The Orioles developing the top farm system in baseball represented the biggest team story over the last five years. The organization hired Mike Elias and trusted him to undergo a lengthy process that would eventually pay dividends. The product on the big league field suffered, but Baltimore slowly built out the top system in baseball.
A great farm system can distract from poor play, but fans grow impatient waiting for the future. Now, after a few difficult years, Baltimore finds itself with both a good team and a great group of prospects. Man, I could get used to this.
Fans are still eager to watch Jackson Holliday and Colton Cowser play in Baltimore, but it’s not the only thing on their mind. The same can be said about the front office. The Orioles’ strong start has reduced any pressure from rushing a player to the majors.
Baltimore was never going to send Holliday or Heston Kjerstad to the big leagues this month, but a few key performances have provided extra time for certain prospects.
Yennier Cano has catapulted from a “throw in” trade piece to a late-inning star. It’s unclear whether the 29-year-old will continue to dominate, but nobody can take away his 7 perfect innings. The Orioles desperately needed a reliever to step up with Dillon Tate and Mychal Givens on the shelf, and Cano has been that guy.
Cano’s arrival offset some anticipated regression from guys like Cionel Pérez and Austin Voth. It has also prevented Baltimore from editing the DL Hall plan.
The Orioles elected to keep Hall as a starter and doubled down after a slow ramp up in spring training. The bullpen has had its hands full this season, and Hall flashed back-end stuff last September. The emergence of Cano, continued success from Bryan Baker, and a renaissance from Mike Baumann have eliminated temptation to remove Hall from Norfolk’s rotation.
Baltimore boasts significant middle infield depth, but Jorge Mateo has stolen the show. Mateo entered last night’s game with a .358 average and a 185 OPS+. He had swiped eight bags, tallied three homers, and scored 15 times. He’s taking the ball the other way, he’s making plays in the field, and he’s running all over opposing catchers. The guy has been a lightning bolt through the first 23 games.
Mateo’s dominant start has diverted attention away from Gunnar Henderson and his struggles at the plate. The 21-year-old has looked helpless against offspeed pitches while watching far too many hittable pitches. Henderson’s impressive walk rate has helped, but Mateo’s streak has quieted the noise around the former top prospect in baseball.
Mateo’s dominance and Adam Frazier’s timely contributions have mostly tempered calls for Jordan Westburg and Joey Ortiz. The Orioles do not view Frazier as a long term option, but the former Mariner has avoided the Chris Owings treatment. Westburg blasted a grand slam last night, and Ortiz is already on the 40-man roster, but Mateo and Frazier have prevented a need to rush either to the big leagues.
Both Mateo and Austin Hays entered 2023 with a few question marks. Hays looked at the plethora of outfield options on the Opening Day roster and decided to leave nothing to chance. He entered last night’s game hitting .305 with a 146 OPS+. Hays requires a daily start in the outfield, but he left last night’s game due to injury.
For better or worse, Hays’ healthy appetite at the plate left no room for Kyle Stowers. Stowers and Cowser must pound down the door to climb their way to Baltimore. Cowser just earned the International League Player of the Week award, and the Orioles would love to see him take home a few more before a call up later this summer.
The Orioles and their fans are excited to see prospects graduate and contribute at the big league level. Still, it’s a blessing when major leaguers make them earn it. Baltimore did not rush players during the rebuild, and surprise contributions have reduced the temptation to change the strategy this season.