There is no hope for success of the Orioles rebuilding project until a sufficient number of sufficiently talented players bubble up from the farm system to the MLB club. A lot about the 2021 season could make any fan miserable about the state of the big league O’s. At the same time, there have been a lot of exciting developments in the minors to date. Perhaps none of these is more encouraging than the growth of 2018 first round pick Grayson Rodriguez under the O’s Mike Elias-era pitching philosophy.
The idea of a better Orioles team in the not-too-distant future is a lot easier to imagine thanks to the success of Rodriguez. Just think of how dismal things would feel with the state of the farm right now if the O’s had swung and missed with the #11 pick in the 2018 draft. No, don’t think about it too much. No need to bum yourself out.
This was not a draft where the Orioles had a clear shot at a consensus top talent. They were not bad enough in the 2017 season to get themselves into the top five, or even the top ten. Stringing our hopes along only to totally collapse to a 75-87 record in September landed them at #11.
The draft pool was fortified by the presence of a competitive balance in Round A, between the first and second rounds, that the Orioles thankfully did not trade away. The pool was weakened by flushing away the second round pick and its attendant slot value to sign Alex Cobb. The fact that a front office looked at a roster that was about to go 47-115 and thought, “We need to sign Cobb as the difference-maker” still blows my mind. At least everyone involved was without a job by season’s end.
There were three high school pitchers on MLB Pipeline’s top draft prospects list for 2018. One of these, Carter Stewart, was drafted before the O’s picked at #11; he eventually eschewed signing with Atlanta to play in Japan. Two others, #4 Matthew Liberatore and #9 Cole Winn, were on the board. A college pitcher, Brady Singer, was the #2 prospect and also available when the O’s picked at #11.
The Orioles reached down to find the #22 prospect on that list: Rodriguez. He was lower than that on other lists, including Fangraphs, where he ranked #36. This did not turn out to be some sort of money-saving pick. Rodriguez signed for just about pick #11 slot value. Liberatore and Winn got less than that when they signed.
In the moment, this was not a popular decision among the Camden Chat commenting crowd. Infamous draft bust Matt Hobgood’s name was invoked more than once. One Orioles beat writer at The Baltimore Sun actually tweeted something like, “Let’s Google him together,” in the aftermath of the pick, as if this was not a name that a person who had thoroughly prepared for the draft should have already known.
By at least one publication’s mid-2021 season prospect ranking (Baseball America), Rodriguez is now the top pitching prospect in all of baseball. The Duquette team looks shrewd for recognizing his talent, picking him, and signing him before the prospect writing world caught up to the talent, and thankfully it’s the Elias people who are getting him to polish his skills as a professional.
The hype train for Rodriguez has gone uninterrupted by last year’s canceled minor league season. He spent the whole 2019 season at Low-A Delmarva, where he struck out 129 batters in 94 innings, with a 2.68 ERA and 0.989 WHIP for the season. The O’s assigned him to High-A to start 2021, which he dominated so thoroughly they moved him up to Double-A Bowie after five starts.
Between these two levels in 2021, Rodriguez has struck out 76 batters, and walked only 12, in 48 innings. That’s added up to a combined 1.69 ERA and 0.750 WHIP. He throws so hard that people started bringing empty gas cans to his home starts at Bowie. At Pipeline, where Rodriguez is currently the #19 prospect in baseball, this description makes it hard not to be excited:
Rodriguez’s four-pitch mix continues to get sharper as he progresses. He’s now up to 99 mph with his fastball, averaging around 95 mph over the summer, and he throws it with good downhill plane and heavy sink. The Orioles now think his changeup might be his best secondary offering, thrown in the low 80s with more proper spin for a change than he’d had previously, looking like a fastball coming out of his hand before it disappears, diving and running under the barrel. His slider, thrown around 82 mph, is still a plus out pitch and he folds in an upper-70s curveball effectively as well.
Excuse me if I swoon.
The Orioles were right to ignore the lists for their top pick, but they might have been better off heeding them for pick #37, when they grabbed Oregon State infielder Cadyn Grenier. In that same Pipeline prospect ranking, he was seen as the #68 talent. Fangraphs put him at #61. Perhaps they believed in his bat more than the consensus, or they really thought his glove was so good that it wouldn’t matter.
Grenier came into the 2021 season hitting .236/.339/.369 as a professional. That’s just not going to do much to move a guy up the ladder. He’s dropped out of MLB Pipeline’s Orioles top 30 entirely.
Still, the Orioles assigned him to Double-A Bowie this season, where he’s improved enough to be hitting .276/.361/.410 through 42 games. That’s not Adley Rutschman territory, especially since, at 24, Grenier is old for this level, but it’s more interesting than what I thought three months ago that Grenier would be.
The O’s didn’t have Grenier at either the Bowie alternate site last year, or even fall instructional league. I figured they’d given up on him. Maybe they even had and he showed up having made improvements. I still don’t bet on him turning into anything, but he’s trying to keep himself in the picture. Grenier will be Rule 5 draft eligible this winter. It’ll be interesting to see if the O’s think he’s worth putting on the 40-man roster.
The Orioles went about half a million dollars over their third round pick slot value to sign Knight, a pitcher from the University of Arkansas. The ranking crowd liked this overslot pick. Pipeline rated Knight the #47 prospect in the class. At Fangraphs, he was #58. That’s good value to get at pick #87.
The next spring, the Orioles assigned Knight to Low-A Delmarva, where he was so dominant that he was moved up to High-A within a handful of starts. Things fell apart from there, and Knight ended the season having allowed a 6.13 ERA at that level. That was Knight’s age 23 season. When a guy stumbles there at 23, that’s probably that. He only struck out 53 batters in 86.2 innings, and his command faltered too, with 39 walks.
A global pandemic came along. For 18 months or so, that last season’s struggle was the most recent thought any O’s fan had of Knight. The O’s sent Knight back to High-A (now in Aberdeen for 2021 rather than its prior home of Frederick) and saw enough after four starts to move him up to Bowie, where he’s pitched in four games to date with a WHIP of exactly 1.000. In that small sample, he’s striking out nearly a batter per inning and has gotten back down to a 2.8 BB/9.
Is he a guy again? Well, he’s 25, so he’s old for the level. This doesn’t mean he’s automatically on MLB trajectory. Yet much like Grenier, I’d written him off entirely and now he’s showed up in 2021 to be at least interesting enough to pay attention to. He’s also got Rule 5 draft eligibility coming up this winter.
In addition to Knight, the O’s went about $125,000 over slot value in the fourth round when they drafted Rom, a lefty pitcher from the Kentucky high school ranks. He debuted in the rookie-level Gulf Coast League in 2018 (now called the Florida Complex League), allowing just an 0.848 WHIP over ten games. That carried into Delmarva in 2019 where he struck out 122 batters in 95.1 innings, though his BB/9 increased from 1.8 to 3.1.
Rom’s mild prospect heat to date despite that successful performance is because he exists in the “crafty lefty” velocity band, generally topping out at 92 miles per hour with an average velo below that. Rom is only now the age of this year’s college juniors, so the possibility is there to maybe add velo, but if not, the scouting world sees him as something of a backend starter candidate.
A lot more people are labeled as backend starters as prospects than are actually capable of pitching in an MLB rotation. He is the kind of pitcher who will probably have to continually prove that he can handle each level and no one will really believe he’ll handle the next one until he does.
High-A Aberdeen is going well for Rom so far on a rate basis, as he’s struck out 47 batters in 42.2 innings and is maintaining a K/BB rate above 5. You have to like that. His 3.59 ERA to date is fine but certainly not dominant enough to push him quickly to Bowie. Getting a Rom-type prospect in the fourth round was a good find. Whether he can develop beyond this is to be determined.
Scouring every Orioles affiliate’s roster will turn up a few more names from this 2018 draft class, but for the most part there’s no one else performing strongly at an age-appropriate level. I’ve got a small torch burning for 18th round pick Jake Zebron, because he is a Marylander, but he’s only reached Delmarva this year and has five walks in his first six Low-A innings.
This is not looking like a draft class like in 2015 where the Orioles, despite not making their first pick until #25 and despite not signing their second round pick, managed to find seven future big leaguers. Still, if Rodriguez is what the scouting world now thinks he can be (or better still than that), this last draft of Duquette’s will help the rebuild by getting a potential star to the top of the starting rotation.