Maybe DL Hall and Joey Ortiz will look around in the colors of the visiting Milwaukee Brewers at a ballpark full of fans wearing shirts commemorating Jackson Holliday’s home debut with the Orioles and wonder what might have been.

Friday will be the beginning of an era for the Orioles, with Holliday taking the field alongside onetime former top prospects like him in Gunnar Henderson and Adley Rutschman, the latest high-impact addition from a farm system that has become the envy of the league.

His arrival coinciding with the return of two former top-10 Orioles prospects, who in this case were traded for top starting pitcher Corbin Burnes, feels like a moment of transition. There will be exciting debuts still to come for the Orioles, though none will be of the magnitude of Holliday’s. There will be plenty more young players whom the Orioles moved on returning to Camden Yards.

Let’s not call that anything except a good thing for all sides.

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The choice of which young players to keep and which to use in trades was never one the Orioles had to make with someone like Holliday. The same can be said of Henderson and Rutschman, both of whom came up through the farm system when the Orioles weren’t exactly buyers in the trade market.

The Orioles didn’t actually trade a true prospect until February 2023, when infielder Darell Hernaiz was moved to Oakland for left-hander Cole Irvin. Hernaiz was part of the Orioles’ first draft under Mike Elias in 2019 and was an organizational favorite for a lot of reasons.

He and his mother drove clear across Texas for a predraft workout with the team that spring, and he was a popular teammate throughout his time with the Orioles’ affiliates. He was a mid-tier prospect who was at Double-A at age 21 when he was dealt, and the Orioles were looking ahead to when they’d have to add him to the 40-man roster in the fall and projecting a difficult future for him in the organization.

In the summer, they traded reliever Easton Lucas to the A’s for Shintaro Fujinami and grouped Drew Rom, César Prieto and Zack Showalter into a package for Jack Flaherty from the Cardinals. All could have helped the Orioles but were more valuable to another club with clearer avenues to meaningful major league opportunities.

The same can be said of the trade that sent Hall and Ortiz to Milwaukee. Ortiz, had he stayed in the organization, theoretically could have supplanted Jordan Westburg for the role Westburg has now, but more likely would have been a long-term Ramón Urías or Jorge Mateo replacement as a right-handed infield option on the bench. Instead, he’s getting regular starts at third base for the Brewers and has started his time there well.

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Similarly, the Orioles ended years of internal and external debate about Hall’s future simply by deciding it would be someone else’s problem. The former first-round pick has the dynamic pitch mix from the left side to be an elite starter if he can command the ball, but he never demonstrated that consistently in the Orioles’ organization, with health issues having an impact.

He was also the team’s best reliever down the stretch after Félix Bautista was injured in August. Hall would have been an impact reliever from the start this year if the Orioles hadn’t decided to keep him as starting depth, and he may not even have made their rotation if he was kept on the starter’s track. He opened the season as the Brewers’ No. 2 starter and is scheduled to start this weekend against his old club.

Their return will be a secondary plotline Friday night, but they’ll no doubt be greeted warmly. They’ll also not be the last players who could have helped the Orioles who will instead have their careers play out elsewhere.

Baltimore Orioles shortstop Joey Ortiz (65) gets ready to field a ball in a game against the Los Angeles Angels at Camden Yards on Wednesday, May 17. It was the third game of a series in the regular season/
Former Orioles prospect Joey Ortiz has six hits in his first 20 at-bats as a Milwaukee Brewer. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Banner)

Part of that comes down to the levels of talent still present in the minors. Coby Mayo, Heston Kjerstad, Connor Norby and Kyle Stowers are all ready to contribute somewhere in the majors, as evidenced by their success in Triple-A. Samuel Basallo, Dylan Beavers and Jud Fabian headline an interesting Bowie lineup.

A lot can change in terms of opportunities at the major league level, but with only 13 major league roster spots and a host of talented and worthy players already in the Orioles’ clubhouse, there’s not a clear path to a regular major league role for many of those prospects.

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They can do one of two things: get so good that the Orioles will be forced to keep them and fit them on the roster (Basallo and Mayo, given their youth, seem like good bets to do this), or get good enough that they can fetch the Orioles a return in the form of a major league contributor who can help them get to the playoffs in 2024 and the future.

Neither is a bad thing. The Orioles will have to balance maintaining their desirable high-end organizational depth with the needs of the major league team. They’ve always erred on the side of holding onto their high-minors talent on the belief that they can keep improving and thus be worth more in the future to any major league club, including the Orioles.

If it ends up being another one, all the better. Not everyone is going to be able to participate in the fun the Orioles have built at Camden Yards. But the big leagues anywhere are more fun than the minors. I bet Hall and Ortiz will attest to that.

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

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