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Colton Cowser dominated at Triple-A but couldn’t make an impact in Baltimore

The former No. 5 overall pick was at the heart of the Norfolk lineup all season. His brief stint for the O’s, on the other hand, left a lot to be desired.

Houston Astros v Baltimore Orioles Photo by G Fiume/Getty Images

Colton Cowser came into the season as a top 50 prospect and ended it in the top 15. Cowser started 2023 looking to build on a late call-up to Norfolk in 2022. He ended the year as the MVP of the Triple-A championship game and undoubtedly one of the best players at the minors’ highest level. Yet, 2023 will perhaps be better remembered for Cowser’s underwhelming time in the majors than his exploits for Norfolk.

Ever since being selected No. 5 overall in the 2021 draft, Cowser has made a habit of outperforming expectations. Much like the Heston Kjerstad pick in 2020, the selection of Cowser was seen as a sort of value pick that would save the Orioles bonus pool money for later in the draft. Because of that perception, there wasn’t an expectation that Cowser would rise all the way to Triple-A in his first full pro season. And yet, that’s exactly was the sweet-swinging lefty from Houston did in 2022.

Those impressive returns last year completely redefined Cowser’s expectations for 2023. He was now squarely in competition with the likes of Jordan Westburg and Heston Kjerstad to see who would be the next highly-ranked position player to make their way to Baltimore. Cowser looked like the early front-runner for that honor thanks to a hot start for the TIdes. Over his first 25 games in 2023, the outfielder slashed .295/.437/.495 while driving in 19, scoring 27 runs and working 21 walks.

As he racked up at-bats at Triple-A, Cowser showed the same discipline and ability to drive the ball to all fields that helped Adley Rutschman climb to No. 1 prospect status. Despite struggling through some injuries in May, Cowser still collected 18 hits in 12 games, posted a .409 average and a 1.215 OPS and continued to dazzle as the primary leadoff hitter for the Tides. When Cedric Mullins went down with an injury at the end of May, most of Birdland was hoping Cowser would be the one to replace him on the Orioles roster. Had he not been injured himself, the 23-year-old outfielder may very well have gotten that call.

Instead, Cowser continued to dominate for the Tides throughout the month of June. The former first-round pick had seven multi-hit games in 18 appearances and continued to be an elite on-base player with .431 OBP throughout the month. After collecting 47 walks in his first 55 games of the year, it seemed like Triple-A pitching was actively trying to avoid pitching the Orioles outfielder on the rise.

Minor league pitchers wouldn’t have to fear Cowser for much longer, though, because on July 5 he got his long awaited call-up to the major league roster. In the broadcast of his first career MLB game against the Yankees, Orioles play-by-play Kevin Brown kept referencing how Cowser said his goal every game was to get on base 2+ times. Right off the bat Cowser was meeting that goal in the big leagues, as he worked a walk and picked up an RBI single in his debut.

While the hits didn’t come right away, Cowser’s initial five-game cameo before the All-Star break showed some encouraging signs. With a .381 OBP, he was showing the same level of discipline that helped him be a start at the minor league level. The only problem was, the hits never really came while Cowser was in Baltimore. After earning the reputation as a multi-hit machine down in the minors, Cowser had zero multi-hit games in an Orioles uniform.

After the RBI in his debut, his only other standout moment with the O’s came on a game-winning RBI double in the 9th inning in Philadelphia. At some point, though, the .115 average and .433 OPS became too hard to ignore any longer. Like with fellow Texan Grayson Rodriguez and his struggles at the beginning of his rookie season, it was clear that Cowser needed time to go back to the minors and reset.

On August 16, Cowser returned to Norfolk for his second act with the Tides. He immediately fell back into the comfortable groove we saw for him before his call-up. Cowser embarked on a six-game hit streak in his first six games back, including a 3-5 effort that included a double and HR. He also flashed the leather just as well as the bat in making the best defensive play we saw from a Tides player all year.

Besides his time in MLB, September at Norfolk was Cowser’s most difficult month of the season. After consistently putting up averages above .300 and an .OBP above .400, his triple slash dropped to .226/.299/.751 over the final month of the regular season. Those struggles continued into the International League Championship series, as Cowser went 1-13 in Norfolk’s series win. However, the star outfielder saved his best moment of the year for the very last game. In the Triple-A National Championship game, Cowser launched a 7th-inning grand slam that put the Tides ahead for good and earned him MVP honors.

Will he be on the 2024 Orioles?

At this point, it would be a massive disappointment if Cowser didn’t break next year’s spring training as part of the 26-man roster. The starting outfield of Hays-Mullins-Santander is very well established, and Cowser won’t likely unseat any of them as a regular starter in 2024. However, with Aaron Hicks probably not returning and Ryan McKenna’s time as a regular major leaguer likely at an end, there’s plenty of room for Cowser to provide depth off the O’s bench. Unless there’s a major free agent signing in the outfield, I’d expect both Cowser and Kjerstad to be the main outfield bench options come April.

The caveat here is always whether Mike Elias & Co. would consider including Cowser in a blockbuster trade. With No. 1 prospect Jackson Holliday fully off the table in trade discussions, Cowser is the highest ranking prospect that could “realistically” be included in a trade. I say “realistically” because it would presumably take an offseason-defining, blockbuster trade for the Orioles to even consider parting with Cowser. If the Orioles suddenly want to get on Juan Soto trade talks—or another player of that caliber—then sure, Cowser becomes potentially expendable. Otherwise, expect him to play an important role on the 2024 Orioles.

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, Samuel Basallo, Coby Mayo, Heston Kjerstad

Tomorrow: Jackson Holliday