The Orioles enter the final week of the MLB season with an inside track to the American League’s top seed. Their magic number is just three with six games remaining, and an AL East title could be just a few days away.
As Baltimore pushes for its first AL East title since 2012 this week, the organization’s Triple-A club is also aiming to reach new heights. With the minor league regular season over, the Norfolk Tides, winners of the first-half International League title, will play in the IL Championship Series this week.
As the Orioles hope to fend off the Tampa Bay Rays for AL East supremacy, the Tides will take on the Rays’ Triple-A squad, the Durham Bulls, to claim the IL crown. The winner will take on the Pacific Coast League’s champion in the Triple-A title game on Saturday.
The last time Baltimore’s Triple-A club played in the IL Championship Series was when the Rochester Red Wings did so in 1997. That same year, the Orioles won the AL East, making it to the AL Championship Series.
The fact that the Orioles, who are on the verge of their first 100-win season in more than 40 years, also have one of the best Triple-A clubs in the sport and Baseball America’s top-ranked farm system bodes well for Baltimore’s chances to sustain its 2023 success. That’s why each Tuesday this season, The Baltimore Sun has focused on the Orioles’ farm system with a deep dive into how the organization’s prospects have played.
With the minor league season officially ending Saturday, the final minor league report of 2023 will feature this list of the top performers among prospects in the Orioles’ system this year.
Double-A Bowie’s Samuel Basallo: No player in the Orioles’ system improved his stock more this season than Basallo, who rose from No. 15 to No. 4 among Baltimore’s prospects, according to Baseball America. In his age-18 season, the backstop climbed three rungs on the ladder to become one of the youngest players at the Double-A level. Basallo is the gem of Baltimore’s international operations, as the club signed him in January 2021 for a then-organization record $1.3 million. The 6-foot-3 teenager got better as the season progressed, ending it with a sparkling .313/.402/.551 slash line — good for a .953 OPS — and 61 walks against 94 strikeouts.
Baltimore’s Heston Kjerstad: The 2020 first-round pick is the only player on the list who is now with the Orioles, as Kjerstad was promoted earlier this month to provide a left-handed bat for manager Brandon Hyde to deploy against right-handed pitchers. Kjerstad, the club’s No. 5 prospect, is now in the majors thanks to his consistent performance in the minors this year, crushing Double-A pitching before doing the same against Triple-A arms. The 24-year-old hit .303 with a .904 OPS between Bowie and Norfolk in his first full season of professional baseball after missing two calendar years with heart and hamstring ailments. He’s mainly an outfielder, but he played about one-third of his games this year at first base.
Triple-A Norfolk’s Connor Norby: A slow April caused Norby’s stock to fall, as the 23-year-old went from being ranked inside Baseball America’s top 100 to outside of Baltimore’s top 10. But the 2021 second-round pick posted an OPS of .800 or better in each of the season’s final five months with the Tides and ended the year with numbers similar to what he put up last year when he led all Orioles minor leaguers in homers. Norby, who also plays left field, hit .290 with an .842 OPS and totaled 40 doubles, 21 home runs and 92 RBIs.
Triple-A Norfolk’s Coby Mayo: Like Basallo, Mayo’s ascent this season is likely why the Orioles could go into 2024 with one of MLB’s best farm systems after players like Gunnar Henderson, Grayson Rodriguez and Jordan Westburg graduated from prospect status this year. Mayo, who also plays first base, clobbered Double-A pitching to earn a midseason promotion to the Tides. Between the two levels, the 21-year-old has a .410 on-base percentage and leads all Orioles minor leaguers with 45 doubles, 29 home runs and 99 RBIs. After entering the year outside Baseball America’s top 100, Mayo is ranked as the publication’s 24th-best prospect.
Triple-A Norfolk’s Jackson Holliday: What else can be said about Holliday that hasn’t already? This season, he became the No. 1 prospect in the sport, rose from Low-A Delmarva to Triple-A Norfolk in historic fashion at age 19 and on Monday was named Baseball America’s Minor League Player of the Year. He performed at every level, displaying elite plate discipline with only 17 more strikeouts (118) than walks (101) in 125 games. He slashed .323/.442/.499 — good for a .941 OPS — between the four levels with 30 doubles, nine triples, 12 homers, 75 RBIs and 24 stolen bases.
Triple-A Norfolk’s Colton Cowser: Cowser’s first two stints in the majors didn’t go as planned, but that doesn’t take away from his superb year in Triple-A. The 23-year-old hit just .115 in 77 MLB plate appearances, but he slashed .300/.417/.520 for a .937 OPS with the Tides this season. He blasted 17 homers and walked 64 times in 87 games as his ranking on Baseball America’s top 100 rose from No. 41 to No. 11.
Double-A Bowie’s Dylan Beavers: Like Norby, Beavers’ stock, according to Baseball America, has fallen this year, as the publication ranks him nine spots lower among Baltimore’s prospects now than at the beginning of the season. Beavers, the No. 33 overall pick in the 2022 draft, struggled this spring, but he got red-hot this summer, hitting .346 over his final 61 games. He actually hit about 50 points higher in his 34 games with the Baysox than in his 85 games with High-A Aberdeen. On the season, Beavers tallied 35 doubles, six triples and 11 homers while stealing 27 bases and walking 70 times.
Double-A Bowie’s Billy Cook: Cook is the only position player on this list to be outside of Baltimore’s top 30, according to Baseball America, although MLB Pipeline has the 24-year-old ranked No. 27. As a 10th-round pick in 2021, Cook isn’t considered a top prospect, but he played like one in many ways this season, displaying his combination of speed and power. In 120 games for the Baysox, Cook hit .251 with a .776 OPS to go along with 24 home runs, 81 RBIs and 30 stolen bases.
Triple-A Norfolk’s Joey Ortiz: If it weren’t for Holliday, Ortiz would easily slot in at shortstop on this list. If this were a true lineup with a designated hitter, Kjerstad would likely DH, Mayo would play first and Ortiz would shift to third. But given Ortiz played 75% of his games at shortstop this year but also showed during his brief stints in the majors that he’s capable of playing three infield positions, he slots in at utility. He wasn’t able to stick on the Orioles’ roster, but he’s performed better at Triple-A than perhaps any prospect before him, including Adley Rutschman and Henderson. Ortiz, who is ranked as Baltimore’s No. 6 prospect, hit .321 with an .885 OPS with the Tides this season.
Triple-A Norfolk’s Justin Armbruester: Baltimore’s farm system is dominated by top-tier position players, with only two pitchers ranked inside its top 12, according to Baseball America. But Armbruester, one of five arms ranked between Nos. 13 and 19, stood out this season between Double- and Triple-A. The 6-foot-4 right-hander posted a 3.56 ERA in 121 1/3 innings with 109 strikeouts. While he posted a 4.70 ERA in his time with the Tides, he improved his strikeout rate about eight percentage points at the new level.
Double-A Bowie’s Trace Bright: No starting pitcher in the Orioles’ system strikes out a higher percentage of batters than Bright. The 2022 fifth-round pick totaled 147 strikeouts in just 99 2/3 innings with a rate of 33.9%. Bright, a 6-foot-4 righty, posted a 3.97 ERA between Aberdeen and Bowie, including a 2.12 ERA in 17 innings with the Baysox. Baseball America ranks the 22-year-old as Baltimore’s 29th-best prospect.
Triple-A Norfolk’s Chayce McDermott: The club’s third-best pitching prospect, McDermott dominated Triple-A hitters after his midseason promotion. The right-hander posted a 2.49 ERA with the Tides after managing a 3.56 ERA in Double-A. McDermott, whom the Orioles acquired last summer in the Trey Mancini trade, is perhaps the best pitcher in the minor leagues at preventing hits with a 4.8 hits per nine innings and .156 batting average against in Triple-A. The 25-year-old’s success this season is why he jumped 10 spots on Baltimore’s prospect list to No. 13.
Double-A Bowie’s Alex Pham: In his first professional season as a starting pitcher, Pham perhaps put up the best season out of any starters in Baltimore’s system this year. The 23-year-old right-hander went from being outside Baltimore’s top 30 to No. 16 after posting a 2.57 ERA in 112 innings between Aberdeen and Bowie. He allowed just 5.8 hits per nine innings while striking out 29.4% of batters.
Triple-A Norfolk’s Cade Povich: After DL Hall, who is now in the Orioles’ bullpen, Povich is ranked as Baltimore’s top pitching prospect at No. 10 overall. The left-hander led all Orioles minor leaguers with 171 strikeouts in 126 2/3 innings, though he struggled at times and ended the regular season with a 5.04 ERA. Povich, whom the Orioles acquired last summer in the Jorge López trade, struggled after he was promoted to Triple-A in late July. But the 23-year-old found his footing after a few starts and posted a 3.26 ERA with a .167 batting average against in his final 30 1/3 innings.
Triple-A Norfolk’s Wandisson Charles: A year ago, Charles posted an 11.43 ERA with more walks than innings for Oakland’s Double-A affiliate. He ended this season as Norfolk’s closer. Charles, a 6-foot-4 right-hander out of the Dominican Republic, pitched to a 4.75 ERA in 45 1/3 innings between Double- and Triple-A. He saved 11 games, including eight with the Tides, as one of the organization’s top strikeout pitchers with a 33.2% rate.
Double-A Bowie’s Keagan Gillies: In his first complete year of full-season ball, Gillies struck out 61 batters in 40 2/3 innings with the IronBirds and Baysox. The 6-foot-8 righty allowed just one earned run in 15 appearances with Aberdeen before posting a 3.75 ERA in 18 outings with Bowie.
Triple-A Norfolk’s Nolan Hoffman: The sidearmer doesn’t have the flashy strikeout numbers, but he was one of the most effective relievers in Baltimore’s farm system. Hoffman, whom the Orioles claimed off waivers from the Seattle Mariners in December 2021, posted a 3.05 ERA and seven saves in 44 1/3 innings between Bowie and Norfolk. The 25-year-old righty allowed just one of the 191 batters he faced to homer with a walk rate of 7.3%.
The system’s depth leaves plenty of deserving candidates outside of this list, including these players: Outfielder Jud Fabian, ranked as Baltimore’s ninth-best prospect, hit 24 home runs and stole 31 bases between Aberdeen and Bowie. … Outfielder Kyle Stowers opened the season on the Orioles’ 26-man roster, but after struggling in the majors, he returned to the minors and hit 21 home runs in 75 games. … Right-hander Jean Pinto was one of the organization’s best starting pitchers in the first half of the season, ending the year with a 3.10 in 81 1/3 innings with the IronBirds and Baysox. … Left-hander Deivy Cruz posted a 3.62 ERA and struck out 103 batters in 97 innings with Delmarva at just 19 years old. … Right-handed reliever Yaqui Rivera, another 19-year-old, posted a 2.52 ERA with 68 strikeouts in 50 relief innings between Delmarva and Aberdeen. … Right-handed reliever Dylan Heid struck out 36.4% of batters with a 2.58 ERA with the IronBirds and Baysox.
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