Early speculation around the Orioles’ offseason plans has many expecting some movement in the team’s outfield. It’s the most experienced group on the big league roster, and it’s also a spot where several high-profile prospects could soon be ready for a full-time role.
John Rhodes and Billy Cook are two outfielders in the system that probably aren’t positioned for a job in Baltimore just yet. However, they both made improvements in Double-A this past season that might serve as the springboard they need to be under consideration sometime soon. It has already earned each of them a spot in the Arizona Fall League, a proving ground for many future big leaguers.
The O’s picked Rhodes in the third round of the 2021 draft. He was young for the class, a 20-year-old sophomore out of the University of Kentucky. That helped him earn a $1.38 million signing bonus—about $500k overslot—despite a 2021 college season with disappointing statistics. The Orioles were banking on him being closer to the .426/.485/.672 slash line he posted in the COVID-shortened 2020 year.
Injuries were a problem for Rhodes in 2022, his first full season of professional baseball. He went on the IL twice, limiting him to just 83 games across two levels. Even still, he did well in High-A Aberdeen with a .259/.389/.428 slash line with a 14.1% walk rate. His time in Double-A Bowie was less impressive as he hit .189/.288/.267 and failed to hit any home runs in 104 plate appearances, although he maintained a solid 11.5% walk rate. He was nearly three years younger than the average player in Double-A at the time of his struggles.
Rhodes returned to Bowie to begin 2023, and that’s where he would stay all season. It was an up-and-down campaign. He mashed to a .985 OPS in June, but struggled mightily in July (.536 OPS), rebounded to OPS .882 in August, and slumped to a .579 OPS in September. Altogether he slashed .228/.323/.422 on the season with 17 home runs, good for a 104 wRC+. It was a step in the right direction.
Base-stealing was not as big a part of Rhodes game in 2023. He was 8-for-9 on attempts after going a perfect 16-for-16 in 2022. His speed, like most of his other tools, is often regarded as “solid.”
There was some speculation coming out of the 2021 draft that Rhodes could have a future on the infield after playing both corner spots in the high school and then a bit as a freshman in college. The Orioles gave him some time at first and second base early in his career, but he was a full-time corner outfielder this year. That’s where he is expected to stay.
Cook was also picked in that 2021 draft, but he had to wait until the 10th round as a senior sign out of Pepperdine University. His profile at the time sounded similar to Rhodes, albeit in a package that was 19 months older.
Cook’s first full pro season was spent in High-A Aberdeen, where he slashed .221/.298/.422 with a 93 wRC+ and a chunky 31.8% strikeout rate. But the Orioles still saw fit to bump him up to Double-A for 2023, and that is where he really impressed this past summer.
If you like to keep tabs on who the next utility player could be for the O’s, Cook might be your guy. In addition to playing all three outfield positions he also spent significant time at first and second base this year.
He also managed to maintain an impressive batting line with a .251/.320/.456 slash line, 24 home runs, 16 doubles, and 81 RBI. On the bases, he went 30-for-33 on stolen base attempts. And he also managed to cut down the strikeouts a bit from a 31.8% rate in 2022 to 25% in 2023. Across the board the story was the same for Cook in 2023, incremental improvements in every facet of the game.
As of this writing, both Rhodes and Cook are working to get better in the Arizona Fall League. So far, it isn’t going particularly well for either of them. Rhodes owns a .580 OPS with one home run in 34 at-bats while Cook has a .582 OPS with one home run in 29 at-bats. But it’s a very small sample size, there are several weeks left in the season, and as we know the final stat line isn’t always the definitive way to evaluate performance in these developmental leagues. The fact that they are in the league at all shows that the Orioles like these two players enough to continue investing resources in their improvement.
Neither player is eligible for the Rule 5 draft until December of 2024, so they won’t be joining a 40-man roster this winter. But both of them should earn the natural promotion to Triple-A Norfolk to begin the 2024 season. How they perform in the highest level of the minors could determine their future in the Orioles organization.
Of course, being involved in a trade is always a possibility for any prospect, but particularly one that is viewed as “non-elite” in an organization that should be trying to build a World Series contender this winter. If the Orioles are unwilling to move one (or more) of their “Top 100” types they they could be reduced to dealing from their depth. Rhodes and Cook could fit the bill there.
Assuming they do stay put, it’s possible that either one of them plays their way into the major league picture sometime in 2024. Cook’s positional versatility (particularly his ability to play center field), his nose for a stolen base, and superior recent hitting performance gives him the edge. But even that feels like a long shot unless several significant trades happen ahead of him to open up innings in Baltimore.
Yesterday: Alex Pham and Trace Bright
Tomorrow: Mike Elias’ international signings