayo, Heston Kjerstad, Dylan Beavers, and Jud Fabian all poised to be fast movers this summer. The saying around the game is these things have a way of working themselves out. Stowers’ situation is a warning that waiting for that to happen might not be the way.

jon.meoli@thebaltimorebanner.com

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