With the 2022 minor league season officially in the books, it’s time to roll out Camden Chat’s annual prospect review series to take stock of some of the most notable young talents in the Orioles’ farm system. Over the next five weeks, we’ll be profiling nearly every player on CC’s composite top 30 prospects list. Spoiler: most of these guys are pretty good.
We begin our series, though, with a group of prospects who haven’t been able to keep pace with the rapidly improving Orioles system. As the club continues to bolster its talent pipeline, this trio of once highly regarded players has stagnated at best or fallen off the map at worst.
No player better fits this description, unfortunately, than the one-time jewel of the organization, Yusniel Díaz. It feels like ages since the young outfielder was the prize prospect of the Manny Machado deal with the Dodgers at the 2018 All-Star break, the potentially five-tool dynamo primed to headline the Orioles’ rebuilding effort. Then-GM Dan Duquette praised Díaz as “a gifted hitter” and cited him as the reason the O’s accepted the Dodgers’ package instead of other interested suitors for Machado. In 2019, MLB Pipeline ranked Díaz as the Orioles’ best prospect, rating the multi-talented Cuban with a 50-55 in every tool (hit, power, run, arm, field) on the 20-80 grading scale used by scouts. “With further refinement,” the Pipeline blurb posited, “he could develop into a middle-of-the-order run producer who hits for both average and power.”
The further refinement never happened, particularly in the power department. Díaz, who homered twice in the All-Star Futures Game just days before the O’s acquired him, simply doesn’t hit the ball out of the park nearly enough. Since returning to action in 2021 following the canceled 2020 minor league season, Díaz has only 12 home runs in more than 550 plate appearances, an average of just one every 47 PAs. His slugging percentage in the minors this season was an unacceptable .372, which at least was up from his abysmal .265 mark the year before.
That horrific 2021 season — in which Díaz slashed .161/.233/.265 in 65 games — was the final straw that knocked Díaz out of most prospect rankings, but his tenure with the Orioles was star-crossed from the start. When the O’s acquired him in 2018, he’d been OPSing .905 for the Dodgers’ Double-A Tulsa affiliate, only for that number to dip noticeably to .732 for Bowie the rest of that year. He rebounded somewhat in 2019 but was limited to 76 games due to a hamstring injury. It was far from the last time leg injuries would leave him sidelined.
Díaz had no minor league stats in 2020 to draw from, but clearly never impressed the Orioles’ new, Mike Elias-led front office enough at the alternate site to earn a major league call-up during the pandemic-shortened season. Then came the disastrous 2021, which saw Díaz miss significant time with hip and quad injuries while failing to produce when he was on the field. By that time, Díaz had become an afterthought in a burgeoning farm system that Elias had restocked with Adley Rutschman, Gunnar Henderson, and others. Four years after he was the centerpiece of the Machado deal, Díaz felt light years away from the majors.
Díaz finally got that first cup of coffee in the bigs this season. Even then, it was only for a single game — August 2 in Texas, in which he played one inning and struck out in his lone at-bat — as a roster stopgap after the O’s traded Trey Mancini. The Orioles optioned Díaz the next day, never to return. There’s a good chance he’ll never wear an O’s uniform again, as he figures to be one of the first cuts from the 40-man roster this winter. His middling stats at Norfolk — .251/.346/.360 in 70 games, plus another extended IL stint with a hamstring strain — don’t make a compelling case for him to get another chance. Díaz turns 26 in four days, and the Elias regime, which didn’t acquire him in the first place, may be ready to move on.
For the Orioles to trade a generational talent like Machado and get practically nothing out of the prize prospect of that deal would be, to say the least, a major missed opportunity. The Birds’ rebuilding effort has been pretty successful even without Díaz panning out, but one wonders how things might be different if Elias, rather than Duquette, had had the opportunity to make a Machado trade.
While Díaz was the most high-profile O’s youngster to slip off of the club’s top prospects list this year, a couple of mid-level talents may have quietly shuffled out of the Orioles’ plans as well. Canadian infielder Adam Hall, another Duquette-era holdover, has stagnated in the lower minors, five years after the Orioles made him their second-round pick out of A B Lucas Secondary School in London, Ontario.
The Athletic’s Keith Law has always been the high man on Hall, ranking him as the Orioles’ #6 prospect prior to the 2021 season. Hall flashed his speed and on-base skills in his first two years in the Orioles’ system, swiping 55 bases in 69 attempts while registering an OBP of .368 for then short-season Aberdeen in 2018 and .385 at Low-A Delmarva in 2019. His defense also was considered MLB worthy, with Law writing that Hall had “the arm and actions to be an average shortstop or above-average-to-plus second baseman.”
The canceled 2020 minor league season, though, impacted Hall more than most. Due to Canada’s travel restrictions, he wasn’t able to join his fellow O’s prospects at the club’s alternate camp in Bowie during the summer. Hall hasn’t recovered since his lost year of development. Spending all of 2021 at High-A, Hall’s OBP dropped to .335 and he struck out 100 times in 81 games. Law, who dropped Hall to #18 in his 2022 O’s prospect rankings in February, wrote, “If he doesn’t start making more contact with some more doubles power, he’s going to be hard-pressed to even hit a utility ceiling.”
Unfortunately, 2022 turned into another mostly lost year for Hall. While playing for Double-A Bowie, he missed a couple of weeks after contracting COVID-19 in May. He then spent two months away from the team from late June to mid-August for reasons that don’t seem to have been publicly disclosed, playing nine games at sporadic intervals for the rookie-league FCL Orioles during that span. Ultimately Hall played just 50 games for the Baysox, posting a career-worst .330 SLG with only 12 extra-base hits. He didn’t tap into the doubles power Law was looking for. More concerningly, Hall — once considered to be a capable defender up the middle — didn’t play a single game at shortstop, and only four at second base, in 2022. He started 21 games in the outfield but got the majority of his starts (23) as a designated hitter.
Whatever the reason for Hall’s limited appearances on the diamond — injuries, or being pushed aside by better prospects — there simply isn’t much of a major league future for a now 23-year-old outfielder/DH who slugs .330 at Double-A. Hall was Rule 5 eligible for the first time after the 2021 season, and while the O’s decided not to place him on their 40-man roster to protect him, the decision at least required a little bit of debate. This winter, there’s no such debate.
Finally, we move to a guy who once had a 40-man spot but has since lost it: left-hander Kevin Smith. When Elias acquired the southpaw from the Mets for Miguel Castro in August 2020, it looked like a shrewd acquisition. Smith, in his last full minor league season in 2019, had posted a 3.23 ERA and 10.0 K/9 in 23 starts for two Mets affiliates. He had a slight problem with walks — averaging three every nine innings — but not insurmountably so. Smith was considered a pitcher who could move quickly up the ladder to give the Orioles some back-end rotation depth, and he started the 2021 season hot, tearing through six dominant starts at Bowie to earn a promotion to Norfolk.
Smith, though, has met his match at the Triple-A level. For the rest of that 2021 season, Smith issued an astounding 49 walks in 56.1 innings, an average of nearly 8.0 BB/9, including at least one in each of his 16 appearances. He didn’t get much better at throwing strikes this year, posting 6.3 BB/9 in 19 games. His prospect status all but evaporated, to the point that no team bothered claiming him on waivers when the O’s outrighted him off the 40-man roster in April. Smith, 25, didn’t start a game after June, pitching in long relief for Norfolk the rest of the year. He may not return to the organization in 2023.
That’s how it goes with prospects. For every Rutschman or Henderson who lives up to or exceeds the hype, there are dozens more who simply hit a wall before they ever reach the majors. Díaz, Hall, and Smith aren’t the first prospects who didn’t meet expectations, and they’ll be far from the last.
That’s why you can never have too many. And the Orioles, as we’ll discuss for the next several weeks, have built quite the stockpile.
Previous 2022 Orioles prospect reviews: N/A
Tomorrow: Jean Pinto