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The Orioles farm system is all fans have right now and it may not even be that good yet

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The Athletic’s Keith Law recently rated the Orioles farm system as #24 in MLB. After the last two tough years, that’s hard to take.

MLB: Spring Training-Baltimore Orioles at Philadelphia Phillies
Keegan Akin is one of the guys who evaluators think may not live up to O’s fans hopes.
David Dermer-USA TODAY Sports

Since almost the day that the Orioles were rumored to have hired Mike Elias to be the general manager, it has been taken almost as an article of faith that the O’s might be able to pull off a rebuild on the same timetable as Elias’s previous team, the Astros, were able to do.

If you are one of the people who has pinned hopes on doing things “the Astros way” (except now hopefully without all of the bad stuff,) you’ve probably committed the hoped-for similarity to memory. Even I, a notorious pessimist, have been unable to avoid indulging this belief.

The Astros lost 100+ games in 2011, brought in the new regime where Elias was an assistant GM, then lost 100+ more games in both 2012 and 2013. They collected three straight #1 draft picks for their trouble, picked up a wild card berth in 2015 and won it all in 2017.

The Orioles have two out of the three 100+ loss seasons and it feels clear that 2020 will mark the third straight. They did not get another #1 pick for this June’s draft, but that’s not as important a part of the process anyway, given that the Astros blew two of their three #1 choices on complete busts. The O’s should still be able to draft a future great player at #2 this year.

Less clear is whether Elias inherited the kind of talent pool with the Orioles that his former boss did with the Astros, where future stars like Jose Altuve, Dallas Keuchel, and George Springer were already kicking around in the organization before Jeff Luhnow ever drafted, signed, or traded for anyone.

We can put on some orange-tinted shades and spin out a scenario where maybe the O’s are currently as well off. If there’s some kind of quality outfield to be seen from the plethora of players that includes Yusniel Diaz, Austin Hays, Anthony Santander, and even Ryan Mountcastle, that’s good. If Adley Rutschman is really all that, another plus.

On the pitching side of things, if Grayson Rodriguez and DL Hall are future rotation mainstays and John Means remains a decent pitcher and some combination of Keegan Akin, Michael Baumann, Zac Lowther, and others can sit at the back end of that rotation, that would be nice too. These are big ifs. None of them are guaranteed just because it would be a lot more fun to be an Orioles fan over the next few years if they are true.

Belief in the potential currently among the O’s farm and young players has not been exclusively confined to Orioles homers. Last summer, not long after the draft, the O’s farm was ranked as #8 in the game by Baseball America. At the time, they had five players rank among the top 100 prospects in the game. That was an exciting development.

The early months of 2020 have not been as kind to O’s prospect hype. Diaz and Mountcastle dropped out of the BA top 100 since last summer. Other evaluators were altogether less sunny about the potential currently on the O’s farm. The Athletic’s Keith Law released his MLB farm system rankings earlier in the week and the O’s were all the way down at 24th. Law on the placement:

It’s still early in the rebuild and the Orioles’ first draft under Mike Elias was fine, but not a blockbuster. There’s some back-end pitching depth here behind the big two starter prospects, DL Hall and Grayson Rodriguez, and a few position players in the low levels who have upside beyond what they’ve shown so far. This team needs more total bulk in the system and to get active in Latin America again.

It’s a running joke that “Keith Law hates (your favorite team).” Former GM Dan Duquette’s oft-deployed applause line that the same people who pick the O’s last in the AL East rated their farm system last too might as well have been aimed right at Law. Duquette also liked to respond to criticism of the present state of the farm system by citing its past successes on the MLB roster, which was simply never an honest response.

Any mainstream prospect evaluator has their misses, both guys they didn’t like who exceeded expectations and guys they did like who utterly failed to live up to them. No one bats 1.000. Yet dismissing Law’s assessment of the O’s system just because it conflicts with what we might want to believe would be unwise.

Nor is Law the only one who is less excited about some players than O’s fans are. Where most of the preseason top prospect lists have included three or four Orioles in the top 100, ESPN’s Kiley McDaniel’s top 100, released today, has just two, with DL Hall absent. It is genuinely disheartening to think of the O’s having just two top 100 prospects after all that O’s fans have experienced starting with a certain reliever being left in the bullpen in Toronto.

Perhaps McDaniel is more concerned than other lists have been with Hall having walked 54 batters in 80.2 innings for High-A Frederick last year. I’m also concerned, though some evaluators, including Law, have ranked Hall even higher than they have Rodriguez.

Another problem for the O’s system potentially helping fuel a big league improvement in two seasons is that maybe the starting pitching crop fans are hoping is headed to Norfolk and eventually Baltimore this season could still end up keeping company with Mike Wright and Tyler Wilson as guys who just weren’t good enough to stick.

You can get a sense of that possibility on the Top 40 Orioles prospects write-up from Eric Longenhagen at Fangraphs. Longenhagen likes both of the O’s top pitching prospects, with Rodriguez getting “a No. 2/3 starter ceiling” and Hall having “All-Star upside if he starts locating better.” Those sound good. Then there’s the lower-ranked guys, who except for Keegan Akin have yet to have a significant test against Triple-A or better hitters:

  • Keegan Akin “projects as an inefficient No. 4/5 starter who taxes the bullpen, or a four- or five-out reliever”
  • Michael Baumann should “work as a No. 4/5 starter”
  • Zac Lowther has “a Ryan Yarbrough sort of mix and his future role should be similar” (Yarbrough sometimes starts and sometimes pitches after the opener in TB)
  • Alexander Wells: “How good does one’s secondary stuff and command need to be to succeed in today’s game with an upper-80s fastball?”
  • Bruce Zimmermann is “a fully baked pitchability backend starter”

Maybe a year from now, enough of these guys will have had enough success that the idea of competing in 2022 will seem like a real possibility. Baseball America’s J.J. Cooper summed it up like this in explaining his publication’s #8 ranking for the O’s system last summer:

... you can pick guys and say I don’t know if it’s going to be that guy but there are enough different arms that I say, ‘OK, there are going to be several starters that come out of this group they have in the minors right now.’

Excitement will return to Baltimore baseball sooner if Cooper is more right about the potential in the O’s farm system, particularly in the rotation, than Law is.

There hasn’t been much to make anyone feel good about the Orioles at the MLB level for the last couple of seasons, so it’s understandable to focus on the prospects and look forward to a better day.

These collective assessments of the O’s system are a sobering reminder that for a number of minor league guys who you and I have gotten excited about since the O’s sank to the bottom of the American League, the answer to the question, “Is he good enough?” is going to be no.