The Baltimore Orioles drafted Max Wagner out of Clemson in the second round of the 2022 draft. He wasn’t highly regarded throughout his college career, but a power surge in his final season with Clemson put him on the map and he ended up with a $1.9 million signing bonus from the Orioles.
Wagner was drafted as a third baseman but also spent time at second this year. He started the season with the High-A Aberdeen IronBirds and got off to an ice-cold start. He had played in just 19 games in the Orioles’ system after signing in 2022 and it definitely took him time to settle in. In the month of April, Wagner looked lost. He hit just .154 (10-for-65) with three extra-base hits. He struck out 21 times, which would work out to 189 over 162 games.
Then May arrived and Wagner got comfortable. He hit six home runs in the month and took 23 walks. He OPS’d a cool .946 in the month and though he didn’t quite keep up that pace, he held his own in High-A from there on out.
But simply holding one’s own in High-A as a 21-year-old second-round pick isn’t enough to excite people. And one part of his game was lacking: the power. That was an issue as it was Wagner’s power, namely 27 home runs in his final season with Clemson, that had made him so attractive.
In 80 games with the IronBirds to start the season, Wagner hit 10 home runs. That’s not terrible, especially when adding in 14 doubles. But for a corner infielder relying on his bat to take him places, it’s not ideal.
Still, the Orioles saw enough to promote Wagner in early August and on August 8th he made his Double-A debut with the Bowie Baysox. He got into 27 games with them and his bat did not adjust immediately (not that there’s anything wrong with that, if he can come around).
One impressive thing for Wagner at High-A was his batting eye which resulted in 51 walks and an OBP over 100 points higher than his batting average. With Bowie, though, he walked just seven times with 34 strikeouts, also an increase from his time with the IronBirds. He added just three home runs in Double-A.
As stated by MLB Pipeline, where Wagner is the Orioles’ 14th-best prospect, “Wagner’s eventual ceiling hinges on his ability to build on his breakout success in college.” It’s certainly not too late for him to break out and he is still young. But it would have been really nice to see him take a big step forward this year.
That breakout success in college took place in just one season, and not even an entire season. He went berserk over his final 24 games, launching 17 home runs to run his season total to 27 in just 58 games. That’s a lot of dingers! But was it real? That’s what we’re all waiting to find out.
With so much infield talent in the Orioles’ system, it’s hard to picture the way forward for Wagner with the team. Gunnar Henderson and Jordan Westburg are already proving themselves at the major league level. Henderson is the presumptive Rookie of the Year and plays incredible defense while Wagner and Westburg play the same positions (2B/3B). It’s assumed that #1 prospect Jackson Holliday will debut during the 2024 season and whether he plays shortstop or second base, it’ll push one of Westburg or Henderson to third base.
Also above Wagner on this prospect list, in addition to Holliday, is Coby Mayo. Mayo is coming off of an incredible season and is also on track to debut next season. He’s a corner infielder. And this doesn’t even mention Joey Ortiz or Connor Norby. The infield is very crowded and if Wagner wants to break through, he’ll need to up his game.
Will Max Wagner be on the Major League roster in 2024? That’s a no from me. The first issue is that he just isn’t ready. He needs to prove that he can get on base at the Double-A level at the same or better pace that he did with Aberdeen. In Aberdeen his OBP was .342, in Bowie it was .303. And he’ll need to improve his power numbers to prove that his sophomore year at Clemson wasn’t a fluke.
Even if Wagner does all that, he still finds himself blocked on the depth chart at every turn by players who are more advanced and who have better numbers. I personally doubt we ever see him in an Orioles uniform.
Wednesday: Jud Fabian