For many years before Mike Elias arrived as GM of the Orioles, the franchise was known for not expending effort in scouting or signing young players from the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, or other countries in that region. One of the concerted efforts of his time here has been to get that operation up and running to get it so the last few years have seen him sign a seven-figure player or two plus a bunch of others who are more like lottery tickets.
In 2023, these efforts started to pay off in a big way with the explosion of catching prospect Samuel Basallo onto top prospect lists. This article is not about him because he’s going to be the focus of his own article later in this series. Hold on to your excitement for now.
There are five other prospects on the current MLB Pipeline Top 30 Orioles prospect list who were signed by the O’s as international amateurs. The five prospects are: Outfielder Braylin Tavera, infielder Leandro Arias, infielder Frederick Bencosme, infielder Luis Almeyda, and left-handed pitcher Luis De León.
Collectively, these guys are far down in the system. Bencosme, who played at Aberdeen, is the most advanced, and three of the five were still in rookie-level ball in the 2023 season. Players like these continuing to develop will be an important part of the farm system remaining healthy going forward.
OF Braylin Tavera
At the time the Orioles signed him last year, Tavera’s $1.7 million signing bonus was the largest that the team had ever given out. That’s since been topped by Almeyda this year. It’s not a small bonus, but it’s not one of the big ones either. There were at least 13 players signed by other teams at the time with larger reported bonuses. One list, MLB Pipeline, ranked him as the #27 player in the international class, praising “a good feel for hitting,” “emerging power,” and “a run tool also expected to be plus.”
The 2023 season saw Tavera make his US league debut, with the Orioles having him play for the rookie-level Florida Complex League, a half-season league. At the age of 18, the same age as this year’s draft class of high school seniors, Tavera played in 35 games for the FCL Orioles and put together this batting line: .262/.391/.421. This included nearly as many walks as strikeouts (22-23). He also stole 13 bases while being caught five times.
It is important when considering prospects to remember one rule of thumb: You can’t scout the box scores. If Tavera is going to be a good player, he will eventually need to play well against somebody, but for now these results aren’t going to be what decides whether he’ll make it or not. For fans who don’t have access to the kind of advanced data that the team does, it’s the best we can do, though.
With that understood, Tavera’s performance looks pretty good to me, certainly enough to have him start next season with his first full-season affiliate, Low-A Delmarva, where he’s probably going to be the player whose performance I’ll be following closest there. If the Orioles manage to have their top signing of a given class go at least one level per season, their international pipeline will be doing OK in the long run.
IF Leandro Arias
Arias was a $600,000 bonus signing in the same 2022 class as Tavera, ranked as the #47 player on the same list that had Tavera higher from that group. Though his bonus was more modest, he had his fans among the world of scouting writers almost from the day he signed.
The FanGraphs Orioles prospect list ahead of the 2022 season, released less than a couple of months after Arias signed, already had him as the #12 prospect in the system. (He is #15 in the midseason 2023 updated FG ranking.) They wrote that though he had a slight build he had “an otherwise complete skillset and very favorable general profile.” That report praised his defense and his contact ability as a switch-hitter from both sides of the plate, and noted that he could be in for a big breakout if power develops.
Like Tavera, Arias spent the 2023 season playing for the FCL Orioles. He appeared in 44 games and batted .271/.370/.414, with an equal number of walks and strikeouts (20). Those are both pretty good rates over 162 plate appearances. Arias split time almost equally between second base, third base, and shortstop. He stole 12 bases in 14 attempts. There wasn’t a big power breakout but he did improve from a .306 slugging percentage in the Dominican Summer League the year prior. I assume he’s done more than enough to start his 2024 campaign with Delmarva.
IF Frederick Bencosme
The oldest of these players and the one whose performance you might have noticed prior to this year, Bencosme just played his age 20 season at High-A Aberdeen. Originally signed for just $10,000 in 2020, Bencosme made a little noise with a 59-game stint at Delmarva last season that saw him bat .336 with a .410 on-base percentage. That was enough to get the attention of The Athletic’s Keith Law, who ranked Bencosme as the #17 prospect in the system heading into this season, saying “he has a knack for getting the bat to the ball that I wouldn’t downplay.” FanGraphs also became fans, and Bencosme ranked 12th in that site’s midseason Orioles updated list.
In terms of results, it was not so smashing of a success with the Ironbirds in 2023. Bencosme’s 114 game batting line: .246/.338/.319. The higher you get, the harder it is to maintain such a high average/OBP if the pitcher does not fear that you can hit the ball hard, and he hit only two homers in 414 at-bats. Bencosme still had a strong walk rate of 11.6%, and only struck out 14.1% of the time. You can work with that for something, even if it’s just a utility infielder kind of player.
It’s also worth remembering that Aberdeen is generally a tough hitting environment - not that this was a problem for either Basallo or Jackson Holliday this year. Bencosme brought some speed, stealing 28 bases in 34 attempts. That’ll play too. Will this be enough for the Orioles to send him along to Bowie next season? He played mostly shortstop with a good amount of time at second base, and some third as well. Prospect writers are not convinced that he can be a starter-caliber defender at short.
IF Luis Almeyda
Almeyda received the new record Orioles international signing bonus earlier this year, a $2.3 million signing. At the time, much was made in media reports of his having grown up in the United States until his family moved to the Dominican Republic once he was already a teenager. There was thought that this might make Almeyda more advanced than typical players in this cohort and that he could debut right in the FCL even as an age 17 player, rather than the DSL.
The Orioles did not choose to be so aggressive with Almeyda, and he made his pro debut with one of the two O’s affiliates in the Dominican. Unfortunately for Almeyda, he did not get much of a chance to show he belonged elsewhere. He missed time with an ankle sprain, and required surgery in his non-throwing shoulder in August, so he was limited to just 19 games in which he batted .190/.290/.310. Hopefully he can have a healthier 2024 campaign.
LHP Luis De León
One way you know that De León is a new addition to the Pipeline top Orioles prospects list is that they don’t even have a picture for him. He’s the only guy in the top 30 O’s minor leaguers of whom that is the case.
The Orioles signed De León for a $30,000 bonus in December two years ago. That makes him something of an unusual signing in that he did not get signed on January 15 with most of the other prospects of that type. The O’s found De León a little later. He was already 18 when they signed him, again unlike the typical Dominican signings who can be as young as 16.
Listed at 6’3”, one of the things that appeals to Pipeline about the lefty is that he “has an athletic frame that could add more strength,” and he’s already throwing 94-97 with his fastball as it is. His slider and changeup have both drawn early praise.
The 2023 season saw De León pitch a total of 53.2 innings across 15 games, first for the FCL Orioles and then for Delmarva. It’s not hard to see that he’s got some wildness to iron out, as he had a BB/9 of 5.0 over these games, unloaded 12 wild pitches, hit four batters, and committed six balks. How do you balk six times in one year? He made it work against that low-level competition, at least, holding opponents to a .204 average against him, with a 2.01 ERA overall.
For all the success that Elias has had in assembling the Orioles farm system, this has not been because of pitchers that he drafted or signed. If this part of the pipeline is to produce results, pitchers like De León, or Deivy Cruz, or Edgar Portes - all of whom are young, with command problems but also solid strikeout numbers - are going to be important.
Will any of these guys be on the 2024 Orioles? No.
Tomorrow: Carter Baumler and Seth Johnson