More and more, the Orioles’ aggressive promotions of their top prospects through the low minors is becoming the norm. Jackson Holliday’s quick elevation to High-A Aberdeen this week, after making Low-A look easy with a 1.000 OPS in 93 plate appearances at Delmarva, is just the latest example.
Sometimes, however, development happens more deliberately, and players are forced to return where they spent most of the prior season. Whether they need to finish off the level or were passed by other prospects who are taking up all the playing time at the next stop, there are a handful of players taking their assignment back to last year’s primary level and making the most of it.
In 2022, a return to Delmarva was a launching pad for Darell Hernaiz to play at three levels, restore his prospect status and ultimately earn a trade to Oakland that netted major league pitcher Cole Irvin for the Orioles.
At Delmarva, that’s an example for the rest of the group.
Manager Felipe Alou Jr. said: “I don’t see any disappointment in any of these kids’ faces. I think there’s a lot of understanding of where they are as an organization and why they’re here. Them being here doesn’t really mean anything. It’s a process: they know it, they’re trusting it.”
It’s early still, but here are four players who seem to be benefiting from their experience back where they spent most of 2022, and what seems to be different so far.
The Orioles had a lot of leftover bonus money to play with in the 2021 draft, and most of it went to Willems, a Texas prep catcher who signed for $1 million as an eighth-round pick. He began 2022 in extended spring training and was an incredibly popular member of the Shorebirds once he joined, thanks to his jovial approach to the game and Kenny Powers-like appearance. But he struggled to deal with the jump in competition at the level and had a .585 OPS in 246 plate appearances for Delmarva a season ago.
Delmarva’s coaches saw a leaner and stronger Willems report to camp this spring, and are finding a much more engaged hitter in terms of his offensive preparation. He knows pitchers will attack him with breaking balls and won’t give him a fastball to hit unless they have to, and he’s spending most of his pregame work addressing his desire to hit the ball the other way and lay off breaking balls in the dirt.
The result has been noticeably different. Willems has a 1.310 OPS and already matched last season’s four home runs in just 11 games, compared to four in 68 last season. He struck out 27.6% of the time last year, and is down to 18.8% this year while walking 14.6% of the time — up from 5.7% a season ago.
“All-around, what you get from him on a daily basis is different,” Alou said.
The Orioles signed Prieto for $650,000 last winter after he defected from Cuba, and this time last season he was off to a scalding start at Aberdeen. He homered seven times in a month there, with a 1.000 OPS, to earn a quick bump to Double-A Bowie. Prieto never got going there, though, and his advanced bat-to-ball ability was actually punished at the level because he was able to get his bat on plenty of pitches but wasn’t impacting the ball as hard when swinging outside his sweet spot.
Now back at Bowie, Prieto, who turns 25 next month, seems to be generating higher-quality contact based on publicly available data. He hit the ball on the ground 51.3% of the time last year at Bowie, and that’s down to 42.3%, with that difference, and then some, responsible for his line drive rate jumping from 18.8% to 32.7%.
As a result, he has a .953 OPS with a home run and four doubles. Prieto is still swinging often, it seems — he has a 6.5% strikeout rate and 4.8% walk rate — but the quality of contact suggests he’s swinging at better pitches and not getting deep into counts as a result.
With Jordan Westburg, Joey Ortiz and Connor Norby all at Triple-A, it might take one of them joining the Orioles for a spot to open up in Triple-A for Prieto. If he keeps this up, he’ll be another interesting infield bat to join that roster.
The Orioles’ 2019 draft has already been a fantastically productive one, with Adley Rutschman and Gunnar Henderson already in the majors and Kyle Stowers and Ortiz seemingly set to contribute at some point this summer. In between them, the Orioles took Watson, a center fielder from LSU, in the third round. He had a 20-homer, 20-steal season between Aberdeen and Bowie in 2021, but never got going in 2022, where he had a .577 OPS for the Baysox.
Through 10 games this year, Watson has a pair of home runs and an .802 OPS while lowering his strikeout rate from 33.8% to 21.1%. Similarly to Prieto’s situation, the Norfolk roster at his position is one where opportunities might not materialize for a while. Watson taking advantage of his experience level at Bowie and producing might be the best way to keep himself in contention for a spot when one opens up.
One of two Venezuelan prospects the Orioles acquired in 2019 from the Boston Red Sox in a trade that sent Andrew Cashner the other way, Prado dealt with injuries that delayed his arrival in Delmarva until midway through last season. In 66 games, he had a .587 OPS and displayed a good eye, but far less pop than his frame might suggest. That was probably owed to a 52.9% ground ball rate.
This year, that’s down to 31.7%, with far more balls in the air. He’s walking less often, with an 8.9% walk rate, but also striking out less often (14.3%, down from 22.2%), and has a .662 OPS to show for it. While that’s not materially better, Prado maintains an attractive contact profile, and his cutting down his ground balls signals he’s a player worth monitoring as Delmarva’s season continues.