In 1976, Sylvester Stallone brought us Rocky, the story of a talented but unknown boxer who would go onto rise to superstardom. Nearly 40 years later, Stallone and others provided us with a new version of that same story and relaunched the franchise with Creed. Throughout the 2023 season, a similar parallel narrative played out amongst the Orioles catching prospects.
In Samuel Basallo, the Orioles have their Rocky Balboa—the burgeoning star from humble origins who could prove to be baseball’s best catching prospect since Adley Rutschman. Then there’s Creed Willems—who not only shares a name with his movie counterpart, but at times this year looked like the lesser, but still compelling, version of Basallo.
Willems started the season at Low-A Delmarva and wasn’t even among the Orioles Top 30 prospects in the preseason. Teaming with Basallo and Jackson Holliday,, Willems was at the heart of lineup that tore up Low-A pitching to begin the season. Over the first month of the season, Willems slashed .373/.484/.726 while putting up five HRs and 16 RBIs. Early on, he became known for launching moonshots over the right field fence.
#orioles C prospect Creed Willems homers to increase Delmarva’s lead. He’s been the system’s hottest hitter so far. WRC+ is an out of this world 240, OPS is 1.337. Seeing this cut I’d estimate the metrics are popping too #offense pic.twitter.com/DVe0OQZSrj— Eric_Birdland (@Eric_Birdland) April 28, 2023
Willems continued his assault on baseballs in the month of May, with three more HRs and six total extra-base hits. That was enough to earn him a promotion to Aberdeen, where he would finish out the rest of the season. The stout, power-hitting 20-year-old finished his time with the Shorebirds hitting .302 with a 1.056 OPS, eight HRs and 28 RBis, while also posting an impressive 20 BBs/29 Ks ratio. After struggling at Delmarva through all of 2022, it took Willems very little time to show that he was ready for a new challenge in 2023.
However, “challenging” quickly became the best way to describe Willems’ time with the Aberdeen IronBirds. At first it seemed like WIllems was on track to pick up right where he left off with the Shorebirds. Over his first month against the tougher competition, the catcher hit .253 while still showing plenty of power—launching five HRs and posting a .808 OPS.
Willems failed to build on that, though, throughout the rest of his season in Aberdeen. In July his batting average dipped to .190 while his OPS dropped all the way to .501 (though he still produced a season-high 17 RBIs that month). The struggles continued into August, where his batting average once again took a hit, falling all the way to .128—while his strikeout rate went up to 37%. Perhaps the most worrying trend with Willems was his dip in power. After launching 13 HRs over the first three months of the season, the slugging backstop had one three long balls across July and August. However, when he did run into one, it still went a long way.
15th home run of the year for Creed Willems! pic.twitter.com/vYkvgh8Wme— Orioles Player Development (@OsPlayerDev) July 15, 2023
Willems had a slight rebound over seven games in September. He went 6-31 (.214) while adding a double and a homer to close out his season. After starting on a similar track to Basallo—both showing plus power with Delmarva and both earning call-ups to Aberdeen—the two top catching prospects definitely diverged. Willems’ High-A triple slash of .192/.267/.319 definitely put a damper on the hype surrounding him at the beginning of the season. Even still, rising from an unranked prospect to the No.21 prospect in the entire organization—while almost exclusively facing older, more experienced pitchers—speaks to the raw talent Willems possesses.
In many ways, Willems is still ahead of schedule after spending the majority of his age-20 season in Aberdeen. Should he follow a similar pattern next year, it wouldn’t be a surprise to get a feel for High-A pitching at the beginning of the year and end his 2024 the same way Basallo ended his 2023: as the primary backstop in Bowie. That would put him on track to potentially reach the big leagues as a 22 or 23-year-old.
The ceiling on Willems potential may ultimately be about who’s in front of him on the organizational depth chart instead of his actual ability as a hitter. At his best, Willems shows signs of growing into a left-handed hitting Mike Napoli or stockier version of Brian McCann. However, whether he ever gets an opportunity to do that at the big league level with the Orioles remains dubious. Basallo has arguably the highest upside of any catching prospect in baseball—and very well could reach the big leagues before he turns 21. Then there’s Adley Rutschman, the face of the Orioles franchise and someone undoubtedly on the shortlist for best catcher in baseball. Climbing over one, let alone both of those players, to earn ABs in Baltimore will certainly be a tall task to the 20-year-old Texan.
Will Willems be on the Major League Roster in 2024? There’s about a 0.1% chance. This is baseball after all, so you can never truly rule out anything. Realistically, though, ending next season firmly entrenched at Double-A would be a big achievement for the young catcher. Whether he ever makes it to the bigs in Baltimore, though, that’s a storyline worth tracking into the 2024 season and beyond.
Monday: Justin Armbruester