The 2020 season won’t soon be forgotten. There is something about playing a shortened schedule with altered rules and empty stadiums in the midst of a pandemic that tends to stick in people’s minds. Beyond that, however, this past summer may go down in Baltimore as the year that Ryan Mountcastle, Dean Kremer and Keegan Akin arrived on the major league scene.
Orioles fans should be excited about that trio. They each made positive first impressions and would seem set to be part of the organization’s next competitive roster. But it can’t stop there. The Orioles minor league system will need to produce even more promising youngsters in subsequent seasons in order to open and then maintain that possible window of contention.
Ultimately, that should lead to starring roles for the likes of Adley Rutschman, Grayson Rodriguez, D.L Hall and Heston Kjerstad. But the cancellation of the 2020 minor league season means that none of the team’s top prospects have played above A-ball just yet. That could push their big league debuts to 2022 or beyond.
But that doesn’t mean the Orioles will go without a youth movement in 2021. It may just look a little different.
We will know more about what sort of prospects we can expect in Baltimore once Mike Elias sets the team’s 40-man roster ahead of the November 20th deadline to protect players from the Rule 5 draft. Any young player that makes it will have a much better chance to see big league time in 2021.
Here are the names that are most likely make their way to Baltimore for the first time next season:
Yusniel Diaz is likely to be the most familiar name we see. The centerpiece of the 2018 trade that sent Manny Machado to the Dodgers has struggled with injuries and uneven play since joining the Orioles. But he remains an intriguing talent that could be starting in one of the team’s corner outfield spots by year’s end. He will need to be protected from the Rule 5 draft first.
Ryan McKenna was one of the players shielded from the Rule 5 draft a year ago. The now-23-year-old burst onto the prospect radar with a torrid 2018 in high-A Frederick (.377/.467/.556). But his bat has gone cold since then, including this past spring training when he went 2-for-14. Regardless of his above-average speed and fielding ability, McKenna will need to turn his bat around if he is going to earn at-bats in the Orioles competitive outfield.
Tyler Nevin is a new face for Orioles fans. He was one piece of the return the team acquired from the Colorado Rockies in exchange for Mychal Givens back in August, and he already finds himself on the 40-man roster. While most of his time in the minors has been spent at first base, Nevin is also familiar with third base and both corner outfield positions. He batted .251/.345/.399 over 130 games for the Rockies’ Double-A affiliate in 2019. Those aren’t major league first baseman numbers, but could be just fine for a utility player with some power upside.
Michael Baumann is an intriguing pitcher that has seen his stock continually rise ever since the Elias regime took charge. The right-handed enjoyed a significant leap forward in his strikeout numbers in 2019, from 7.3 K/9 to 10.31 K/9. He also tossed a no-hitter that July. Now, he is on the door step of the big leagues. He spent 2020 at the team’s alternative camp in Bowie, where an elbow injury prematurely ended his workouts. However, it is not considered serious at this point.
Zac Lowther has cruised through the Orioles minor league system with little resistance. He is yet to post an ERA higher than 2.55 or an opponent’s batting average north of .220. On top of that, he owns a 10.5 K/9 rate for his minor league career. It remains to be seen if his variety of low velocity/high spin can translate to major league success, but he has done nothing to dissuade the O’s from finding out.
Alex Wells doesn’t walk opposing hitters. Over 475 career minor league innings, the Australian lefty has issued just 76 free passes. His control allows him to get by with otherwise middling stuff. The 23-year-old is likely lower in the pecking order than some of his pitching peers, but he could still be worth a 40-man roster spot for a team that always needs more arms.
Rylan Bannon is another player that the O’s added in the Machado deal. The former 8th-round pick packs decent pop (120 wRC+ in 2019) into a 5-for-7 frame. He will need to be added to the 40-man roster first, but it’s not hard to see where a player with experience at both second and third base could fit on a club with thin infield depth.
The Orioles aren’t going to get all seven of the names mentioned here to the big leagues in 2021. The three with the best chance to reach the main stage are Diaz, Lowther and Baumann given their pedigree, position and likelihood of making it to the 40-man roster.
This year’s class of O’s prospects might be just a notch below what the team got from the trio of Mountcastle, Kremer and Akin in terms of perceived value, but that doesn’t mean the ultimate outcome will be any less.
One thing is for sure, this revolving door of impressive young players emerging from the Orioles farm system is exciting and hopefully a harbinger of positive things to come for the organization.