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What to make of the disparity in Colton Cowser’s prospect rankings

A change in the outfielder’s offensive profile has diminished his stock in some circles while confidence was unwavering elsewhere. What does it all mean?

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MLB: Minnesota Twins at Baltimore Orioles Scott Taetsch-USA TODAY Sports

The Orioles farm system is really good, maybe even the best. Not everyone agrees, of course. MLB Pipeline polled front office executives earlier this month and found that half of them preferred another club. Keith Law at The Athletic liked two other organizations above the O’s, but he still views them favorably.

The prospect ranking business is a mix of art and science. The traditional things like batting average and home runs matter in the minors, but they don’t tell the whole story. Just as the flashy skills like power, speed, or fastball velocity are important but don’t guarantee in-game success. It’s up to the scout to do some work, combine the tangible with the intangible, forecast the future based on the present, and give their readers a best approximation of a player’s chances in the bigs. That often includes ordering all of the top players in the sport into a tidy list that goes 100 deep.

You may be shocked to learn that this ultimate output tends to draw the ire of representatives from every single fan base, regardless of how favorably or unfavorably the creators of the list may have looked upon their team. Law, a regular punching bag for Orioles fans, experienced this first-hand following the publication of his Top 100 list.

Not only is his the first public-facing list to not have Gunnar Henderson as the top prospect (he’s second), but it had just six Orioles overall (the fewest of any list), and perhaps the biggest sin of all, Colton Cowser was nowhere to be found. Although Law did post a follow up “Just Missed” list of 11 players that had Cowser right at the top.

The Orioles top pick in 2021 and fifth overall, Cowser is ranked between 30th and 41st on every other list that has been put out to date, a rather tight band that could be considered a consensus prior to Law putting him somewhere between 101st and 111th.

That was until FanGraphs put out their list of top prospects in the Orioles organization. It placed Cowser 12th at the club with a future value grade of 45. That puts him behind the likes of Heston Kjerstad, Cade Povich, Connor Norby, and Dylan Beavers.

FanGraphs is yet to release their league-wide list, and ranking 12th for the Orioles is likely better than 12th in many other organizations. But the 45 grade for future value gives us an idea of how writer Eric Longenhagen views the outfielder in the overall picture. It’s not particularly rosy. In fact, it’s far more critical than Law.

Law dubbed Cowser likely to become “a very solid, reliable regular, maybe a 55, but perhaps not a star.” He cited his struggles against left-handed pitching and issues with “offspeed stuff of all varieties” upon reaching Triple-A.

Longenhagen feels Cowser’s hit tool has gone down a notch, pointing to his 25+% strikeout rate at every minor league level he played in 2022. On top of that, he doesn’t seem to buy Cowser as a long-term center fielder, therefore putting more pressure on a bat that has some evident holes. However, if he can stick in center, Longenhagen admits “he fits as a 50 future value prospect despite recent issues he’s had with contact.”

It’s a somewhat damning paragraph in general that sounds like a disappointed parent. Just a year ago Longenhagen had Cowser fourth in the organization, sandwiched between D.L. Hall and Henderson. It seems that a year Cowser focused on adding power may not have played well in some scouting circles.

It also makes Law’s assessment appear far more complimentary. Compare it to the analysis from MLB Pipeline’s write-up, which put him 40th overall in their list. They agreed on an overall grade of 55 and noted “more swing-and-miss to his game than anticipated” plus his struggles with “softer stuff at the upper levels.” Perhaps the overlap exists in an appreciation of Cowser’s abilities on defense and a belief that he will improve at the plate with a bit more seasoning in Norfolk.

It would be easy to simply say “well, these lists don’t matter anyway” and wipe your hands of the low rankings in deference of the brighter ones. After all, the Orioles aren’t making their decisions based on the opinions of Keith Law or Eric Longenhagen. And it is common to see these public lists lag ever so slightly behind internal evaluations of players.

But that feels disingenuous. The words of these writers carry weight that has come with experience. Many of them have worked in MLB front offices, and they have all been covering prospects for a long, long time. You may disagree with their analysis, and they may even prove to be wrong on individual players, but that doesn’t mean they should be outright ignored.

Instead, let’s view it as an educated reflection of how industry folks evaluate Cowser. This is a player that is likely to be in Baltimore sometime this summer, and the Orioles would probably like for him to be a fixture in their lineup for years to come. What needs to happen for the Orioles—and, by extension, the fanbase—to feel confident when that call comes?

Strikeouts need to be at the top of that list. A strikeout rate of 25-30% may be acceptable for the game’s biggest sluggers, but it won’t work for a guy projected to be more of a 15-20 homer type at the highest level. Unless he develops light tower power out of nowhere, the O’s probably want him closer to a 20% (or lower!) K rate.

At the same time, Cowser needs to figure out southpaws, at least a little bit. The .194/.329/.287 batting line against lefties that Law pointed out is concerning if the hope is for Cowser to play everyday. Being the heavy side of a platoon is not such a bad role to have if that is how things shake out, but the Orioles might like for him to be playable against same-handed hurlers.

And finally, defense. While Cowser has largely been a centerfielder throughout his minor league career, that could shift in 2023. Cedric Mullins is going to patrol that part of Camden Yards for the time being, and with two years of team control remaining and a shot at making the playoffs this year, there is no need to make an immediate change. Instead we may see Daz Cameron in centerfield for the Tides while Cowser learns the ropes over in the corners most days. An everyday return to center could come next year or the year after, depending on Mullins’ future.

A dip in how portions of the industry regard Cowser is not reason for panic. His development still appears to be right on track. He made it all the way up to Triple-A in his first full season of professional baseball. He’s doing fine! And his 49-game stint with Double-A Bowie (1.037 OPS) should make you feel pretty good about the 22-year old.

There are legitimate concerns about areas of his game, and you can be sure the Orioles will work to correct them. Perhaps if he had wrapped up 2022 with a dominant month in Norfolk we would be talking about him as the big league starting right fielder on Opening Day. But it didn’t happen. And so he goes back to the lab with the chance of giving the roster a big mid-season boost once he marinates a bit longer down on the farm.