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The Orioles long-promised youth movement is closer than ever

It’s been a long journey, and there remains work to do, but Mike Elias’ pipeline is nearing its first significant delivery to Baltimore.

Syndication: Salisbury Staff Photo by Richard Pollitt via Imagn Content Services, LLC

Ever since Mike Elias took control of the Orioles front office prior to the 2019 season, the team has stated that their mission is to develop a “pipeline” of talent that allows them to remain a perennial contender without the need for another one of these deep rebuilds. Three full seasons later, that pipeline is still under construction and yet to produce much high-ceiling talent at the big league level. But that looks likely to change quite soon.

There has been speculation that Adley Rutschman, regarded by some as the top prospect in all of baseball, was the favorite to be named the Orioles starting catcher on Opening Day. It’s an idea that makes sense considering the only backstop on the 40-man at that time was free agent signee Robinson Chirinos. The team was making no effort to block the Oregon State product.

Unfortunately, a right triceps strain in spring training ended that possibility. Despite that, some news over the weekend seemed to indicate that his time in Baltimore is right around the corner. Rutschman has been sent to High-A Aberdeen for a rehab assignment this week.

It’s unclear how long the rehab will last and where Rutschman will be sent once it has been completed. The .895 OPS he posted at Triple-A Norfolk is proof that there isn’t much more for him to learn at that level, and there isn’t enough time left in the year for Rutschman to earn a full year of service time, unless he gets into contention for Rookie of the Year. Now 24 years old, it’s time to get Rutschman to the big league once he is deemed healthy.

Joining the former number one overall pick at Aberdeen this week will be lefty D.L. Hall. One of the elite southpaws in the minors, Hall was in the midst of a breakout season (56 strikeouts in 31.2 innings) in Double-A last summer when he was shut down with a stress reaction in his pitching elbow.

The Orioles have been particularly cautious with Hall given his recent health issues. He has yet to pitch for an affiliate this season, instead staying down in Sarasota at extended spring training to build himself up.

How the O’s handle Hall from here will be something to track. There has been “reliever risk” with him since his draft day, but he also has as much talent as any pitcher in the team’s system. It’s impossible to pass up the opportunity to try and make him a starter. According to Elias, that is exactly the plan. The GM was quoted during the spring that he hopes to see Hall throw over 100 innings this year between the minors and big leagues.

That would be a massive leap for him as he tossed just 31.2 inning last year, missed 2020 during the pandemic, and reached only 80.2 innings in 2019. It makes sense that the Orioles want to manage his workload. That starts in Aberdeen, and it could see him brought along slower than Rutschman, but it should get him to Baltimore all the same.

The player that seems likely to debut before either one of them, however, is Kyle Bradish. Although the right-hander does not come with the prestige of those mentioned above, he certainly has the clearest path to a big league role immediately.

Bradish has cruised through his first three starts in Norfolk this year. Over his 15 innings, he has allowed two runs on eight hits, three walks, and 17 strikeouts. Opponents are hitting just .148 against the former Angels prospect.

This season is Bradish’s second go-around at Triple-A. He struck out 105 over 86.2 innings with the Tides in 2021, but his 1.43 WHIP and 39 walks in that time were higher than preferred. So far in 2022, he seems to have addressed those troubles. That, coupled with an impressive showing during the spring, sure makes it feel like he is the next man up.

Meanwhile, the Orioles rotation is not exactly full. Chris Ellis left his start in Anaheim on Sunday before he was able to record an out, reporting afterward that he was experiencing shoulder discomfort. Spenser Watkins has numbers that look solid on paper (2.77 ERA over 13 innings), but he struggles to miss bats, walks too many, and has experienced good BABIP luck. As we saw in 2021, it could implode at any moment. Instant success isn’t a guarantee if/when Bradish is promoted, but it is the next logical step to see the extent of his abilities.

This trio seems the closest to be making an impact in Baltimore, but it’s far from the only batch of names currently down on the farm that could find themselves in an Orioles uniform before long.

Grayson Rodriguez looks every bit like the best pitching prospect in baseball so far this year. His stuff has been nearly untouchable, striking out 23 in 14.1 innings of work with Norfolk. Hitters have just a .109 batting average against him, and his 0.49 WHIP is video game-like. Still just 22 years old, the O’s are likely to slow play Rodriguez. He has had impeccable health to this point in his career, and always seems to be getting better. Whatever the plan has been with him, it seems wise to stay on that path, build him up as needed, and promote when appropriate.

And then there is the group of fringy infield types that may not necessarily be upgrades to the big league squad, but it’s at least a conversation. Tyler Nevin’s OPS is 1.026. Rylan Bannon has walked 11 times and has an OPS of .905. Terrin Vavra has shown versatility, playing all over, while walking more often than striking out. If they can even come close to maintaining those performances, it’s tough to justify a lineup in Baltimore with the likes of Kelvin Gutiérrez, Rougned Odor, and Chris Owings.

It’s not like all of these players need to be called up tomorrow. We are still dealing with small sample sizes here. But that doesn’t make it any less encouraging to see that some of the most intriguing prospects in the team’s farm system are no longer years away down in Delmarva and Aberdeen, but perhaps mere weeks out from a debut.

Of course, these prospects will need carry over these impressive performances with them to Baltimore, no small task on its own. But it finally feels like the light at the end of the tunnel is visible.