Jackson Holliday’s promotion to High-A Aberdeen last month meant he joined the rest of the Orioles’ 2022 first-day draft picks with the IronBirds: Dylan Beavers, Max Wagner, and Jud Fabian all began the season where they finished it last year.
That was all part of the plan. After noticing a pretty steep adjustment curve for the 2021 draftees who remained at Delmarva for their entire post-draft summer, the Orioles’ player development group made an adjustment. They decided last year’s college hitters (Holliday was drafted out of high school and put on a different timeline) would benefit from seeing Aberdeen late in the summer so they would know what they’d be up against come April.
Even so, it hasn’t been the smoothest ride for those top 2022 college draftees at Aberdeen this year. But manager Roberto Mercado said he’s seen a difference in how this group is adjusting to the level, and it’s helping them accelerate their improvements on the field.
“I thought it was great for those guys to experience that for the last couple weeks,” Mercado said. “The end of the season, playoffs, we’re trying to really focus on winning games here, and it was great to put them in that position — almost like the end of their college season, they’re trying to get into the College World Series. Now, to get that and gain the experience of seeing some high-level arms right off the rip was really beneficial.”
Mercado shared his thoughts on how each player has adjusted in the early part of the season.
Beavers, a standout at Cal selected with the 33rd overall pick, produced in college but arrived with significant upside due to his need to refine his swing and get the most out of his lean, athletic frame.
Through Monday’s off-day, Beavers had a .780 OPS with a pair of home runs, seven steals and 13 extra-base hits. He entered May with an .886 OPS, but fell off with a .603 OPS and just a pair of doubles in the first two series of the month.
There are plenty of encouraging markers for Beavers, though. He’s swinging and missing only 7.6% of the time, down from 9.5% in his pro debut last summer. His ability to make contact and control the strike zone remains an asset, and the ongoing process of helping him gain consistency in his swing and unlock his significant raw power potential is working from a strong foundation in that sense.
“He was just here for the last two weeks at the end of the season, but this year he’s been a lot different — worked his tail off in the offseason and is continuing to make some adjustments,” Mercado said. “There are some minor things that [minor league hitting coordinator Anthony] Villa and [Aberdeen hitting coach] Zack [Cole] are working on with him with the swing. He’s very hard on himself. He really beats himself up sometimes. It’s like, ‘Dude, you’re leading our team in hits, you’re swinging the bat really well.’ But I love the fact that he wants to continue to get better. He’s not just satisfied. He’s been working his tail off and getting better every day.”
Beavers’ offensive profile will likely determine his major league potential, so it makes sense it gets the majority of the focus in evaluating him. There’s more to the player than that, though, and Mercado has enjoyed seeing those aspects shine through over the last six weeks.
“I would say his outfield defense is something he’s continued to get better at,” he said. “We’re going to move him around, he’s going to play some center field as well while he’s here just to expose him to that. He moves really well in the outfield, has a really good arm. Also, stealing bases, running the bases really well. Has the new-school, has the traditional, so he’s got that in his tool box. And obviously, the power is going to come. He’s only got a couple home runs right now, but I think with the adjustments these guys are working on with him, we’re going to see a lot more slug out of him, too. He’s obviously a solid ballplayer and he’s going to continue to grow and get better.”
Wagner, a draft-eligible sophomore last season who the Orioles picked after he broke out with 27 home runs last year for Clemson, found his cameo in High-A at the end of the season particularly challenging and started this season in Aberdeen with similar struggles. He had a .506 OPS in April, but hit his fifth home run of the season to give him a .975 OPS in the first two series of May.
For the season, that makes a .685 OPS, with 10 steals and strong third base defense, according to Mercado. His turnaround of late has come thanks to his improved swing decisions “and making sure we’re barreling baseball in the zone.”
It’s also more in line with expectations, given how Wagner reported to early camp in February.
“He was swinging it really well in spring training,” Mercado said. “Came here and struggled a little bit, and like everybody else, it seems like these guys come in and struggle just for a little bit, but he’s starting to figure it out. He’ll be fine. He’s one of those guys that has a really good head on his shoulders. He has a great support system. … I know that all helps, too. But he’s a special player, man. He’s another guy that can play third base, second base, so he’s moving all around the diamond and continues to get better. There’s a lot of upside with him. I’m looking forward to seeing what he does over the next couple months.”
Fabian’s path to the Orioles was an interesting one. It’s been widely reported they had an agreement with him for an overslot bonus as the Orioles’ second-round pick in 2021, but Boston selected him, and Fabian chose to return to Florida. There, he addressed some of his strikeout issues and was drafted again, this time by the Orioles at No 67 overall.
They couldn’t get him out of Low-A Delmarva fast enough last year — he had a 1.322 OPS in two series there last summer — and High-A has proven to be a better challenge this year. He has a 98 wRC+, essentially two ticks below league-average, and he hit his fifth home run of the season Sunday.
Curiously, those are his only extra-base hits this season. That tracks some with how he hit at Florida. He had 44 home runs in 2021 and 2022 combined, with 20 doubles and one triple in that span.
“First off, he’s a plus defender in center field,” Mercado said. “He makes all the plays, he’s locked in, he’s fun to watch out there in center field. At the plate, again another guy who continues to get better. He swings the bat, and he’s barreling some baseballs. He’s another fun guy to watch, and again, he’s working on some things as well. There’s been some minor adjustments. It’s just the start of the season and he’s already made some adjustments and looks really good with it, working on his hinge at the plate, and he’s made some adjustments and looks really good.”