The question of who would end up being a part of the Orioles infield of the future has not had a clear answer at any point since the O’s veered into the rebuild project under Dan Duquette by trading Manny Machado and others in July three years ago. One name who’s been part of the hoped-for mix after he arrived as part of that same trade is Rylan Bannon.
This has been Mike Elias’s rebuild project, rather than Duquette’s, for a while now and we’re not much closer to having an answer to who will be in the infield of the future. At third base and shortstop are Maikel Franco and Freddy Galvis, each on one-year contracts with the possibility of being traded in July.
Who will claim the second base job out of Rio Ruiz, Pat Valaika, and Ramón Urías is still not settled even as the season has begun. A prospect who looks like a better long-term answer could storm up and replace any of them. Bannon has gotten significant playing time at both second base and third base as an Orioles minor leaguer. If things go right for him, he could wind up playing a similar role for the big league club.
Bannon is one of several prospects who has been bandied about as a player who might see his MLB debut with the Orioles in the 2021 season. Like many of the others, that’s as much a comment on Bannon’s age making this something of a “make or break” season for him as it is about any potential he’s shown. Bannon will be turning 25 later this month. The farther a prospect gets past that point without a debut on the horizon, the harder it is to keep justifying that he’s a prospect.
The crop of high-minors prospects whose climb to MLB was interrupted almost at the very top by the COVID-19 pandemic wiping out the 2020 minor league season does deserve some allowance for that fact, though. Bannon was surely headed for Triple-A Norfolk in 2020, and if he proved himself in games there, he might have gotten a shot in Baltimore if the year had proceeded as expected this time last February.
We all know how that turned out. It’s no fault of Bannon’s that the only thing he could do instead was get some work in, with no real games to be found, at the alternate site set up in Bowie. Minor league box scores and stat lines are not the greatest indicator of a prospect’s potential, but they’re often the best that fans can do on their own. In 2020, even that avenue was not available.
On one hand, the Orioles showed enough faith in Bannon that he was one of the six players about to gain Rule 5 draft eligibility who they added to the roster last November to keep them protected from that draft. On the other hand, the Orioles have spent the Elias era stockpiling all sorts of infielders by draft and trade, including most recently acquiring Jahmai Jones from the Angels for Alex Cobb, so it’s not like Bannon is viewed as automatic by the team.
The scouting-industrial complex mostly agrees that Bannon is one more guy from the system who might work out, or not. He was in the top 25 prospects of three of the four publications I used to make a composite top Orioles prospects list for the 2021 season, but ranked no higher than 21st on any list. Even in the greatest farm system in existence, there’s not going to be a ton of excitement for prospects 21-25. Those are players where you have to hope something goes right.
At Fangraphs, where Bannon was rated the highest of any publication, prospect writer Eric Longenhagen wrote of Bannon:
He isn’t especially graceful nor does he have great hands or actions, but Bannon plays an adequate, effort-based second and third base. More importantly, he can hit. ... He runs deep counts and walks a bunch, and he’s going to hit a ton of doubles and play a shift-aided spot on the infield. He struggles to lay off of breaking stuff below the zone but as long as that’s not a devastating issue, I think Bannon will be a big league role player.
Something like this makes Bannon sound more like a potential replacement for a Valaika or Urías-level player. That’s not going to sell many 2022 season ticket plans, but a bench role is a fine outcome for a former eighth round pick, and as far as the Orioles are concerned, it’s a fine outcome for the third- or fourth-best prospect acquired in a trade for a two-month rental of a star player.
Whether Bannon can even make it to that bench role is what 2021 will tell. He did not make the greatest impression with his spring training results. Over 15 games, Bannon batted .167/.423/.273, and that was against competition that, according to Baseball Reference, averaged between High-A and Double-A caliber. Bannon was getting his looks against road trip pitchers or late-inning spring pitchers, or both. Eight walks in 26 plate appearances is nice. The rest is not.
In past years, Elias said he does not put much weight into spring performance. However, a couple of roster decisions that the Orioles made seemed to factor in how they looked this spring. Presumed second baseman Yolmer Sánchez didn’t even make it onto the team after hitting poorly through spring training, and penciled-in rotation member Keegan Akin was dropped to the minors for his Grapefruit League looks.
Bannon made it up to the Triple-A level for the last 20 games of the 2019 season. His small sample size there was a good one, as he batted .317/.344/.549. If he hits like that in 2021, he will get his way to Baltimore, probably even before anyone is traded away in July. If he’s not hitting very well when June rolls around, Elias is going to have to start thinking about how attached he really is to a fringe prospect he didn’t even have a part in acquiring.
The pandemic is not done with minor league baseball yet. In a typical year, minor league seasons would be starting today. MLB decided for 2021 to delay the start of those seasons by a month. Part of that was to limit the number of people floating through the MLB camps. Another part was to give minor league teams another month for the public health situation to improve so that they might be able to have less limited crowds.
For Bannon and other players who are going to need to show their teams something in Triple-A games, that means we’re a month away from even starting to find out how the year will go for them. When Norfolk’s season gets under way, Bannon figures to be the every day third baseman. I’ll be glad if he can play his way to Baltimore by August.