This week’s release of Baseball America’s Top 100 Prospects and The Baseball Prospectus Top 101 has made this something of a top prospect list season. The Orioles organization placed the same five prospects on each of these lists at different spots: Adley Rutschman (BA’s #1, BP’s #2), Grayson Rodriguez (BA #6, BP #5), DL Hall, Gunnar Henderson, and Colton Cowser.
When Mike Elias talks about building an elite talent pipeline to Baltimore, this is a great start. Teams with the most top prospects at any given time are not automatically teleported into the World Series 2-3 years down the road, but it sure doesn’t hurt. Future stars tend to come from the ranks of recognized top prospects.
One key to an ongoing talent pipeline is that you need to manage to have a steady stream of top prospects. This was something that the Dan Duquette-era Orioles never managed. The Orioles of 2012-14 benefited from prospects being promoted to the team, but there was not another wave of top prospects behind them. Duquette frequently tried to deflect this critique with disingenuous blather. The eventual results speak for themselves.
The Elias Orioles need the current top prospects to kick-start a better era for the team, and then they’ll need future top prospects to keep the good times rolling beyond a couple of years. With that in mind, I’ve been thinking about: Who are the Orioles prospects who could be top 100 candidates a year from now?
This time last year, the Orioles also had five top 100 prospects on the Baseball America list. What’s interesting is that it’s not the same five players. That quintet included Ryan Mountcastle and Heston Kjerstad. Mountcastle graduated to the MLB level, while Kjerstad’s stock slipped as the start of his pro career continued to be delayed by his bout with myocarditis.
With Rutschman expected to get significant MLB time in the coming season and Rodriguez seeming like a strong candidate for a late-season debut, the O’s could easily end up with two more graduates by this time next year. Here are some candidates who might jump up onto top 100 lists in their absence.
One year ago, it was Henderson in all the “future top 100 prospect” articles. Henderson lived up to that with his 2021 performance. It’s starting to look like Mayo might be the 2022 version of that prospect. He’s already shown up on at least one such article, being named in BA’s article of prospects with breakout potential.
If this is the first time you’ve ever seriously thought about Mayo, let me refresh your memory about who he is. The Orioles drafted him in the fourth round of the 2020 draft out of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, where he was just another sophomore at school on the day of the shooting that killed 14 of his fellow students and three staff members. He received an overslot $1.75 million bonus, which the O’s were able to give him due to making an underslot pick in drafting Kjerstad.
There were prospect writers who were fans of the Mayo pick and others who weren’t. The Athletic’s Keith Law wrote of the O’s 2020 strategy that “it feels like the Orioles tried to shave money at the top, but then didn’t target the right players with the savings.” On the other end, Fangraphs rated Mayo as the #67 prospect in the class, writing that he had “among the most robust raw power projection in the 2020 draft class.”
Mayo’s 2021 performance once he was finally able to make a pro debut is a point in favor of his boosters. The team assigned him first to the rookie-level Florida Coast League, where he maintained a .300+/.400+/.500+ batting line across 26 games. That got him a quick promotion to Low-A Delmarva, where he continued that same trend. He OPSed .983 across both levels, with nine home runs in 53 games, a walk rate of 13.4%, a strikeout rate of only 18.5%, and he even swiped eleven bases.
There’s a long way from Delmarva to MLB, which is why this kind of thing hasn’t propelled Mayo into these lists yet. If he stays on this trajectory, though, it’s easy to see him on top 100 lists in a year.
There’s a saying when talking about prospects, “Once a first round pick, always a first round pick.” The higher in the round a guy was taken, the more there would be an enduring belief in his pedigree. Though the O’s made an underslot pick with Kjerstad in 2020, he was still seen as a top 10 talent in the draft class. It’s only his health challenges that have dropped him from top prospect lists. All it’s going to take for Kjerstad to get right back on the lists is to show up looking like the layoff didn’t cost him much.
Perhaps it is wishful thinking to believe he might do that. For now, there isn’t much more to go on other than small updates like this one from MASN’s Roch Kubatko, where he noted Kjerstad is set to attend a couple of minicamps in Sarasota beginning today. In the fall, wrote Kubatko, Kjerstad was “at the O’s instructional camp and hit live pitching, with the reports being quite favorable.”
Team reports that filter through the team-owned television network could be fluffed up from reality, but for a guy who hasn’t even been able to play, at least we’re finally hearing something.
Whoever the Orioles take with the #1 pick
Depending on the overall talent level within the class, it tends to be the case that somewhere from 8-12 fresh draft picks end up in the next year’s round of top 100 lists. The Orioles, even if they pursue a third straight underslot strategy, are highly likely to land one of the top five talents in the class, someone who will waltz right onto the lists and (hopefully) climb closer and closer to the top until eventually graduating to MLB.
Some early names as possible top picks include a trio of high schoolers: Elijah Green, Termarr Johnson, and Druw Jones (son of Andruw). If Elias eschews the high school ranks again, a few college names to know are: Chase DeLauter, Jace Jung, and Brooks Lee.
Players who might crack a midseason top 100
I’ve got my eye on two guys who I think could find their way onto mid-2022 top 100 lists, if they perform well along the way. Spots open up midseason as players graduate to MLB.
In an interview with MASN’s Steve Melewski, BA’s JJ Cooper tabbed Westburg as “somewhere between 125 and 150 right now.” The 2020 competitive balance round A pick raced from Delmarva to Bowie last year. He turns 23 next month. Westburg’s 30 Bowie games were the weakest of the bunch; though the infielder OPSed .868 for the season, it was only .752 at Bowie. If Westburg blasts his way to Norfolk by midseason, he could be a top 100 candidate.
Cooper said Stowers is “a bit below” the 125-150 range where Westburg would rank. No Orioles prospects were in BA’s “just missed” group. Stowers, as you’ve probably heard, led all Orioles minor leaguers with 27 home runs last season. That doesn’t automatically make him a top 100 player right now because he hit most of them (17) for Double-A Bowie, where he was old for a prospect in his age 23 season.
Stowers also carries a lot of strikeout risk. He went down on strikes 32.3% of the time in 2021, with an even higher rate than that in his 22 games for Triple-A Norfolk. On the other hand, he maintained a solid batting average (.278) and walk rate (13.8%) even with all the strikeouts. Oh, and the corner outfielder is a lefty, so the Camden Yards fence change won’t ever impact him much as a hitter.
I think if either Westburg or Stowers plays well enough to make a midseason 2022 top 100 list, they’re going to graduate to MLB before the 2023 round of top 100 lists roll around. Either could get promoted even if they don’t go on that kind of hot streak. Their arrival just might generate a bit more excitement if they are. I will be happy to see both in Baltimore by mid-August.
One deep cut: Jean Pinto
One of my general rules about staying on top of Orioles prospects is that if they’re not on the MLB Pipeline Top 30 Orioles list, it’s not worth getting too excited about them yet. Jean Pinto is not on this list. You won’t even find him on the 47-deep Fangraphs Orioles list. These are the last updates from 2021; neither of these sites have updated O’s lists for 2022.
There can always be exceptions to rules, and I make one for Pinto. The O’s acquired this Venezuelan right-hander from the Angels in the Jose Iglesias trade two Decembers ago. Pinto started out the 2021 season at the FCL - his first taste of a US-based league - before finishing up with Low-A Delmarva. Across these two stops as a 20-year-old, Pinto held batters to a 0.855 WHIP, striking out 84 batters in 66.2 innings while giving up just three homers. It added up to a 2.30 ERA.
These are small sample sizes at minor league levels that are a long way from MLB, so of course they need to be taken with a grain of salt. They are mighty impressive results nonetheless. Pinto was probably discounted up to this point because he is listed at only 5’11” and there’s a general bias against pitchers who are shorter than average. He may continue to remain unheralded regardless of how he performs for this same reason. Or he might not perform in a way that he deserves to be heralded in any way.
Still, I think he’s a bit of a deeper cut who’s worth paying attention to regardless of where he ends up on the next wave of Orioles system rankings. If he has another year like last year while pitching at the same or higher levels - and again, I know this is another big if - then he could force his way onto some top 100 lists.
There were two franchises who landed six players on the BA Top 100: The Pirates and the Diamondbacks. If things go well at the top end of the Orioles prospect list in 2022, they could find their way into the six top prospect club even with the hoped-for graduations of Rutschman and Rodriguez. That would be another encouraging sign that happier baseball days are coming back to Birdland.