Over the last few seasons, one trend for the Orioles has been the overall weakness of their farm system. As major gaps, particularly in the starting rotation, have opened, the team has not had internal answers. When it comes to the starting rotation, this is still true, but as prospect evaluators start releasing their rankings this week, the Orioles do find themselves with a few top prospects again.
On Monday, Baseball America released its top 100 prospects list with three Orioles minor leaguers among the bunch: Austin Hays at 21, Chance Sisco at 68, Ryan Mountcastle at 71. This is a big improvement compared to last year where they had no top 100 prospects, and the year before that, where they had only one.
This improvement doesn’t help the 2018 rotation at all, since all three are position players. Better to have these guys than not, though.
ESPN’s Keith Law also released some of his prospect rankings on Monday morning, unveiling numbers 51-100, with the rest to follow tomorrow. Two Orioles prospects appear there: Sisco at 53, Hays at 79. Unless it turns out he really likes Mountcastle, that’s probably the end of the appearance of Orioles players on his rankings this time around.
Whether taken individually or even in the aggregate, prospect rankings are not the final arbiter of whether a player can ever find any big league success. They are simply a snapshot of where things are right now. Top prospects can careen towards failure after showing promise. Players who never sniff anybody’s ranking anywhere can still have some value as big leaguers.
Orioles fans have experienced a little bit of both of these. For a lower-regarded player finding success, look no farther than Trey Mancini. The former eighth round pick was never anybody’s idea of a future star. He probably won’t be a star, but he showed enough in his rookie season that it’s clear he can offer something at the MLB level.
The Orioles would have been better off if they had recognized this potential from Mancini before re-signing Mark Trumbo. Prospect evaluation and development isn’t an easy game, even for teams that are good at it - and the Orioles have done little lately to show they’re any good at it.
On the failure end, that same Baseball America publication once ranked Brian Matusz as the #5 prospect in baseball. That one did not turn out so well. Being thought to have promise isn’t worth as much if, three years later, you have never realized any of the promise.
Talent that’s widely recognized is still worth having, though. If two out of three of Hays, Sisco, and Mountcastle are big league regulars in a couple of years, the O’s will have done well from this group.
Hays hitting his way to the top quarter of BA’s rankings is exciting. The third-round pick from 2016 ended up being the first player from that entire draft class to debut in MLB. There were 90 players drafted before him and he beat them all to the show. That’s good! It’s good when Law can write this about you as a positive:
He has a quick bat and very good plate coverage, showing plus power to his pull side but also some juice going the other way for at least some doubles potential.
Hays is much lower on Law’s rankings because Law notes that he’s going to need to “tighten up his approach at the plate.” The belief from Law is that Hays has had so much success that he hasn’t needed to be patient at the plate yet, which he will probably need to show more in MLB.
For those Orioles fans who don’t see the 2018 season heading anywhere good, the release of top 100 prospect rankings might have a different meaning. These are the sorts of players in other farm systems who it’s nice to dream the O’s could aim for if they trade Manny Machado, for instance.
That probably won’t happen if they stick to their “two controllable starting pitchers” demand, and it almost certainly won’t happen if the Orioles wait until July to see where they are and whether they want to deal Machado. But it is something to pass the time in this baseball-less winter where absolutely nothing is happening.
A week ago, MASN’s Roch Kubatko described the Diamondbacks as “the most aggressive suitor” for Machado. The lone player from that system to appear on BA’s ranking is pitcher Jon Duplantier at #73; Law puts him a little higher at #64.
That doesn’t mean that the Orioles should trade Machado for Duplantier, or that the Diamondbacks would trade him for Machado. But it’s probably who the Orioles are asking for, and until someone meets a price like that, it seems like nothing is going to happen on that front.
What would be more fun still is if the Orioles had some pitching prospects already, players that one might be able to imagine helping in a 2018 rotation that currently has two pitchers. But then, if that was the case, there wouldn’t be any talk of trading Machado at all, because the 2018 season wouldn’t feel so hopeless.
Alas, the dream of the Orioles finding or developing a top pitching prospect will have to wait another year. Although the O’s have no one worth talking about who spent time at Bowie or Norfolk last year, there are some pitchers with potential in the low minors.
That includes former first round pick Hunter Harvey, a top 100 guy before he started getting hurt, who may, if you believe what the Orioles seem to believe about him, finally be able to start his climb up the minor league ladder this season.
A final note about this year’s Baseball America top 100. The top six prospects in MLB were all signed as international amateur players. These are the players the Orioles essentially refuse to even attempt to sign. They will continue to pay a price for as long as they hold that stance. At least for 2018, they have a few top 100 prospects again, and that’s not nothing.