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Orioles minor league week in review: The championship series awaits the Norfolk Tides

The Orioles’ Triple-A affiliate wrapped its regular season and begins a best-of-three championship against Durham tonight.

MLB: Tampa Bay Rays at Baltimore Orioles
The Baseball America Minor League Player of the Year leads the Tides into the playoffs this week.
Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Another eventful, exciting season in the Orioles’ minor league system has nearly reached its end. After High-A Aberdeen and Low-A Delmarva wrapped up their seasons two weeks ago and Double-A Bowie followed suit a week later, the last remaining affiliate, Triple-A Norfolk, just finished its regular season on Sunday.

They’re not done playing just yet, though. The Tides are set for a best-of-three series against Durham this week for the International League Championship. Let’s put a bow on a truly epic season for the Birds’ top affiliate and preview the playoffs still to come.

Triple-A Norfolk Tides

  • Last week: 3-3 at Buffalo Bisons (Blue Jays)
  • Final regular season record: 90-59 (48-26 in first half, 42-33 in second half)

The Tides split their series to conclude their regular season, one of the most memorable ever for an Orioles affiliate. Their 90 wins were the most in the 63-year history of the Norfolk Tides, and their .604 winning percentage was third-best (and their best since becoming an O’s affiliate in 2007). Of the Orioles’ four current full-season affiliates, only one — the 2019 Delmarva Shorebirds, who went 90-48 — has ever had a better season than this year’s Norfolk club. (A handful of players, including Grayson Rodriguez, Nick Vespi, and outfielder Shayne Fontana, played for both the ’19 Shorebirds and ’23 Tides.)

The Tides’ offense continued to sizzle in the final series, posting an .861 OPS and scoring 41 runs, both second-best in the International League this week. The undisputed star was Connor Norby (#7 prospect on MLB Pipeline), who crushed three home runs — including grand slams in consecutive games — and drove in 11. With his standout performance, Norby made some impressive history for the Tides.

Stupendous job by Norby, who is doing his best to keep himself on the radar even as other O’s infield prospects get more acclaim. He certainly seems ready for a major league tryout, but as of now it’s hard to see a path for playing time for him in Baltimore.

The Birds’ other top prospects at Triple-A shined this week, including Coby Mayo (#4), who reached base 14 times and powered his 29th home run of the year (17 for Bowie, 12 for Norfolk). He’s another prospect who should arrive with the Orioles sooner rather than later, even if he doesn’t have a clear position at this point. That bat — with a .290/.410/.563 triple slash this season — will play anywhere. Colton Cowser (#2) finished his up-and-down season with seven hits and a homer this week, giving him an exactly .300 average and .937 OPS this year. Those are some eye-opening numbers for sure, though his 26.8 strikeout rate is a concern, and his brief, failed major league audition showed he still has work to do.

In a separate category, of course, is Jackson Holliday (#1), the best prospect in baseball, who yesterday was named Baseball America’s Minor League Player of the Year. It’s the second year in a row an Oriole has won BA’s honors — Gunnar Henderson did so last season — and the third overall, with Matt Wieters also winning in 2008. Holliday, after a team-leading nine hits this week, wrapped up his regular season with an astonishing .323/.442/.499 line, with 12 homers, 75 RBIs, and an astonishing 101 walks, across four minor league levels. Oh, and he’s only 19 years old. To quote Joe Angel: my goodness.

As for the pitchers, Norfolk’s season-ending staff consisted of a mix of veteran Quad-A journeymen, minor league organizational players, and a couple of intriguing young arms. The only top-30 O’s prospect to make an appearance in the final week was lefty Cade Povich (#11), who struggled with control, issuing three walks and giving up four runs in five innings. Povich, who arrived in last year’s Jórge López trade, has a dynamite arm, as his 12.1 K/9 rate this season will attest. Walks have held him back, though, with a 4.7 BB/9 rate, including multiple free passes in nine of his 10 starts at Triple-A.

Right-hander Chayce McDermott (#10), part of the Trey Mancini return package, suffered a back strain in mid-September, finishing his season with a 3.10 ERA and 11.5 K/9 for Bowie and Norfolk, but also 5.1 BB/9. McDermott and Povich presumably will return to Norfolk next year to work on finding the strike zone more often.

International League Championship series preview: Norfolk Tides vs. Durham Bulls — best of three

  • Game 1: Tuesday, 6:35 at Norfolk. Starting pitchers: TBD vs. Bruce Zimmermann
  • Game 2: Wednesday, 6:35 at Norfolk. Starting pitchers: Both TBD
  • Game 3 (if necessary): Thursday, 6:35 at Norfolk. Starting pitchers: Both TBD

Norfolk punched its ticket to the postseason months ago by clinching the best record in the first half of the season. Durham, the Triple-A affiliate of the Rays, won the second half with a 48-27 mark. The Bulls are the defending International League champions, so they’ll be a battle-tested opponent for the fast-rising Tides.

As you might expect for two successful Triple-A teams, both rosters have been raided by their major league clubs throughout the year. Several key Norfolk contributors during the season — including Rodriguez, DL Hall, Jordan Westburg, and Heston Kjerstad— are currently with the Orioles. Durham’s season OPS leader, Jonathan Aranda, is up with the Rays, while slugging first baseman Kyle Manzardo was traded to Cleveland at the deadline.

Still, neither team is hurting for good players. The Tides boast a lineup led by current top-10 O’s prospects Holliday, Mayo, Norby, and Cowser, plus Kyle Stowers, who was a top-10 prospect not so long ago. Veterans including first baseman Lewin Díaz and outfielder Daz Cameron round out the batting order. Norfolk might, however, be missing shortstop Joey Ortiz (#6), who hasn’t played since Sept. 2 because of oblique soreness.

Zimmermann, the erstwhile major leaguer, will take the hill for game one of the series. The Baltimore-born southpaw was 4-7 with a 4.42 ERA in 21 starts for the Tides. The club hasn’t announced its other starters. Candidates include Povich and right-hander Garrett Stallings. Justin Armbruester, whose 13 starts were second-most on the club, probably won’t be available after starting the season finale Sunday.

The Bulls bring a well-rounded club that had the International League’s second-best ERA (4.56) and third-best OPS (.828) this season. The highest ranked prospect on their roster is left-hander Mason Montgomery (#8), a 2021 draft pick who made four starts at Triple-A after spending most of the year at Double-A Montgomery. No word on whether that affiliate was named after him. He likely won’t start in this series after pitching Sunday. But the Bulls do figure to use lefty Jacob Lopez (#28), who led Durham with a 2.72 ERA in 18 starts.

The Durham offense doesn’t include any of Pipeline’s top-20 Rays prospects, but they’ve got hitters with pop. Shortstop Tristan Gray clubbed 30 home runs this year and earned a two-game cup of coffee in the majors (where he hit a home run against the Orioles for good measure). Aranda and outfielders Ruben Cardenas and Kameron Misner (#22 prospect) also topped the 20-homer mark. First baseman Austin Shenton (#27) posted a jaw-dropping .301/.432/.603 line in 61 games at Durham.

The season series was dominated by Norfolk, who went 15-6 against Durham this year. Of course, anything can happen in a short series, and it should be a hard-fought one. Let’s hope the Tides can bring home the championship trophy — and that their major league counterparts will do the same next month.