Orioles farm system roundup

The gates of Oriole Park at Camden Yards, home of the Baltimore Orioles.

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The gates of Oriole Park at Camden Yards, home of the Baltimore Orioles.

Stephen Wade, Staff Writer

With the 2021 baseball playoffs upon us, Baltimore Orioles fans take time to look back on — or rather, try to forget — the horrendous season the team just had.  

How bad was it? The O’s won just 52 out of 162 games giving them a win percentage of .321. By comparison, Los Angeles Dodgers shortstop Trea Turner, who led the National League in hitting with a .328 batting average, was more likely to get a hit during the 2021 season than the Orioles were to win a single game.

2021 season highlights

Handing in one of their all-time worst seasons, there wasn’t a lot for the Birdland faithful to be excited for this year. However, there were some noteworthy highlights, including a breakout season from centerfielder Cedric Mullins, who hit 30 home runs, stole 30 bases, and was selected as a starter at the All-Star Game.

Another breakout season came from rookie first baseman Ryan Mountcastle, who set the Orioles’ franchise record for most home runs in a season by a rookie with 33, passing Baltimore legend Cal Ripken, Jr. The 24-year-old is also a solid Rookie of the Year candidate having led the team in both home runs and runs batted in.

Additional bright moments for the O’s included the return of first baseman/designated hitter Trey Mancini, who missed the 2020 season battling Stage 3 colon cancer and finished as the runner-up in this year’s Home Run Derby. Left-handed pitcher John Means also contributed a highlight moment not only for the season but for his career when he threw a no-hitter against the Seattle Mariners on May 5.

The farm system

The bottom line is the Orioles’ lack of talent, especially pitching, means they cannot compete with other teams at the big-league level. The organization is looking to their minor-league players, also known as the farm system, to be the future of the franchise. Most people know about the Major League Baseball (MLB) and the Orioles, but not everyone knows about their minor league affiliates.

The lowest-level affiliate is the Rookie League, where young players spend time developing their skills before playing with minor-league teams. The minor leagues start with the A-level Delmarva Shorebirds, where many famous Orioles players got their start in professional baseball, including Brian Roberts and Nick Markakis. After Rookie ball, players move up to High A with the Aberdeen IronBirds, then AA with the Bowie Baysox. The last stop before the MLB is the AAA Norfolk Tides.

Out of all the minor leagues teams, however, locals and students are most familiar with the Delmarva Shorebirds. Some may not be aware of the tremendous up-and-coming talent passing through Delmarva and the other minor league teams in recent years en route to Baltimore.

The O’s top prospects

The most notable prospect in the Orioles organization is 23-year-old catcher Adley Rutschman, the No. 1-ranked prospect in all of baseball, according to MLB.com. The O’s drafted him in 2019 with the first overall pick, and he has quickly proven himself as a potential threat at the next level. Rutschman did not spend much time with Delmarva, as he only played 12 games with the team at the end of the 2019 season.

After a nonexistent 2020 minor league season due to the pandemic, Rutschman started this year in AA with the Baysox. He was quickly called up to AAA with the Tides, where he was awarded Minor League Co-Player of the Year. With an impressive .285 batting average and 23 home runs, Rutschman will fight for a spot on the Orioles roster next spring.

Not only do the Orioles have highest-ranked position player prospect in the MLB, they also have the highest-ranked pitching prospect in baseball, with right-hander Grayson Rodriguez. The team drafted Rodriguez, 21, in the first round of the 2018 draft at the 11th overall pick. Rodriguez spent the 2019 season with the Shorebirds, where he had a record of 10-4 with an earned run average (ERA) of 2.68 and logged a whopping 129 strikeouts.

Rodriguez spent the 2021 season mostly with the AA Bowie Baysox after pitching in just five games for the High A Aberdeen Ironbirds. The best pitching prospect in baseball finished the year with a 9-1 record, 161 strikeouts, and won Minor League Pitcher of the Year. It’s unclear how or when the Orioles plan on using Rodriguez, but MLB.com predicts that he will make his debut in the big leagues by the 2022 season.

Other top-ranked prospects include left-handed pitcher D.L. Hall, 23, ranked as the No. 72 MLB prospect and drafted 21st overall in 2017. He had a solid year in Bowie with a 3.13 ERA.

A rising star in the Orioles organization is shortstop and third baseman Gunnar Henderson, 20, ranked as the No. 74 MLB prospect. Henderson played so well that he split the year between three minor league levels. Still young and having a long way to go before being ready for the big leagues, Henderson will have to wait a year or two before seeing the field in Baltimore.

The most recent first round pick by the Orioles, outfielder Colton Cowser, wasted no time making a name for himself, being ranked as the No. 76 MLB prospect. Splitting the year between the Rookie League and Delmarva, Cowser had an on-base percentage of .490, batted .375, and collected a game-winning hit within his first week of playing for the Shorebirds. The 21-year-old still has a long way to go, having been drafted just this year. But with his all-around ability, he can be a key player for the Orioles in the near future.

A lesser-known prospect that had a breakout year is Kyle Stowers, who led all Orioles minor league players in home runs (27) and winning the Minor League Co-Player of the Year alongside Rutschman. The Stanford alumnus split the year between High A, AA, and AAA. With his impressive bat, he could be knocking on the door of the big leagues after another good year.

Fan reactions

Stephen Decatur alumnus Eric Cropper said he believes in the depth of these prospects from top to bottom.

“I think Grayson (Rodriguez) and Adley (Rutschman) are great but I love the depth and different guys we have,” said Cropper, a 2020 graduate and former player on the Seahawks baseball team. “I’m a huge believer in guys like Kyle Stowers. While we have the big name prospects we also have a lot of other great prospects who don’t get enough attention.”

An avid Orioles fan, Cropper admits that this season was a mess, but he did see some performances that he liked.

“We also got to see that Ryan Mountcastle is a special hitter and a solid defensive first basemen,” he said. “Cedric Mullins came out of nowhere, but now we have a great leadoff bat and defensive stalwart in center field.”

Junior Adam Gardner shows confidence in the Orioles top prospects but displays a concern for the organization’s pitching.

“While our prospects seem to be doing well in the minors, our lack of pitching depth in our farm system worries me,” he said. “Our only two highly rated pitchers are both doing well, but you need more than two pitchers to be successful.”

The Orioles main problem as far as talent goes has been with pitching, but Gardner also believes that the front office is partially to blame for their lack of signing quality players through free agency. “Will our front office spend money on players in free agency?” Gardner said. “Most likely not, meaning we need to improve our farm system a bit more.”

With the Orioles already having the No. 1-ranked farm system in baseball, according to MLB Pipeline, the organization will need to even further improve to compensate for the lack of talent at the major league level.

The future of the franchise

The current struggle is not a huge concern for some O’s fans, such as junior Owen Knerr. “Our prospects will be on another level these upcoming few years,” he said. “I think the Orioles could be a serious (World Series) contender in the near future.”

The upside to the Orioles’ dreadful season is that they will hold the No. 1 pick in the 2022 MLB Draft. The O’s front office hopefully will make the most of this opportunity to make their farm system even better, and Shorebirds fans will most likely get to see that top draft pick in person at Perdue Stadium in the near future.

Despite losing 110 games and being the worst team in baseball, the Orioles have the No. 1 prospect, the No. 1 pitching prospect, several other prospects playing above expectations, the No. 1 farm system, and the first overall pick in the upcoming draft. Now that is something for the Birdland faithful to get excited about.