The Orioles had a lot of infield prospects that rose through the ranks in 2022. While prospects like GUNNAR HENDERSON, Jordan Westburg and Connor Norby got most of the acclaim, perhaps more praise should have been heaped on Cuban import César Prieto.
The left-handed hitting middle infielder made his professional debut in 2022, after defecting from the Cuban national team last year during Olympic qualifiers in Florida. After hitting .403 in the Cuban National Series during the 2020-21 season, there was plenty of excitement surrounding Prieto going into the international signing period. In keeping with Mike Elias’ stated goal of boosting international development, the O’s made him one of their headliners in their 2021 international free agent class.
Early on in the 2022 season, Prieto was making the $650,000 the Orioles paid for his services look like a bargain. In his 25 games at Aberdeen, he put together an impressive slash line of .340/.381/.619. Known as an average over power player coming out of Cuba, Prieto also impressed early by hitting seven home runs in his brief stint in the South Atlantic League. This domination at the beginning of the season was an encouraging sign for Prieto, as at 23 he was older than most international prospects when they make their professional debuts in the US.
That dominance for the IronBirds saw Prieto earn a promotion to Bowie at the end of May. Around the time of his promotion, Aberdeen manager Roberto Mercado raved about Prieto’s ability to show “great plate discipline” and “[hit] the ball hard to all fields”. Put more succinctly, Mercado said, “he can do it all, man” when talking about the young Cuban infielder.
GUNNAR’s promotion to Norfolk not long after he arrived meant that Prieto had plenty of opportunities to make a name for himself in the talented Baysox infield. Although he profiles long-term as a second baseman, the majority of his action for Bowie came at third base. Prieto still showcased the versatility that has become a hallmark of Orioles infield prospects, seeing time at second as well as shortstop.
While things came easily to Prieto in his first assignment at Aberdeen, the game caught up a little to him once he settled in at Bowie. After posting an OPS of 1.000 with the IronBirds, that number fell down to .644 over 90 games with the Baysox. The home runs also dried up once he made the jump to Eastern League pitching, as Prieto only launched four long balls in 368 ABs for Bowie. He still showed an ability to hit for extra-base hits, though, finishing third on the Baysox with 22 doubles.
The fact that the Orioles selected Prieto to participate in the Arizona Fall League shows that the front office has plenty of confidence that their marquee international signing can develop beyond his current status as the Orioles’ #18 prospect. It may also be a case of the front office and coaching staff wanting to get Prieto more ABs against higher-quality competition.
Through his first two months at Bowie, Prieto held a respectable .272 average as he adjusted to Double-A pitching. The pitching adjusted faster than he could, though, as he struggled to a .245 average in August before bottoming out to .163 in September. Giving him more ABs in the Fall League will hopefully allow Prieto to break out of this mini-slump before starting preparation for the 2023 season.
As far as Prieto’s path to the majors, that remains somewhat complicated. Currently, there are six infield prospects ranked ahead of him in the Orioles’ organization—not including HENDERSON, who’s already made his way to Baltimore. With Norby and middle infielder Joseph Ortiz likely to be the starting double-play combo for Norfolk to begin 2023, Prieto will almost certainly remain at Bowie to start next season.
With Prieto likely to play alongside the likes of fellow top-30 prospect Darell Hernaiz at Bowie next season, he should still have plenty of opportunity to distinguish himself amongst the infield prospect ranks. Should Norby, Westburg or Ortiz earn a call up to Baltimore in 2022, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see one of Prieto or Hernaiz make the jump to Norfolk. If Prieto can continue to refine his approach against better pitching, it’s not hard to imagine him beating out Hernaiz for that promotion.
Still, the path to Baltimore seems like it could be a long one for the Cuban import. Currently, only his hit tool grades out as being truly above average—coming in at a 55 on the 20-80 scale. If Prieto can build on the power displays we saw early with Aberdeen, he profiles as an infielder who could put up 10-15 homers per season at the big league level. Fail to do that and he may be cast as a one-trick pony that struggles to distinguish himself amongst this glut of Orioles infield talent. And yet, Prieto showed the ability to defy expectations in making the jump to Bowie so early in his minor league career. That should give Birdland hope that he could take another big jump come 2023.
Tomorrow: Mike Baumann