The day has arrived, at long last. Minor league baseball is back in action tonight for the first time in two years. And have we ever missed it.
The long-awaited return comes under different circumstances than we last saw in 2019. Minor League Baseball has been absorbed under Major League Baseball’s umbrella, and dozens of previous affiliates around the minors have been cut — including the Birds’ longtime High-A affiliate, Frederick, which is now part of the MLB Draft League. Aberdeen, formerly the Orioles’ short-season affiliate, has been promoted to High-A to replace the Keys. And for this season, at least, minor league schedules have been rejiggered to reduce travel; all series will be six-game series played from Tuesday through Sunday, with a universal off day on Mondays.
But still: minor league baseball is back in our lives, and the O’s affiliates will be fascinating to track. Mark Brown previewed Triple-A Norfolk and Double-A Bowie yesterday, but the two lower level teams, Aberdeen and Low-A Delmarva, will also bring plenty of intrigue in 2021. Most notably, they’re the two clubs that are built most thoroughly in Mike Elias’ image, so to speak. Nearly every member of each team was acquired by the current Orioles GM; only nine of the 30 players on Aberdeen’s opening roster were in the organization before Elias arrived in November 2018, and just five of 30 at Delmarva.
The group, of course, includes some of the Orioles’ most prominent prospects as rated by MLB Pipeline. Top 30 prospect names are in bold with their ranking on Pipeline’s list included.
Aberdeen Ironbirds (High-A)
PITCHERS: Felix Bautista, Kyle Brnovich, Garrett Farmer, Connor Gillispie, Blaine Knight, Dallas Litscher, Easton Lucas, Kevin Magee, Clayton McGinness, Morgan McSweeney, Jonathan Pendergast, Grayson Rodriguez (#2), Drew Rom (#28), Nick Roth, Garrett Stallings (#29), Kade Strowd, Ryan Wilson
CATCHERS: Christopher Burgess, Maverick Handley, Cody Roberts
INFIELDERS: Andrew Daschbach, AJ Graffanino, Adam Hall (#13), Andrew Martinez, Joey Ortiz, Toby Welk
OUTFIELDERS: Shayne Fontana, Johnny Rizer, Kyle Stowers (#25), Zach Watson
Aberdeen’s two-level jump in the minor league hierarchy brings a reunion tour with a bunch of familiar prospects. More than half the players on this roster previously played for the Ironbirds when they were a short-season affiliate, so they’re plenty familiar with Ripken Stadium and the city of Aberdeen. Manager Kyle Moore, too, is returning to the club he helmed in 2018 before shifting to Delmarva in 2019.
For all the talk of this being a mainly Elias-built team, though, the standout name on this roster is a holdover from the Dan Duquette era, the Birds’ best pitching prospect, Rodriguez. Duquette left a fine parting gift in his final draft for the Orioles, selecting Rodriguez with the Orioles’ top pick (No. 11 overall) in 2018. The 21-year-old has just one full pro season under his belt, but it was a dominant 2019 campaign at Delmarva, where he went 10-4 with a 2.68 ERA and 12.4 strikeouts per nine in 20 starts, looking every bit like a future ace.
Hall, a fellow 21-year-old, is a second rounder from the 2017 draft who has opened eyes with his speed (56 steals in 70 attempts in three pro seasons) and on-base skills (.382 OBP). He’s the primary guy to watch in the Aberdeen infield, but the group also includes three members of Elias’ inaugural draft class in 2019: Ortiz (fourth round), Daschbach (11th round) and Welk (21st round), the last of whom erupted for a .344/.397/.500 batting line in 48 games in his last stint at Aberdeen in 2019. They’re joined by Graffanino (son of former big leaguer Tony Graffanino), whom the O’s acquired in last year’s Tommy Milone trade with Atlanta.
Elias’ second and third round picks from that 2019 draft, Stowers and Watson, will make up two-thirds of the Ironbirds’ outfield. Stowers, a Stanford alum, is the more highly regarded of the two, and ranks as high as 12th in the system by FanGraphs’ Eric Longenhagen, who compares his forceful swing to Cody Bellinger’s. There’s also Rizer, a seventh-round pick, who batted .305 with a .911 OPS at Aberdeen in 2019.
While Rodriguez will attract most of the attention on the pitching staff, the 21-year-old lefty Rom hopes to form a potent 1-2 punch with him as he did in Delmarva in 2019. Rom, a 2018 fourth rounder, racked up 122 strikeouts in 95.1 innings and posted a 2.93 ERA while being two years young for the level. Elsewhere on the pitching staff we’ll find Elias trade acquisitions Stallings (Jose Iglesias trade), Brnovich (Dylan Bundy trade), and Lucas (Jonathan Villar salary dump—er, trade), as well as former 2018 third rounder Knight, who’s running out of time to impress the new regime after a disastrous 2019 at Frederick.
Delmarva Shorebirds (Low-A)
PITCHERS: Ryan Conroy, Shane Davis, Noah Denoyer, Jensen Elliott, Ignacio Feliz, Thomas Girard, Jake Lyons, Kyle Martin, Griffin McLarty, Xavier Moore, Zachary Peek, Shelton Perkins, Jack Prizina, Leonardo Rodriguez, Houston Roth, Adam Stauffer, Ryan Watson, Brandon Young
CATCHERS: Jordan Cannon, Ramon Rodriguez
INFIELDERS: Gunnar Henderson (#5), Darell Hernaiz (#30), J.D. Mundy, Anthony Servideo (#26), Jordan Westburg (#6)
OUTFIELDERS: Jean Carlos Encarnacion, Dylan Harris, Hudson Haskin (#16), Trevor Kehe, Doran Turchin
When last we saw the Shorebirds, they had just completed the most spectacular campaign in franchise history, posting a stunning 90-48 regular season record before losing to Hickory in the South Atlantic semifinals. Obviously, that has no bearing on 2021; nearly all of the players from that 2019 club have since moved up the ladder to other affiliates. Still, it’ll be interesting to see if Delmarva can put together another special season with an all-new batch of players.
They’ve certainly got a good foundation with that infield. Look at that collection of talent! Four of the Orioles’ top 30 prospects make up that unit, including their top two infield prospects overall, Henderson and Westburg. The two have a lot of similarities — both are about 6’3 and 200 pounds, boasting impressive power potential and plus arms in the field. Both were high draft picks, with Henderson going No. 42 overall in 2019 and Westburg No. 30 in 2020. But Henderson, a prep pick, is more than two years younger than Westburg, who played three years at Mississippi State.
Don’t sleep on Servideo and Hernaiz, the former a third-rounder in 2020 and the latter a fifth-rounder in 2019. Servideo is an excellent defender who is a work in progress at the plate, while Hernaiz has a lot of tools but none that especially stand out as yet. Both have a baseball pedigree, as Servideo is the grandson of former Orioles Rookie of the Year Curt Blefary while Hernaiz’s father, Juan, played eight years in the minors.
All four players are primarily shortstops. Henderson and Hernaiz haven’t played any position but short in their brief pro careers, Westburg was exclusively a shortstop his last two years in college, and Servideo played a bunch of positions but settled in at short in his final year at Mississippi. It’ll be interesting to see how Dave Anderson, in his first year actually managing the Shorebirds after being named to the job in Nov. 2019, finds playing time for his many talented infielders.
The only other top-30 prospect on Delmarva’s roster is Haskin, their 2020 second-rounder, an athletic outfielder with a good batting eye. Between Westburg, Haskin, and Servideo, three of the Orioles’ top four draft picks last season will start with Delmarva. The notable exception is second overall pick Heston Kjerstad, who is working his way back from myocarditis.
Elsewhere on the roster, remember JC Encarnacion? He was supposedly the highest upside prospect in the Kevin Gausman/Darren O’Day trade package from the Braves in 2018. Now he’s repeating Delmarva after batting just .240 with a .648 OPS for the Shorebirds in 2019. Meanwhile, the pitching staff doesn’t have many standouts as yet, which isn’t surprising based on Elias’ recent draft strategy, in which he’s targeted up-the-middle position players in the first several rounds and waited until later to pick pitchers. McLarty was the first pitcher the O’s selected in the 2019 draft, and it didn’t happen until the eighth round. Still, a few of these guys could well pitch themselves into the prospect spotlight this year.
Today’s scheduled games:
- Norfolk: at Jacksonville, 7:05 PM. Starter: Conner Greene
- Bowie: at Altoona, 6:00 PM. Starter: DL Hall
- Aberdeen: at Wilmington, 7:05 PM. Starter: TBD (almost certainly Grayson Rodriguez)
- Delmarva: vs. Salem, 7:05 PM. Starter: TBD