On Thursday last week, MLB Pipeline dropped their latest update to their Top 100 prospects list, and an update to every team’s Top 30 prospects along with it. Once upon a time, this would have been the peak of August excitement for Birdland. It was not so long ago that prospect rankings were more exciting than the on-field product for the O’s. Thankfully those days are now dead and gone.
There is still something to be excited about with this latest prospect update, however. While Jackson Holliday continuing his reign as the number one prospect in baseball—and the rise of Coby Mayo into the MLB Top 30—is exciting, it’s hardly surprising. Perhaps the biggest surprise when it comes to the Orioles future stars is the rise of catcher Samuel Basallo. The 19-year-old backstop from Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic saw his stock rise from just on the fringes of the Top 100 to now squarely among the game’s best prospects at No.50.
It’s not hard to understand why Basallo has spent the 2023 season rocketing up the prospect rankings. Prior to the 2023 season, Fangraphs named Basallo as a player who could break into the Top 100 by the 2024 season. Instead, the powerful left-handed hitting catcher has launched himself ahead of schedule with his performances in A-ball. In 83 games with Delmarva this year, Basallo mashed 12 homers and 19 doubles while hitting .299 and showing the type of advanced on-base skills that have become a trademark among Orioles prospects.
There are a lot of similarities between what makes Mayo such an exciting prospect and why evaluators have become enamored with Basallo. Between his plus power, plus-plus arm strength and highly projectable frame that should see him add more muscle as he matures, Basallo has all the makings of a catcher in the same mold as seven-time All-Star Brian McCann. He’s currently still in the adjustment phase at High-A Aberdeen, but he’s already showing off his prodigious power against older competition.
However, Basallo’s ascension represents more than just another singular success story in the growing line of Orioles super prospects. What Adley Rutschman was to the Orioles’ efforts in the draft, Basallo was to the Orioles’ big entrance into the international market. Mike Elias gave Basallo the largest international signing bonus in Orioles history when he signed him for $1.3M in 2021. And just as Rutschman became the face of a new generation of Baby Birds drafted and developed under Elias, Basallo is the face of a growing contingent of foreign prospects that could revolutionize the Orioles minor league system.
While Basallo is the only international prospect to crack the MLB Top 100, he’s far from alone when it comes to the Orioles’ Top 30. The next highest ranking international signing is switch-hitting, 18-year-old infielder Leandro Arias out of the DR. If Basallo is the Dominican Adley, Arias could be the Dominican Gunnar Henderson—a long and lean infielder with above average power who could grow into even better power as Arias fills out. The 18-year-old is joined by compatriot infielders Frederick Bencosme (19 years old) and Luis Almeyda (17) as international position players in the O’s top 30.
Even more intriguing than some of those infielders are the two international pitching prospects that snuck into the bottom of the O’s top prospects. Coming in at No.29 in the rankings is 22-year-old righty Juan Nuñez. Part of the return in the Jorge Lopez trade—the trade that keeps on giving—Nuñez has blossomed in his first full season in the Orioles system. A more diminutive pitcher at 5’11”, Nuñez has become one of the best strikeout artists in the Orioles’ lower minor leagues, racking up 106 Ks in 86 innings between Delmarva and Aberdeen. With a fastball that sits in the mid-90s and a good slider, the 22-year-old’s home may ultimately be in the bullpen, where that high strikeout rate will definitely play up.
The more intriguing of the two at this point is 20-year-old lefty Luis De León. A recent graduate from Rookie ball, De León’s only had five outings for Delmarva this season—but they sure have been electric. The lanky lefty’s best outing to date saw him throw five no-hit innings against the Kannapolis Cannon Ballers while striking out eight. At 20 with very little minor league experience, It’s impossible to be certain about the kind of pitcher De León will develop into. However, as a lefty with a plus fastball that touches 97, and two offspeed offerings that show signs of being plus, the ceiling seems limitless for De León.
A 6'3" lefty who can run it up to 96 mph? Hello, Luis De Leon!— The Verge- An Orioles MiLB Podcast (@BSLOnTheVerge) July 26, 2023
Making just his second appearance with Delmarva last night, De Leon struck out 8 across 5 no-hit innings.
He's allowed 1 hit (an infield single) in his first 9 IP, with 11 K.
Some really ugly swings here... pic.twitter.com/TBHMm2fojR
Once Elias & Co. committed to making the international market a priority in their team-building approach, then it became a question of when that commitment would bear fruit. And now, with Basallo leading the charge, Birdland is finally seeing those fruits. This was the final hurdle the Orioles needed to clear in order to catch up to the rest of the MLB’s team-building elites. The reigning champion Astros were built off the backs of international prospects like Jose Altuve, Yordan Alvarez, Framber Valdez and Jeremy Peña. While the current best team in baseball— the Atlanta Braves—built much of their franchise from drafted prospects, they also have two of the greatest international free agent success stories in Ronald Acuña Jr. and Ozzie Albies.
For too long the Orioles were trying to build a winning team with one hand tied behind their backs. They were attempting the MLB equivalent of an NFL team building a team without drafting from the SEC—and the results were predictably lackluster. With these international prospects the Orioles have managed to supplement their minor league system with young talent on a different timeline than the college prospects they rely on in the draft. More importantly, though, they’ve bolstered their talent pipeline with the types of prospects that come out of nowhere to truly put a team over the top. So don’t be surprised when the names Basallo, De León, Arias and others join the O’s in celebrating a World Series title.
In addition to Samuel Basallo, which international prospect are you most excited about?
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Luis De León
Other (tell us in the comments)