You know you can tell that your organization is in good shape? When you have a shortstop prospect with a career .904 Triple-A OPS and potentially Gold Glove caliber defense in your farm system...and you don’t even have an obvious spot to play him in the majors.
Such is the plight of Joey Ortiz, the Orioles’ #6 prospect according to MLB Pipeline, who has all the tools of a big league contributor but might not find that opportunity in Baltimore.
Ortiz, a fourth-round selection in Mike Elias’s debut O’s draft in 2019, could add to the Birds’ embarrassment of riches from a draft that produced Adley Rutschman and Gunnar Henderson with the club’s first two picks. That didn’t always seem it’d be the case, though. As recently as June 2022, Ortiz was struggling to hit. In the first three months for Double-A Bowie that season, Ortiz slashed a woeful .206/.271/.325 with just four home runs in 64 games. No prospect, no matter how good defensively, is getting to the majors with a .596 OPS in Double-A.
Then, as if a switch flipped, Ortiz began to tear the cover off the ball...and he really hasn’t stopped since. In the second half of 2022, Ortiz exploded for a .355/.422/.627 line, including a stretch in which he had hits in 26 of 27 games. By the end of August that year, he’d earned his way up to Triple-A Norfolk.
Finding his way out of Norfolk, unfortunately, hasn’t been nearly so easy for Ortiz. And it’s not really his fault.
Ortiz began this season with the Tides and picked up where he’d left off a year ago, tattooing the ball all around the field. He hit .359 in 16 games, including four consecutive three-hit games, and on April 27, he finally received the call every minor leaguer waits for. He was headed to the show.
That night in Detroit, Ortiz made his debut a memorable one. He punched a two-run single in the fifth and a sac fly in the seventh to help the O’s rally back to victory from a 3-0 deficit. Ortiz became just the second player in O’s history, joining Don Baylor, to collect three RBIs in his MLB debut. Ortiz was the starting second baseman in the Orioles’ first three games after his callup, all against lefties, but once the O’s started seeing a steady diet of right-handed pitchers, down he went to Norfolk.
That cycle repeated itself twice more. Ortiz spent the first half of May scalding the ball at Triple-A, came back to the Orioles for eight games, returned to the Tides to start the next month, and received a third call-up in the middle of June. By then, though, it was clear the Orioles weren’t going to give him an opportunity for regular starts. After his June 14 promotion, Ortiz mostly sat on the bench, starting only two of the Orioles’ next 10 games. Those two starts were against lefties; the eight he didn’t start were against right-handers.
With the quartet of Gunnar Henderson, Adam Frazier, Ramón Urías, and Jorge Mateo cycling through three starting infield spots, plus Jordan Westburg close to joining the big league mix, the O’s didn’t give Ortiz many opportunities to break through. When Westburg received his big league call-up June 26, Ortiz was the roster casualty to make room for him. Back to Norfolk he went, this time never to return, as the O’s infield crew remained intact for the rest of the season.
Through it all, Ortiz continued to hit. He collected 11 hits in his first five games back with the Tides and finished the regular season with a superb .321/.378/.507 line in 88 games at Triple-A. Ortiz suffered left oblique tightness Sept. 2 that cost him the remainder of the regular season, but he returned for the playoffs, going 3-for-8 with four RBIs in Norfolk’s International League Championship Series win over Durham. While there are questions about Ortiz’s long ball potential — he had only nine homers this year, dropping from 19 the previous season — he’s been adept at clubbing extra-base hits, roping 65 doubles and 10 triples in his last two minor-league campaigns.
And then there’s the aforementioned defense. MLB Pipeline writes of Ortiz’s glove:
There is no question Ortiz will be able to handle shortstop in the big leagues. He has great hands, outstanding actions and plus-plus instincts that combine with an excellent internal clock to make him close to an elite-level defender. He has a strong and accurate arm just to add to the package and ... has even shown he is adept at playing multiple infield positions as needed.
The Athletic’s Keith Law, a longtime Ortiz booster, wrote in February: “He’s a 60 defender at short, with great actions and soft hands, possibly the best defender of the Orioles’ many, many shortstop prospects.” O’s fans got a glimpse of Ortiz’s defensive skill in his 14 errorless games in the majors, though it was an extremely small sample size.
It’s hard to decipher the Orioles’ plans for Ortiz. In July, Elias told reporters, “We love Joey Ortiz, we love having him as part of our future.” He added, “I think he’s going to have a long future as a starting shortstop, and here is the most likely place.” But he barely played when he was on the big league roster this year, and when he did, it was strictly as a platoon guy. It should be noted that he had no problem hitting right-handed pitchers in the minors, posting an .841 OPS against them (along with an .863 mark vs. lefties). Westburg jumped Ortiz on the depth chart, and Holliday, the #1 prospect in baseball, arrived at Triple-A at the end of the year, further complicating Ortiz’s path forward.
Will Ortiz be on the 2024 Orioles? I have no idea. Does that help?
He should be in the majors somewhere, for sure. The 25-year-old Ortiz has little left to prove at Triple-A and deserves an extended big league audition. The Orioles’ much-discussed infield logjam, though, makes it hard to figure out exactly where Ortiz fits in. Henderson has dibs on the everyday shortstop role, and the O’s probably aren’t going to shift him to third base for anyone less than Holliday. Ortiz is unlikely to supplant Westburg, a fellow right-handed hitter, at second base. The Birds could trade or non-tender Urías or Mateo and have Ortiz replace them in the utility infielder role, but it’s just as likely that Ortiz himself gets traded, perhaps as part of a package for a pitcher.
It’s a good problem to have. And I’m glad it’s not my job to figure it all out.
2023 prospect reviews: Alex Pham/Trace Bright, Billy Cook/John Rhodes, International Prospects, Carter Baumler/Seth Johnson, Creed Willems, Justin Armbruester, Max Wagner, Jud Fabian, Mac Horvath, Cade Povich, Chayce McDermott, Dylan Beavers, Enrique Bradfield Jr., Connor Norby
Monday: Samuel Basallo