It is a good time to be an Orioles minor leaguer. The organization is experiencing a massive rebuild focused on player development. Meanwhile, the major league roster is so barren of talent that it’s easy enough for just about any youngster down on the farm to imagine themselves in Baltimore regardless of which position they play.
But that does not mean that every prospect is created equal. Each of them is at a unique point in their respective careers. Some face oodles of internal competition. Others have to rebound from disappointing performances in recent years.
General manager Mike Elias is on a mission to continue adding young talent to the club through international signings and high draft picks. The O’s farm system is on the upswing, and some prospects will be under significant pressure to perform in 2020. Here are a few to keep an eye on:
C Adley Rutschman (O’s #1 prospect, according to MLB Pipeline)
When you are one of the top prospects in all of baseball pressure is just part of the package. The hopes of many Orioles fans are hanging on Rutschman’s bat. He is the face of the future. He is the top catching prospect in the sport. He will be part of big league spring training. Every little thing he does will be scrutinized. And he is still getting adjusted to being a professional. That’s a lot for a 21-year-old to handle, no matter how talented he might be.
1B Ryan Mountcastle (#4)
Barring injury or any other unforeseen circumstance, this is the year that Mountcastle will be making his MLB debut. When that debut will occur remains up in the air. It is understood that the Orioles would like for Mountcastle to improve both his 4.3% walk rate and 23.5% strikeout rate following a .312/.344/.527 season a year ago. Additionally, they would like to find his defensive home. That’s easier said than done, and all of those things likely have Mountcastle destined for at least a few weeks back Norfolk to begin 2020.
OF Austin Hays (#6)
Hays is going to be the Orioles center fielder on Opening Day. He impressed during his 21-game cameo with the Birds to finish last year, hitting .309/.373/.574 and making a few eye-popping defensive plays in the process. The only other player currently in the organization that could push him is Cedric Mullins, but even that feels far-fetched. All eyes will be on Hays, which could be a lot of pressure for a player that has battled through injuries and uneven play the last two years.
LHP Keegan Akin (#11)
The Orioles need two more starters behind John Means, Alex Cobb and Asher Wojciechowski. Akin is the best internal candidate to fill one of those slots, but that does not mean he is without risk. The southpaw did achieve a 10.50 K/9 rate last year, but he also posted a 5.16 xFIP and walked hitters at a 4.89 BB/9 rate. Should Akin falter, he could quickly become a frequent rider of the Norfolk shuttle rather than a rotation fixture.
OF Ryan McKenna (#13)
McKenna repeated Double-A Bowie last year after struggling (96 wRC+) over 60 games in 2018. He improved to a 104 wRC+, adding nearly 30 points to his slugging percentage (.338 vs. .365) during a 135-game stint in 2019. Those numbers were enough to get McKenna onto the 40-man roster this offseason, but they aren’t overly impressive. McKenna has plenty of athleticism, but will need to tap into a bit more power in 2020.
SS Cadyn Grenier (#22)
The 2018 draft pick has always been a glove-first prospect, and he is widely expected to stick at shortstop long term. That alleviates a bit of pressure on his bat, but his introduction to High-A Frederick was nonetheless disappointing. He batted .208/.337/.325 with a 33.7 percent strikeout rate in 24 games as a member of the Keys. Adam Hall is breathing down his neck from Delmarva a level below. Mason McCoy is more proven up in Bowie. And that doesn’t even mention the likes of Joey Ortiz or Gunnar Henderson, two other shortstops that could make a big splash in 2020.
Competition breeds success. Gone are the days where the Orioles must pray that every single one of their valuable prospects reaches their potential. Instead, they are stockpiling young talent and giving themselves better odds at developing a well-rounded and deep major league squad. Room for improvement remains, of course, and if their high-profile prospects don’t develop it will still be a shock to the club, but the O’s are in a better position than they were at this time one year ago. That makes life more difficult for the players in the Orioles organization, but should provide fans with a more entertaining team to watch in the future.