Ever since Mike Elias arrived in Baltimore, one thing he’s consistently talked about is building an elite talent pipeline that will enable the team to be competitive year in and year out. Over the last few seasons before this one, the progress made with the farm system has been about all there’s been to excite Orioles fans. With the team unexpectedly in the race this season, there’s now a double dose of excitement. They’re good already and more prospects are coming.
In recent updates to top prospect lists at MLB Pipeline and FanGraphs, which take into account any changes from draft picks, trades, and results during this season, the Orioles are still awash with top prospects, landing six players in the top 100 of each of these lists. That’s even though Adley Rutschman, the near-unanimous #1 prospect in all of baseball before this season, has been gone from lists for months after his promotion to MLB.
Basic math tells us that if top prospects are evenly distributed across the league, every team would have three top 100 guys and a few would have four. That the Orioles have six now even without Rutschman is fun.
There were some years towards the end of Dan Duquette’s tenure where these lists were nearly or entirely empty of Orioles. Sticking with the FanGraphs rankings, the team had only one top 100 prospect before the 2017 season (Chance Sisco) and only one before 2018, too (Austin Hays). As we know from results, those teams desperately needed some help from the farm and there was none to be had.
Even more exciting for the Orioles is that they didn’t just sneak a bunch of guys in near the back of these lists. Gunnar Henderson and Grayson Rodriguez are both within the top 10 and Jackson Holliday is in the top 20. Colton Cowser is also in the top 50 of each list (34 on FG, 43 on Pipeline), as well as DL Hall. There’s some divergence in the ranking of Hall: Pipeline has him nearer to the bottom of the top 100 at 92, while FanGraphs puts him at 22.
That’s the five players who are on both lists. Each one has a different sixth top 100 prospect. FG has jumped on the Coby Mayo train, putting him in at 63. Pipeline is more impressed for the time being with Jordan Westburg, ranking him at 80. Westburg has certainly had the better 2022 minor league season to date, staying healthy and continuing to hit about as well at a new level after a midseason promotion. That’s not the only thing considered in deciding who’s a top prospect and who’s not, of course.
Another exciting thing with this group of top prospects is that it’s not entirely made up of players drafted in the top 5 of the draft. With the Orioles in the playoff chase and hopefully at the beginning of a competitive window, they won’t be getting the opportunity to pick a #1 pick like Holliday or a #5 pick like Cowser, nor, hopefully, someone like Rodriguez at #11.
Hall, though, was a late first round pick (#21 overall), Westburg was even later first round (#30), and Henderson (top of the second round) and Mayo (fourth round) weren’t even first rounders at all.
If the Orioles can continue finding gems beyond the ranks of where the anticipated future stars sit near the tops of draft classes, and if they can start turning some of their international signings into top prospect-caliber talents as well, that would be a fine pipeline for Elias to have built. It’s unlikely they’ll be able to sustain having six top 100 guys a year once the current crop of first rounders graduates, but I have faith that Elias will be able to avoid falling into the territory where his only top 100 prospect is a Chance Sisco-level prospect.
Being a top 100 prospect is a nice feather in the cap of a player, though of course this designation brings no guarantees with it. Players are deemed top prospects because they either have star potential or a pretty good chance of being a solid regular, but they don’t all hit these outcomes. Sometimes a guaranteed star just becomes a decent regular. Some guys who figured to be a good regular at worst end up in the bust pile.
We can hope that the process the Orioles are now using gives them a better chance to avoid this reality, but they aren’t immune even if they’re the biggest geniuses to ever run a baseball team. It’s also possible that one or more of these guys will end up being traded to reinforce the MLB team with a more-proven big leaguer. If Elias decides to improve the starting rotation by trade this winter, one of his back half of the top 100 prospects might make a good headliner to get a deal rolling.
You might even understandably be hoping to see one or more of these prospects added to the team down the stretch. Watching the infielders at the plate recently, it’s hard not to wonder about Henderson and Westburg, and if Rodriguez gets healthy before the end of the season, he could bring a September boost to the pitching staff.
I won’t be holding my breath for any of these for 2022, but it’s fun to dream. After so many years of big league misery, the current crop of Orioles prospects offers a lot to dream on. Six prospects in the top 100 in August doesn’t put any wins in the win column this year. It does offer plenty of hope for next year and beyond.