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Orioles prospect season in review: The unranked prospects on the rise

The Orioles’ top-ranked farm system is more stacked than it’s been in years, enough that several promising prospects didn’t crack MLB Pipeline’s top 30.

Toronto Blue Jays v Baltimore Orioles
Some savvy Mike Elias trades have added several intriguing arms to the organization.
Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

Guys. Have you heard the news? The Baltimore Orioles have the best farm system in baseball.

Don’t take my word for it. FanGraphs and MLB Pipeline agree — the Birds’ collection of young talent is second to none among all MLB organizations. My goodness, is that music to the ears of Orioles fans, who have been waiting a long time for a team to get excited about at the major league level. Help is very much on the way.

Long gone are the threadbare days of the O’s farm system, when fans would have to squint at the likes of Chris Smith or Keith Reed or other questionable prospects and hope, “Maybe they could turn into something?” No. It was never going to happen. But now take a gander at Pipeline’s top 30 and you’ll find it loaded with actual, legitimate prospects, most of whom we’ll be profiling at Camden Chat over the next few weeks. They won’t all pan out, of course, but there’s safety in numbers. With this many young players with potential, the Orioles can overcome a few washouts and keep the talent pipeline churning to the majors. At least that’s the idea.

There’s so much talent, in fact, that a few prospects who might have been part of other teams’ top 30 didn’t make the cut for the Orioles. You might have your own favorite under-the-radar guy (say, Robert Neustrom, who hit capably in the upper levels of the minors, or Zach Watson, the 2019 third-round pick who blasted 21 homers this season) but for this piece we’ll focus on three pitchers, all acquired in Mike Elias trades — and all from the same team. None is close to making his MLB debut, but all three are making a bid to rocket up the Orioles’ prospect rankings.

So, thank you, Los Angeles Angels, for Kyle Brnovich, Zach Peek, and Jean Pinto.

Each of the trio enjoyed a standout debut season in the O’s minors this year. For Brnovich and Peek, this was their second year in the Orioles’ organization, but the pandemic-scuttled 2020 minor league season pushed their professional debuts back a year. The two right-handers, both now 23 years old, were drafted two rounds apart by the Angels in the 2019 draft. Peek was plucked from Winthrop in the sixth round and Brnovich from Elon University in the eighth. The Angels opted not to assign either to an affiliate after they signed that year.

Despite the long hiatus, both hurlers hit the ground running this season. Peek began at Low-A Delmarva and Brnovich at High-A Aberdeen. By midseason, each had earned a promotion.

Brnovich’s first pro game was an eye opener: five scoreless innings, one hit (on a bunt), and six strikeouts May 6, with Brnovich throwing 46 of 58 pitches for strikes. It was an auspicious beginning to his two-month Aberdeen career. In eight starts for the IronBirds, Brnovich never allowed more than three earned runs in any outing and racked up four or more strikeouts seven times, capped by a brilliant six-inning, 13-strikeout performance against Hickory on June 6. After another scoreless outing June 18, Brnovich earned a call-up to Double-A Bowie.

A month later, Peek arrived in Aberdeen, coming off a similarly strong debut in Delmarva. As part of the Shorebirds’ pitcher piggybacking rotation, Peek alternated between starting and working bulk relief. Only once did he pitch as many as five innings — a one-hit, scoreless start June 22 — but he never failed to rack up the strikeouts. Peek fanned at least three batters in all 13 outings for Delmarva, giving him 64 Ks in 45.1 innings before advancing to the next level.

Peek and Brnovich’s game plans aren’t too complicated — they’re going to try to strike you out. It’s something they’ve excelled at since their college days, when Peek led the Big South in strikeouts in both 2018 and 2019, while Brnovich finished second all-time in strikeouts in the Colonial Athletic Association, behind only Justin Verlander.

A midseason promotion can be a learning adjustment, but both pitchers adapted well, particularly Peek. In 10 games at High-A, he maintained his strikeout rate and hit rate from Delmarva, and even slashed his walk rate (from 4.2 to 2.8) and his ERA (from 4.37 to 3.22). He collected seven games of six or more strikeouts, and finished his excellent season’s work with five shutout innings Sept. 17. Between the two levels, Peek amassed an outstanding 12.2 strikeouts per nine innings.

Brnovich, meanwhile, held serve at Bowie, where he was nearly two years younger than the average Double-A player. He was more hittable — with his hit rate jumping to 8.0 per nine innings after his impeccable 4.7 mark at Aberdeen — and he posted a 3.86 ERA in 15 games compared to 2.36 at High-A. But he commanded the strike zone, averaging five strikeouts for every walk.

Considering how smoothly Brnovich and Peek are climbing through the system, it’s amazing that Elias got both of them — along with #8 prospect Kyle Bradish and reliever Isaac Mattson, who made his MLB debut this year — in one fell swoop, a four-player package for Dylan Bundy in a Dec. 2019 trade. Bundy pitched well for the Angels in the truncated 2020 season, but collapsed to a 6.06 ERA this year. Trades like that might explain why Billy Eppler lost his GM job for Los Angeles a year ago.

Undaunted, Eppler’s replacement with the Angels, Perry Minasian, also tried his luck trading with Elias. He, too, ended up on the wrong side of the deal. On Dec. 2, 2020, the Angels acquired Jose Iglesias from the Orioles for Pinto and Garrett Stallings.

Stallings was thought to be the better prospect of the two, initially ranking #26 in the O’s system before falling out of the top 30 this year. But it’s Pinto, a 2019 international signing, who’s been the revelation. The 20-year-old righty, whose only pro experience before this year consisted of three games in the 2019 Dominican Summer League, didn’t begin his 2021 season until the end of June, when he started the opener of the Florida Complex League season for Orioles Black.

It took only five outings — in which he compiled a 1.80 ERA, 0.750 WHIP, and 28 strikeouts to four walks — for Pinto to make his way out of Florida and up to Delmarva, where he continued his success. In nine games, he averaged less than one baserunner per inning — with a tidy 0.900 WHIP — and posted a 2.51 ERA with 10.8 strikeouts per nine. He even had four quality starts in which he worked six innings, a rare feat in an Orioles system that tended to play it conservatively with prospects’ pitch counts this year. Pinto was named the Low-A East Pitcher of the Month for August.

He’s a strike thrower, he’s stingy with base hits, and he dominated Low-A hitters while being about two years young for the level. There’s a lot to like with Pinto. As for Iglesias? The Angels released him in September after the shortstop scuffled to a .670 OPS.

Maybe someday the Angels will learn to stop making trades with the Orioles. In the meantime, the O’s are more than happy to keep stockpiling their talented young arms.

Previous 2021 Orioles prospect reviews: Ryan McKenna, Alexander Wells

Tomorrow: Rylan Bannon and Yusniel Díaz