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Previewing the Orioles minor league rosters: Norfolk and Bowie

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Adley Rutschman is coming to Bowie, Yusniel Díaz is finally coming to Norfolk, and there are a whole lot of starting pitchers to watch, too.

Atlanta Braves v Baltimore Orioles
Yusniel Diaz is finally getting to Triple-A to start the 2021 season.
Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

More than 18 months have gone by since the last minor league games were played. For a team like the Orioles whose future is pinned on being able to develop some prospects, this has been tough. How can a team develop minor leaguers when there are no minor leagues? They have tried to do their best with the alternate training site setups this year and last, but I think they will be glad when minor league action gets back under way tomorrow.

It is going to be the development of players in the high minors that will determine whether this rebuilding effort might reach a phase where there is some success at the MLB level at some point this season or next.

One bit of good news for the Orioles and their fans is that their Triple-A team in Norfolk and their Double-A team in Bowie have a number of interesting players worth keeping an eye on. Heading into the 2021 season, the Norfolk Tides have the most of MLB Pipeline’s Top 30 Orioles prospects on their break camp roster out of any of the team’s affiliates, with eight players.

That’s a real difference compared to what GM Mike Elias inherited two years ago, when almost none of the O’s top prospects had even reached the Triple-A level yet. There’s good quantity out of this top 30 list headed for Norfolk, but the quality is a bit less certain.

None of the top eight prospects in the system are ticketed for Norfolk, though Pipeline’s #7 O’s prospect, Dean Kremer, is already in the MLB rotation. Hopefully he doesn’t keep pitching in a way that gets him sent back down to Norfolk. These are not top 100 league-wide guys headed for the Triple-A club. They’re guys with some intriguing possibilities and also with some flaws they’ll have to minimize or overcome.

For the 2021 season, Triple-A and Double-A rosters will be set at 28 players. Triple-A can carry an extra five players to keep reserves available for the MLB club’s taxi squad. These break camp rosters won’t be official until tomorrow, but there’s 33 names for Norfolk and 28 names for Bowie, so it seems like they’re pretty close. Top 30 prospect names are in bold with their ranking on Pipeline’s list included.

Norfolk Tides (Triple-A)

Pitchers: Fernando Abad, Keegan Akin (#10), Manny Barreda, Cody Carroll, Claudio Custodio, Marcos Diplán, Thomas Eshelman, Jay Flaa, Conner Greene, Eric Hanhold, Mickey Jannis, Dusten Knight, Zac Lowther (#11), Isaac Mattson, Evan Phillips, Josh Rogers, Konnor Wade, Spenser Watkins, Alexander Wells (#20)

Catchers: Brett Cumberland, Taylor Davis, Austin Wynns

Infielders: Rylan Bannon (#23), Jahmai Jones (#19), Richie Martin, Mason McCoy, Seth Mejias-Brean, Tyler Nevin (#24), Ryan Ripken

Outfielders: Yusniel Díaz (#9), Ryan McKenna (#15), Chris Shaw, Stevie Wilkerson

That’s a lot of top prospects! You’re talking about a starting rotation that should have some real prospect interest for 60% of Norfolk’s games, and that’s the case even with the conspicuous (to me) absence of Mike Baumann, Pipeline’s #8 prospect, whose alternate training site experience last summer was cut short with a forearm strain.

It’s a bit concerning that it’s more than six months later and the O’s don’t have Baumann on the initial roster, but unless some bad news gets announced, the most likely explanation is the O’s are just going to be more careful in monitoring Baumann’s innings as he ramps up for the season. In the meantime, fans can scan box scores for Akin, Lowther, and Wells, and hope for the best. Mattson, a reliever from the Dylan Bundy trade, is also going to be a name to keep an eye on.

The infield also has three top prospects lined up. It is unlikely that all three of Bannon, Jones, and Nevin are ticketed for the next good Orioles team’s infield. Billy Ripken’s nephew is also on this roster after batting .242/.281/.331 as a professional.

Díaz is finally hitting the Triple-A level even though he was already at Double-A when the Orioles acquired him as the headline piece of the Manny Machado trade in July 2018. It is not Díaz’s or anyone else’s fault that there was no minor league action in 2020. But he’s 24 now and if he struggles out of the gate, he’s going to fall off of a lot of people’s roster wishcasting for the next good Orioles team. That’s true of any of the bolded names.

Bowie Baysox (Double-A)

Pitchers: Diogenes Almengo, Cameron Bishop, Kyle Bradish (#14), Tyler Erwin, Gray Fenter, DL Hall (#4), Brenan Hanifee, William Hayes, Tyler Joyner, Steven Klimek, David Lebron, Tim Naughton, Ofelky Peralta, Cody Sedlock, Kevin Smith (#18), Nick Vespi

Catchers: Chris Hudgins, Adley Rutschman (#1)

Infielders: Malquin Canelo, Patrick Dorrian, Juan Escarra, Cadyn Grenier, Alexis Torres, Terrin Vavra (#12), Willy Yahn

Outfielders: Jaylen Ferguson, Zach Jarrett, Robert Neustrom

Here is another affiliate where 60% of the starting rotation consists of real prospects. Hopefully it ends up being as fun to follow these box scores as this makes it look.

The Baysox are not so stocked with position player prospects, but when they’ve got the #1 guy in the whole system and a top 2-3 guy in all of baseball in Rutschman, that’s a lot of excitement on its own. If he lays waste to this league, it’ll be interesting to see how long the Orioles keep him here. It’s not like there are any other big name catching prospects at Norfolk, or any good-performing catchers in Baltimore.

Another wrinkle with the canceled 2020 minor league seasons is that three of these Bowie players - Bradish, Smith, and Vavra - will be playing their first games for Orioles affiliates. Bradish arrived in the Bundy trade, while Smith was part of the Miguel Castro swap and Vavra was in the Mychal Givens deal.

You may not have thought about Bradish very much. Before now, he’s been one guy in a big trade who hasn’t had a chance to play through no fault of his own. This may be your last chance to get on the hype train before it leaves the station. Here’s The Baltimore Sun’s Jon Meoli on where the O’s see Bradish right now:

Because of his velocity jump, the delivery work, and the pitch mix, Bradish is one of the top pitching prospects in the organization, at least in the Orioles’ estimation. In the offseason, the consensus within the player development department was that Bradish was in the tier below the Rodriguez/DL Hall duo atop their pitching ranks, but right with Mike Baumann atop the next level.

Here’s hoping this assessment turns out to be correct.

**

Being named on a top prospect list or not is not the final determination of any player’s talent. Prior to the 2019 season, no one would have paid much attention to John Means or Mike Yastrzemski from the Orioles system. Neither one was on any top prospect list.

The O’s gave Means a chance despite his not having existing prospect hype and he’s rewarded them with 7.5 bWAR to date. They did not give Yastrzemski a chance and he’s accumulated 6.1 bWAR with the Giants to date.

Those are outlier stories. It does not mean that there are two future productive big leaguers among the pile of non-top prospects on these rosters. It does mean that the Orioles should keep their eyes out for another emerging late-bloomer, just in case. Maybe it’ll be Sedlock, the former first round pick who’s had a rocky road of minor injuries in the pros. Maybe former Rule 5 guy Martin can find a second act.

A bunch of the ranked prospects are not going to make it. That’s just the way it goes. The Orioles do not know exactly which prospect will end up in which group, and fans certainly can’t know either. Even the best farm system in baseball is not going to have its entire 26-man roster three years from now composed entirely of players from its current prospect list.

The O’s will probably be lucky if half of the bold names from the Norfolk and Bowie rosters here are part of their next good MLB club. The better they play at the levels they’re assigned to start the 2021 season, the longer they’ll stay in the picture.