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Orioles minor league week in review: Kjerstad keeps hitting, Hall struggles with strike zone

The Orioles’ 2020 first-rounder continues to rake at Delmarva, while their 2021 first-rounder is moving on up to Double-A.

NCAA BASEBALL: JUN 10 Div 1 Championship Super Regionals - Ole Miss at Arkansas
Heston Kjerstad is hitting like he did in his college days at Arkansas.
Photo by Andy Altenburger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

As the Orioles become a more and more competitive team with each passing day — sparked by the May arrival of #1 overall prospect Adley Rutschman — it’s hard not to feel like the pieces of a contending team are beginning to fall into place. Highly touted youngsters are inching ever closer to the majors, as evidenced by yesterday’s announcement that three of the Orioles’ top 11 prospects — Colton Cowser, Coby Mayo, and Connor Norby — are moving up from High-A Aberdeen to Double-A Bowie. The core of the next great Orioles team is developing right before our eyes.

Let’s take a look back at another eventful week on the Orioles’ farm, with a focus on the Camden Chat’s cumulative top prospects list.

Triple-A Norfolk Tides

  • This week: 2-4 at Lehigh Valley IronPigs (Phillies)
  • Next: vs. Gwinnett Stripers (35-37, Braves)
  • Season record: 34-38, seventh place (7.5 GB) in International League East

Aside from a one-run effort on Saturday, offense certainly wasn’t a problem this week for the Tides, who posted 34 runs in the other five games. Their pitching, though, was a disaster, giving up a whopping 49 runs and posting an 8.05 ERA for the week, worst in the 20-team International League. Most of those runs were charged to non-prospects, but DL Hall (#3 tied), sadly, coughed up 12 of his own.

Hall, the Birds’ top healthy pitching prospect, is very much trending in the wrong direction. There’s no question about his electric arm and swing-and-miss arsenal, but his inability to throw strikes is crippling his development. In two starts this week, he issued a galling 10 walks in 7.2 innings, striking out only half as many. He also surrendered 10 hits, including two home runs. The southpaw is now averaging 6.6 walks per nine innings in 10 starts at Norfolk this year, his worst BB/9 rate since his first pro season in the Gulf Coast League in 2017. The 23-year-old still has plenty of time to turn things around, but a 2022 MLB debut — which was once considered a near-certainty for Hall — seems increasingly unlikely if he can’t find the strike zone.

Now for the good news. It was another strong week at the plate for the Orioles’ #3 (tied) and #6 prospects, Gunnar Henderson and Jordan Westburg (alternative spellings: GUNNAR HENDERSON and Jordan Westburg!). They were the only two Norfolk hitters to play all six games, and each reached base nine times, including two home runs apiece. Westburg now carries a sensational .366/.392/.732 batting line with five home runs in 16 games at Norfolk, while Henderson has a .937 OPS, four homers, and almost as many walks (15) as strikeouts (17). The two have been showing off their defensive versatility as well; Henderson started three games apiece at shortstop and third base this week, while Westburg started three at short, two at third, and one at second base. These guys will make the Orioles’ infield a whole lot better in the near future.

One pitcher the Tides faced this week was former #1 overall pick Mark Appel, selected by Mike Elias during his days as Astros scouting director, who famously flamed out in the minors and stepped away from baseball for a few years. Appel is now on a comeback tour and worked two scoreless, hitless innings against Norfolk this week, then was rewarded with a long-awaited MLB callup by the Phillies this weekend. Congrats to him.

Other notable prospects:

  • OF Kyle Stowers (#8 tied): Solid week for Stowers, who hit a home run and batted .333 (6-for-18). When will his next major league opportunity arise?
  • IF/OF Terrin Vavra (#12): Vavra, thankfully, missed only one game after being hit in the head with a pitch Thursday. Before that, he swatted his first home run of the season and is batting .312/.419/.422 in 28 games at Triple-A.
  • RHP Mike Baumann (#13): Baumann made his first start of the year after 16 relief appearances for the Tides and Orioles, working three scoreless innings.

Double-A Bowie Baysox

  • This week: 2-4 at Erie SeaWolves (Tigers)
  • Next: vs. Richmond Flying Squirrels (40-29, Giants)
  • Season record: 27-42, sixth place (13.0 GB) in Eastern League Southwest

The first half of the Eastern League season came to a close on Sunday, and the Baysox ended up in the cellar of the six-team division. Perhaps they’ll have more luck in the second half, especially with Cowser, Mayo, and Norby now on board. They’ll need to get more out of their pitching staff, though, as Bowie’s 4.99 team ERA is the worst in the 12-team league. This was a particularly brutal week for former Jose Iglesias trade piece Garrett Stallings, a one-time top 30 prospect who fell off the list this year. Stallings made two starts and was demolished for an unfathomable 17 earned runs in 4.2 innings (32.79 ERA). Stallings, whose season ERA was 2.63 after he was part of a combined no-hitter May 8, now sits at 10.08.

There were a few pitching performances to like, starting with the only top-30 O’s pitching prospect on Bowie’s roster, Drew Rom (#15). The 22-year-old southpaw rattled off five scoreless innings with seven strikeouts in his lone start this week. Some unranked prospects put on a show, too. Right-hander Zach Peek — part of the Dylan Bundy trade package — worked a six-inning quality start without allowing an earned run. He’s sporting a tidy 2.68 ERA in 10 starts. Justin Armbruester worked five solid frames in his Double-A debut. And Noah Denoyer tossed four scoreless in long relief for a save. The 24-year-old Denoyer has a 1.72 ERA and 36 strikeouts in 31.1 innings for the Baysox.

On the offensive side, Adam Hall (#27) and Zach Watson (unranked) led Bowie with seven hits apiece, which is cool, though they also combined for 14 strikeouts and no walks. Not as cool. Watson, at least, clubbed two home runs. Shortstop Joseph Ortiz (#14), though, still hasn’t gotten it going with the bat. With a 3-for-23 week, he’s batting .211/.276/.338 this year.

Other notable prospects:

  • IF Cesar Prieto (#16 tied): It was a quiet week for Prieto — five singles, a double, and no walks. With a .634 OPS at Double-A, the 23-year-old Cuban is finding this level much more challenging than High-A, where he posted a 1.000 mark in in 25 games.
  • OF Hudson Haskin (#18): Haskin counted a home run among his six hits this week, his eighth roundtripper of the year.

High-A Aberdeen IronBirds

  • This week: 2-4 vs. Wilmington Blue Rocks (Nationals)
  • Next: vs. Winston-Salem Dash (36-33, White Sox)
  • Second-half record: 2-1, second place (1.0 GB) in South Atlantic League North
  • Overall season record: 45-24

The first half of the High-A season ended on Thursday, and the IronBirds, who’d clinched the division title some time ago, finished 7.5 games ahead of the second place team. They’ve assured they’ll be playing in the postseason in September, regardless of what happens in the second half, though the IronBirds might look quite a bit different by then, with three notable bats having moved up to Bowie.

Coby Mayo (#7) finished his High-A career on a hot note, going 7-for-20 this week with three doubles and a home run. In 63 games for Aberdeen, he crushed 13 home runs and OPS’ed .805. Colton Cowser (#3 tied) and Connor Norby (#11) were relatively quiet in their swan songs, other than a Norby homer. Cowser finished with a .258/.385/.410 line — gotta love that OBP, boosted by 45 walks in 62 games — while Norby sported a .237/.311/.425 slash, bopping eight homers in 48 games.

Folks, we have a Matt Harvey sighting. The O’s re-signed the veteran big leaguer after his mostly forgettable 2021 season (and even more forgettable offseason, in which MLB levied him a 60-game suspension for distribution of drugs following his testimony during the Eric Kay trial). He made his season debut by tossing six shutout innings for the IronBirds and will presumably continue building up innings until he’s a late-season option for the Orioles. Try to contain your excitement.

Among the youngsters, righty Jean Pinto — the other piece of the Iglesias trade with Stallings — was mighty impressive this week, working nine innings (one start, one relief appearance) and giving up just one run while fanning eight. And outfielder Yusniel Diaz (#28), who’d been out with a hamstring injury since May 13, began a rehab assignment before he returns to Norfolk. He was 4-for-14 with a home run this week.

Low-A Delmarva Shorebirds

  • This week: 2-4 vs. Lynchburg Hillcats (Guardians)
  • Next: at Fredericksburg Nationals (35-34, Nationals)
  • Second-half record: 1-2, tied for fourth place (2.0 GB) in Carolina League North
  • Overall season record: 22-46

Noticing a theme here? All four O’s full-season affiliates went exactly 2-4 this week. Weird. Delmarva, like Aberdeen, wrapped up its first half on Thursday, finishing in last place in the six-team North division. You guessed it — pitching was a problem. Delmarva, like Bowie, ranks last in its league in team ERA (5.48). But the Shorebirds’ offense hasn’t been much better, with a .646 OPS that’s second-worst of the 12 teams.

But how about that Heston Kjerstad, huh? The Orioles’ #10 prospect and 2020 first-round draft pick has adapted swimmingly in his long-delayed debut in pro ball. With eight more hits this week, including his first professional home run, Kjerstad sports a cool .422 average and 1.081 OPS through his first 12 games. It should be noted that, at 23, he’s two years old for the level, so we’ll see how Kjerstad fares against more age-appropriate competition once the O’s decide to bump him up to Aberdeen.

This week’s hitting star was 20-year-old shortstop Noelberth Romero, part of the Andrew Cashner trade return in 2019. Romero clubbed three home runs and collected 10 RBIs, both tops on the team. On the other side of the coin was Creed Willems, the Orioles’ lone high school draftee in 2021. Willems took an 0-for-12 with seven strikeouts, dropping to a .140/.218/.240 slash line in 36 games this year. Ouch. At this rate the Orioles will never draft a high schooler again.

Other notable prospects:

  • RHP Carter Baumler (#20): The right-hander was scheduled to start on Wednesday, but the game got rained out. The Shorebirds, perhaps not wanting to mess with the rehabbing Baumler’s routine, didn’t end up pitching him this week.

Florida Complex League and Dominican Summer League

It’s been a rough go in the DSL, where the Orioles’ two squads — Black and Orange — are two of the five worst-hitting teams, by OPS, of the 49 DSL clubs. Black has a .626 mark and Orange is dead last at .585. They’ve fared much better on the pitching side, where Orange has a 4.30 ERA and Black 4.36, ranking 15th and 19th, respectively. The FCL Orioles, meanwhile, have a 2-13 record, and Maikol Hernandez (#16 tied) is batting .125 in nine games. Catcher Samuel Basallo (#25) is hitting for average at .270 but has only one extra-base hit in 10 games, giving him a paltry .297 SLG.

**

Last week, Kjerstad’s successful pro debut earned him Player of the Week honors with nearly two-thirds of the vote. He’s the 10th different winner in 11 weeks, joining Haskin, Kyle Bradish, Pinto, Mayo, Juan De Los Santos, Stowers, Grayson Rodriguez, Westburg, and Henderson (twice). Three of those are candidates for a repeat win this week, with one newcomer tossed into the mix.

Poll

Who is the Orioles minor league player of the week for 6/21-6/27?

This poll is closed

  • 30%
    Jordan Westburg, Norfolk (9 H, 2 HR, 6 RBI, .931 OPS)
    (143 votes)
  • 10%
    Jean Pinto, Aberdeen (9 IP, 1 ER, 8 K, 0.89 WHIP)
    (48 votes)
  • 35%
    Heston Kjerstad, Delmarva (8 H, 1.184 OPS, first professional HR)
    (164 votes)
  • 23%
    Noelberth Romero, Delmarva (3 HR, 10 RBI, 1.201 OPS)
    (109 votes)
464 votes total Vote Now