It seems like every few months a new “helium” prospect pops up for the Orioles. That’s to say a youngster that is, relatively, under the radar, then starts to put up head-turning numbers, and now finds themselves all over the national “top prospect” lists. Samuel Basallo is the latest in line.
Basallo is an example of the type of player that the Orioles were missing out on during the years in which they participated sparingly in the international market. The now-19-year-old catcher came to the Orioles organization in 2021, signed as an amateur for $1.3 million out of the Dominican Republic. At the time, it was the largest bonus the Orioles had ever given to an international prospect. So far, it seems like a wise investment.
After spending his first two seasons of professional baseball at the Rookie level—Dominican Summer League in 2021, Florida Complex League in 2022—Basallo made the jump to Low-A Delmarva to begin 2023. That would begin his quick climb up the minor league ladder, which saw him play (and succeed!) at three levels this past season.
Basallo spent April through July in Delmarva. His OPS in those months were as follows: .866, .735, .954, 1.007. Over 83 total games with the Shorebirds he hit 12 home runs, 19 doubles, drove in 60 runs and finished with a .299/.384/.503 batting line. It was impressive output for anyone, let alone a teenager that was at least a year or two younger than most of the other players on the field.
It turns out, Basallo was just getting started. He got bumped up to High-A Aberdeen to start August. But that proved to be light work. Over 27 games he hit .333/.443/.688 with eight home runs, and a 195 wRC+. He did suffer a concussion towards the end of his stay in Aberdeen, which required a brief IL stint. But shortly after recovering he was sent to Double-A Bowie for the season’s final few days. In just four games as a member of the Baysox he went 7-for-15 with a double, a triple, one walk, and one strikeout.
In total, Basallo hit 20 home runs as an 18-year-old, all of which came against advanced competition for his age. He OPS’ed .953 overall and saw both his strikeout and walk rates improve when he moved from Delmarva to Aberdeen mid-season. It’s impossible to call his season anything but a resounding success.
MLB Pipeline, along with others, took notice. At the end of 2022, Basallo was listed as the Orioles 19th-best prospect, a respectable spot in one of the sport’s best minor league systems. But his productivity (plus some graduations ahead of him) has rocketed him up the charts. He now sits in the fifth spot for the Orioles, right behind fellow helium prospect Coby Mayo, and 46th in all of baseball.
Pipeline lauds Basallo’s ability to hit “the ball really hard.” That was evident all season as 43% of all balls he put in play were over 95 mph in exit velocity, and his 106.1 mph max exit velocity was in the top 10 percent of all minor leaguers.
FanGraphs’ preseason notes on Basallo are similar. They said “Basallo also has so much power, an incredible amount for an 18-year-old catching prospect...He can generate extra-base power with just a flick of his wrist and his max-effort swings are the stuff of Paul Bunyan.”
Everyone is agreement that this guy has serious power. To this point, he has also paired that with an ability to work a walk (16.5% walk rate in Aberdeen) and has seen his strikeout rate improve (17.4% in Aberdeen) as the season went on. That sure sounds like an elite hitting prospect.
But what about the defense? There have been some doubts about whether Basallo can stick as a catcher long term or not. Much of that skepticism comes from his size. Basallo is big at 6-foot-3, and anyone that has seen him in person will tell you that the 180 pounds he’s listed at is probably 50 pounds lighter than reality. That raises some concerns about continued mobility and blocking pitches.
Throwing doesn’t seem to be a big problem for Basallo back there. He threw out 33% of attempted base-stealers this season and gets good marks for his arm strength. For some context, Adley Rutschman nabbed 28% as a minor leaguer in 2021, threw out 31% in 2022 with the Orioles, and then saw his number dip to 22% this past season.
However, there were an awful lot of attempts against Basallo. In just 68 games he faced 139 stolen base attempts, more than two per game. Compare that to Jeferson Quero, a Double-A catcher in the Brewers organization that is highly regarded for his glove work. Over 74 games he saw 78 stolen base attempts and threw out 35%. Of course, these are minor league numbers, which means working with minor league pitchers, which will always include some extreme variability.
Basallo also spent a healthy chunk of time at first base in 2023, accounting for about 25% of his total playing time. That isn’t evidence of much as the Orioles also gave Rutschman significant innings at first base during his development, and there was never any question about whether he could stick behind the plate or not. But it does give the club a natural downgrade path if Basallo does “outgrow” the catcher position while his bat remains viable.
First base also comes with bigger offensive expectations. So far, Basallo seems more than up to the task. But there is more to learn about him in 2024 as he faces upper minors competition all summer long. Should he falter with either the glove or the bat, that will create more pressure on the other.
Will Basallo be on the 2024 Orioles? Unlikely. The Orioles are in a good spot with Rutschman starting behind the plate and James McCann a viable backup. In all likelihood, they will also invite a veteran backstop to spring training as a security measure. First base also figures to be quite full with Ryan Mountcastle, Ryan O’Hearn, Anthony Santander, and even Heston Kjerstad all poised to return in 2024.
Continued development will be the goal for Basallo next season. If he absolutely blows the doors off the competition after spending at least a month or two in both Bowie and Norfolk, then perhaps a conversation will need to be had late in the season. But there’s only so much big league playing time to go around, and it’s tough to see the Orioles adding a player that won’t even be Rule 5 eligible until 2025 to the mix in the next 12 months.
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, Joey Ortiz
Tomorrow: Coby Mayo