One of the mantras of general manager Mike Elias since taking over the Orioles has been: “We have to elevate the level of talent in the entire organization.” One big part of that means bringing in better prospects and players through the draft, trades, international signings, and free agent signings. Another big part is that they have to make the players who are already here into the best players that they can be.
This week, I’ve been running through the starting rosters of the Triple-A Norfolk Tides, the Double-A Bowie Baysox, and the High-A Frederick Keys. Today comes the lowest of the full-season affiliates, the Delmarva Shorebirds. If there’s going to be a wave of talent hitting Baltimore three years down the road, that wave is going to start in Salisbury.
What’s interesting about the Shorebirds is that Elias must have thought they were doing something right down there even before he arrived. Last year’s Shorebirds manager, hitting coach, and pitching coach were all promoted higher up the minor league ladder. For as much as the Orioles player development program under Dan Duquette was understandably slagged, the new regime didn’t sweep the deck immediately.
That means a new set of coaches for this year’s Delmarva team. Manager Kyle Moore was the hitting coach in Frederick last year and now he’ll be running the whole show. So, what is Moore going to have to work with as the season begins?
Orioles top 30 prospects on Delmarva roster
- RHP Grayson Rodriguez (5)
- RHP Blaine Knight (10)
- 3B Jean Carlos Encarnacion (13)
- SS Cadyn Grenier (17)
- LHP Drew Rom (29)
- OF Robert Neustrom (30)
These are the Orioles first five draft picks from last year’s draft, with Encarnacion, the best-regarded prospect the O’s received in the Kevin Gausman deal from Atlanta, thrown into the mix. Last June’s draftees mostly started out their careers in short-season baseball and will be getting their first taste of a full minor league season here in 2019.
The Elias front office has no investment in these guys. If he thinks they’re bums, it’s not like he gets egg on his face for having drafted them or traded for them. He’s been complimentary but vague about the quality of prospects left behind by Duquette. Hopefully for the sake of the rebuild, the final Duquette draft wasn’t a bust.
Rodriguez was the Orioles top pick last year at #11 overall. They chose him with other pitchers still on the board who were believed to be slightly better prospects by the draft-industrial complex. But this scouting report from MLB Pipeline sounds nice:
With his 6-foot-5 frame and high-three-quarters slot, Rodriguez creates steep downhill plane with his pitches and already shows a propensity for getting ground balls. He’s a decent athlete who uses a controlled delivery that enables him to flood the zone with quality strikes. Those qualities could help Rodriguez move faster than the typical high school hurler, especially if he can make progress with his changeup and curveball.
Most people sound like future All-Stars in their MLB Pipeline scouting reports. We know that pitching development sucked under the Duquette regime. We might start to find out if Elias has a better program if his people are able to achieve some of that hoped-for progress on Rodriguez’s off-speed pitches.
Knight was drafted out of the University of Arkansas. When you read about “durability concerns” in a guy’s profile, that’s often a euphemism for “overweight.” In Knight’s case it’s the opposite: He’s listed at 6’3” and 165 lbs. He only pitched in four games for Aberdeen after being drafted last year. It’ll be interesting to see how the Elias regime plans to bring him along.
Encarnacion, who turned 21 in January, will be repeating the Low-A level this season. That’s never an exciting thing to hear about a prospect. With Encarnacion batting just .218/.240/.356 in 26 games after getting traded to the Orioles organization, the new guys might want to get more of a sense of what he’s capable of before pushing him higher. Maybe they want him to work on third base in a lower-pressure level, too: He had been a shortstop but is dropping down the defensive spectrum as his frame fills out.
Grenier was part of the College World Series-winning Oregon State Beavers last season before joining the Orioles. He’s unique among this group of prospects in that the O’s had assigned him to Delmarva last year, rather than a short-season affiliate. He batted just .216/.297/.333 after joining the pro ranks, which probably explains why he’s not on Frederick to start the season. ESPN’s Keith Law writes of him: “A plus defender at short, but not a 70 (star level), so he’ll have to make more contact going forward to profile as a regular.”
Rom, who is just 19, was plucked away from a University of Michigan commitment by the Orioles last June. He’s a crafty lefty waiting to happen, if he’s crafty enough. The phrase “needs to repeat his delivery” is in his scouting report. The guys around before seemed incapable of getting prospects to do that. Again, O’s fans must place their hope that this new crew has a better way of doing things.
The thing about having a top 30 prospects list is that even in a good system, the 30th-best prospect isn’t great, and the Orioles don’t have a good system. What that means for Robert Neustrom is that, at 22, he’s getting hit with the “old for the level” label by being in Low-A.
All Neustrom can do to shake it is hit well enough that the Orioles have to promote him to Frederick, then hit well enough that the Orioles have to promote him to Bowie, and then, if he does that, hit well enough for a promotion to Norfolk or Baltimore. When you put it that way, it sounds easy. I wish him, the rest, and any Delmarva player who didn’t rate a mention the best. Maybe there’s a surprise prospect sitting there who we don’t even know about yet.
If things are going well with this group, the college-drafted players will find their way up to Frederick around the middle of the minor league seasons. If things aren’t going well, then the group of 2018 draftees will find themselves starting to be displaced by the 2019 Orioles draft class.