It’s not always a good-faith argument when the Orioles’ astonishing amount of young talent, both at the major league level and in the high minors, is simply attributed to the years of losing between their 2016 wild-card team and the most recent vintage of the club that returned to the playoffs under manager Brandon Hyde.
Those high picks helped, but the Orioles under general manager Mike Elias also evaluated the players available at those picks well, ultimately picked the right ones (while perhaps more importantly avoiding the wrong ones), and developed those high picks at a consistently elite level.
Why bring it up?
The high-quality talent that’s risen to the top of their farm system as a result of all those things — high picks, high-level evaluation and high-level development — has created a bubble of talent that is going to be hard to replicate, no matter where they’re picking in the draft or how they go about their processes.
It’s always a privilege to put together the Orioles’ top prospect rankings for Baseball America, and doing so this year — the top 10 was released on the site this morning — illustrated that. There’s an incredible collection of age-advanced, potentially elite talent at the top in the form of Jackson Holliday, Samuel Basallo and Coby Mayo; all three are in the high minors, with Holliday and Basallo still just 19 and Mayo 21.
But the bulk of the top 10 otherwise either debuted in the majors or accumulated significant Triple-A time last year. They are at once promising prospects and high-probability bets to play in the majors for a long time, and play well while they’re there. The Orioles are probably thinking long and hard about how to get Colton Cowser and Heston Kjerstad the major league opportunities they warrant and deserve.
Further down the list, they’re probably looking at how Gunnar Henderson and Jordan Westburg thrived in the infield and wondering how Joey Ortiz and Connor Norby fit in. There’s also the wild card that is DL Hall, who has an undeniable starter’s pitch mix but showed himself as a potentially elite bullpen weapon down the stretch.
Taken collectively, their top 10 — which also includes 2023 top pick Enrique Bradfield Jr. and impressive right-hander Chayce McDermott — is an ideal one for the position the Orioles find themselves in. It’s topped by future stars, the kind of young, impact talent that can sustain championship runs. And it features players who are big league ready and can contribute at positions of value, which can both help the Orioles if they so choose or would be attractive to any acquiring team.
Many outside that top three, however, are at a bit of an inflection point in their careers. Norby has 675 Triple-A plate appearances; Cowser (523) and Ortiz (504) had fewer because of their major league cameos. We know there’s literally nothing stopping them from spending more time in Triple-A — Westburg had 714 trips to the plate at Norfolk before he was called up this summer — but there comes a point when a few things happen.
One is that a player is unquestionably ready with nothing left to prove, as was the case with Westburg. Another is that a need arises at the major league level that forces the team’s hand. But there’s also a point when performance can fall off, or perception of a player can change on the simple premise that, if the team that knows him best doesn’t like him enough to have him in the big leagues, why should anyone else?
This isn’t to diminish what they’ve built. This is a good problem to have. It’s also one that feels like it needs to be solved sooner than later. Once that happens, much of what can easily be remembered as a golden generation of Orioles prospects will either be playing major roles at Camden Yards or will have been used to fill holes elsewhere on the major league roster. Mission accomplished, when trying to revive an organization through scouting and player development.
It will be a challenge to the Orioles’ development apparatus to sustain the lofty standards of talent and accompanying laurels for the farm system that this organization has enjoyed for the last few years.
Of course some of that has to do with the fact that they’re not drafting at the top of the first round, but they could have three selections in the top 40 next year with their own first-round pick, the bonus pick for Henderson’s Rookie of the Year win and their Competitive Balance Round A pick. Henderson, Westburg and Norby came in those ranges, and replicating the processes that helped identify them could replenish the top 10 in the face of expected graduations.
Otherwise, the efforts to replenish with the next wave of talent are already underway. One is the international program under Koby Perez, which has its first potential star in Basallo and myriad candidates to jump into the top 10 next year behind him from the Latin American program: well-known seven-figure signees Braylin Tavera and Luis Almeyda, or lesser-known players Luis De Leon, Thomas Sosa, Leandro Arias and Joshua Liranzo. They’ll have to overcome a challenging hurdle — transitioning to Low-A Delmarva from the complex levels as teenagers — but to do so in the way Basallo did puts one on an aggressive and promising path to the majors.
There are also plenty of talented hitters who find themselves ranked in the teens on the prospect list — Dylan Beavers, Jud Fabian, Mac Horvath and Max Wagner among them. All have more developmental needs than the players who shot through the system before them but, in some cases, potentially more upside if those needs are met.
But what could be the sustaining factor — and ultimately will be a welcome and necessary step in Baltimore’s development cycle — is the potential for pitchers to be better represented near the top of Orioles prospect lists.
McDermott and fellow trade acquisitions Cade Povich and Seth Johnson represent their most promising pitchers outside Hall, and there’s a chance all three could be in the major league mix in 2024. But the year could be defined by who in the promising cadre of second- and third-day picks from the last few years further takes off in a pitching development program that is due to start producing major league talent.
The 2023 draft might produce some fast-moving arms as well, with first-day pick Jackson Baumeister the most likely pitcher drafted under this front office to push for a spot in the top 10 and national top 100.
However they do it, it will have all the same fingerprints of how the Orioles’ current talent bubble came to be: holistic yet data-driven evaluation, with progressive and aggressive development practices to help mold the players. Yet it will be hard to replicate such a talented, fast-moving set of prospects who ended up ready to make waves all at once. And that’s what makes this year’s top 10, and the potential impact it can have on the Orioles for years to come, worth appreciating.