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2023 Baltimore Orioles Top 10 Prospects Chat



Jon Meoli answered questions regarding the Orioles farm system at noon ET today. You can read the transcript here.

Jon Meoli: Hello! Thanks to everyone who is here checking this out. It's an honor as always to be part of the BA process, and as I feel like I've said the last few years, it's getting more and more fun to dig into the Orioles' system given the depth and quality here. By virtue of finding this, you've probably already seen the rankings. I would be remiss not to direct everyone interested to my Substack, Maximizing Playoff Odds (jonmeoli.substack.com) if they're interested in regular content about the Orioles. There are some great questions in here so far, but I'll answer everything that comes in, so feel free to submit more as we go!

Alex (Bay Area):

    Gunnar Henderson took his game to new heights in 2022. After blowing through AA/AAA he more than held his own during his final month with the big league club going .259/.349/.440 good for +123 OPS. Does Gunnar's tools now rate 60s pretty much across the board with maybe the exception of speed? Do you think he'll ave ah hot tosend up in the 25-30 HR range in 2023 when he gets a full year in splitting time between SS and 3rd?

 

Gunnar's Biggest Fan (Baltimore):

    What is a realistic of fnsiveeceiling for Gunnar? Is a better avg/obp version of Bobby Witt with slightly less power/sb fair? Would a triple slash of .280/.350/.500 with 20 HR/20 SB be within reach in 2023? If so, does that make him the favorite for AL ROY?


Jon Meoli: Let's start with these two at the top of the chat about the top prospect perhaps in all of baseball, but most certainly the top prospect in the Orioles' system. In regards to Henderson's tools, yes they're plus tools across the board. It's really a special skill set. I think he'd be the favorite for Rookie of the Year if we had to draw that up now, and 20+ home runs with an .800 or higher OPS would probably be as good a rookie year as one can ask for. He'll still be starting the season at age-21 and teams will have a plan for how to attack him, so expectations should at least take that into account, but there's no reason why he shouldn't be producing like a middle-of-the-order bat for the Orioles over the course of his first full season.

El Pescador (Baltimore):

    The O's have a ton of quality infield prospects in the pipeline. Jorge Mateo, who has Gold Glove-quality defensive skills at SS but little bat, will probably need to be traded to make room. Who do you see next in line coming behind Gunnar that could force this move?


Jon Meoli: This is tangentially Gunnar-related, so a nice little transition. I think Henderson can make an impact at either third or shortstop, so he won't force any kind of decision in terms of what to do with Jorge Mateo. Behind him are Jordan Westburg and Joey Ortiz, and they probably will. I think that could happen some time this season, but it's also hard to know what banning the shift will do for the second base position defensively. Someone with Mateo's defensive ability and range might be a tremendous asset at second base in this new landscape. That said, the AL East isn't exactly about run prevention. It's hard to carry a passenger in the lineup with an .OPS that starts with a six, even if it's at the bottom of the lineup. If the Orioles can get something reasonably close to Mateo's defense with some consistent offensive threat, I imagine they'd prefer that.

Dan (Glastonbury, CT):

    Hi Jon. Pretty surprised to see AFL MVP Heston Kjerstad miss the Top 10. Is it simply a matter of needing a larger sample size? Thanks for the chat!

 

Warren (New London):

    I expect you're getting a lot of Heston Kjerstad questions after his big year in the Fall League. Did he not make the top 10 because of the timing of the list, or because the system is so deep, or because his K/BB ratio in the Fall League is scary?


Jon Meoli: I did get a few questions about Heston Kjerstad, which I expected even as the list was coming together. On a basic level, it's great that he's back on the field and playing and getting to do what he loves again. I don't think anyone denied that. I also think that means that especially among the impactful prospects he's being considered against, what he did once he got on the field needs to be evaluated on level terms with that. And what we saw was a player who was above the level in Delmarva then struggled in Aberdeen. He still hits the ball hard and at good angles, as the Orioles knew when they drafted him, but he also needs to develop an approach and learn to control the strike zone to help him maximize that. It's something a lot of recent Orioles draftees have had to learn, especially considering their emphasis on drafting contact skills and helping those players bring out their power by only swinging at pitches they can do damage on. There's always going to be strikeout risk with a slugging type, and unfortunately Kjerstad missed a lot of time when he could have been working on that. His fall league campaign had only just started when this list was submitted, and he has certainly got a lot of anonymous scout praise for what he did there. He did strike out a lot, too, though, and I think overall it doesn't change the developmental needs there. All that said, he still has as high a grade as some of the players ahead of him, just a higher risk level considering the lack of game action and the work he needs to do to get to his ceiling. Holding that up against players who have similar grades and have a track record of improvement and producing at higher levels just moved those players above him.

Greg (Baltimore):

    Could a Heston Kjerstad debut late in 2023 be realistic?


Jon Meoli: I wanted to consider this part separately. It would be foolish to say no, because anything is possible, but it's not realistic especially considering the depth chart ahead of him. What is realistic is that he goes to Bowie next year and sustains the kind of power production he had in the AFL given the friendly confines of Prince George's Stadium, then ends the year in Triple-A. But as it stands, Kyle Stowers is still due a full-time look in a major league outfield that's pretty static with Cedric Mullins, Anthony Santander, and Austin Hays. Colton Cowser is likely going to get a chance next year as well. Kjerstad will have to both perform and pass some people to get a chance that quickly.

Colton Cowser (Baltimore):

    When could I debut this season?


Jon Meoli: (Several years ago, I answered a question like this as if the player actually asked it and he messaged me that night clarifying that it wasn't him. I knew that, and am not deterred. I'm going to do it again now.) Hey Colton, hope the offseason is going well. Please tell your brother I look forward to Arsenal's post-World Cup collapse. As for when you could debut this year, I am going to say midseason at the earliest. The Orioles have been pretty consistent in requiring a few hundred Triple-A plate appearances in recent years, and even if you're producing at a high level like Kyle Stowers was this year, there's still a chance you'll be down in August if there's not a spot for you to play every day. It's not ideal, but considering the team is hoping to be more competitive, perhaps that equation will change this year and you can be the test case for it.

Snack (Richmond):

    What role do you think Stowers has this year? Also, which of the players on this list are most likely to be traded in your opinion


Jon Meoli: I have a lot of trade-related questions, which I suppose is natural, so just want to note I'll get to all that in a bit. As for Stowers, I think he should play a lot more than he did last year, that's for sure. He's a much better defender than he showed in the big leagues, but because the Orioles kept him in Triple-A so long then he had such a strange time in the majors, it kind of obscured how he managed to cut down his strikeouts and swing-and-miss while maintaining his slug and power in Norfolk, which is really hard to do in the majors. I think he can hit, and also get on base some in the way so many Orioles hitters haven't been able to do. That warrants a place in the lineup for me more days than not.

Zach (Baltimore):

    With Stowers and Cowser on the table for 2023, could the Orioles move Hays to a 4th OF role?


Jon Meoli: I think there's a possibility of a Hays/Stowers platoon of some kind early in the season, so if the right-handed hitting option is considered the small side of the platoon, I guess that would mean Hays is the fourth outfielder. That said, I don't think the Orioles are going to pay something like $3 million (Hays' projected arbitration salary) for a bench player, so if he's here, he's probably playing enough to justify that.

Ned (va):

    Who was someone who your sources were higher on than expected that surprised you?


Jon Meoli: I'm going to focus this one more outside the organization than in it, but I was surprised by how real some of the scouts and evaluators I talked to thought the second-half breakouts for Connor Norby and Joey Ortiz were. Having written stories about what they did to help get going at Bowie, it was interesting to hear the scouts' perceptions of what they saw in Aberdeen versus Bowie, and how the view of the players around the game changed. There was real buzz around Ortiz. Even those who didn't see him at Bowie heard about how good he was, and similarly, Norby's development was getting some play as well. I know recency bias is a thing, and if these players' seasons were flipped with their first half vastly better than the second, it would probably be a different conversation as to where they were ranked. But because the statistical spikes were backed up by developmental changes and validated outside the organization, they moved up a suprising amount in my eyes.

Zach (Baltimore):

    International presence is improving but the Orioles still haven't had a signing truly break out yet. Which international prospects in the system stand the best chance to jump into the top 5 next year?


Jon Meoli: One of two good questions from Zach here before I dive into the trade questions, which only Mike Elias can answer well but I will share my own opinions on. Your observation is right that no one has truly broken out. Frederick Bencosme's ascent to High-A from the complex league in the span of a half-season was impressive, but there have been a lot more players signed international who have gone back to the FCL from Delmarva as opposed to up to Aberdeen. There's nothing wrong with that, but it shows the steep steps these players must now climb without the transitional short-season affiliated level to break them into full-season ball. All that said, I think Samuel Basallo has a chance to be on national prospect lists this time next year considering he's going to be playing most of next year at age-18 at Delmarva. He's a slugging catcher with a chance to stick behind the plate, and that profile is often noticed early on. I'd also put Anderson De Los Santos on the potential breakout list, and note that a lot of pitchers from Koby Perez's first few signing classes were probably at Delmarva before they should have been this year since the Orioles have drafted so few pitchers of late and they needed to staff the Shorebirds somehow. I think that part of the program should stabilize soon and some interesting arms (Juan De Los Santos, Moises Chace, Raul Rangel) will pop up with more success in the low minors in 2023.

Will (USA):

    Would the Orioles realistically part ways with Jordan Westburg or Coby Mayo type prospects to acquire a solid starter via trade?

 

Zach (Baltimore):

    Between Norby, Ortiz and Westburg, who do you think the Orioles are most likely to dangle in trade talks this winter?


Jon Meoli: I'll consider these two questions together and add Mayo to the mix and just say it seems extremely unlikely the Orioles make a meaningful upgrade to their rotation or lineup in any way without at least one of these players being involved. For a higher-end starter, you might have to include someone like a Cowser. I have absolutely no insight into how the front office values these players in trades, but if it were me, all of these players would at least be available for discussion considering how the new dimensions at Camden Yards seems to punish right-handed hitters and this group pulled a lot of home runs to left field, specifically Mayo and Westburg. I think Norby's second base-only profile also changes the equation with him, as Westburg and Ortiz are capable defenders at short and can also handle second, giving them an edge to keep around there. Mayo might simply be worth more than the others because he's a projectable young power hitter, but the Orioles believe in him and I wouldn't be surprised if there was a high bar for including him.

Coby Mayo (US):

    Where could my role be on the Orioles roster (whenever I get called up)?


Jon Meoli: Some quick questions to hit off that last one. Hello Coby Mayo from US, thank you for the question and hope you are having a nice offseason. I think your role in the big leagues will probably be in a corner outfield/first base/DH role a la Mark Trumbo (or what the Orioles hoped Ryan Mountcastle would be doing), not because you can't play third base but because someone like Gunnar Henderson or Jordan Westburg will be there already and it will be difficult to unseat them there. The more immediate question is when to start preparing for that eventuality. If you go crazy to start the season in Bowie next year, which is a possibility, that could put your bat into the major league mix for the second half next year. The Orioles will want you to have as much experience as possible at those spots so you're not learning from scratch in the majors. So, the short answer is whatever positions you're working on in February at early camp, those are probably the ones they envision you playing in the majors.

Brian (Tacoma, WA):

    What are the chances Westburg, Norby, Cowser, or Ortiz make the opening day roster? There is more motivation now with ROY considerations and earning draft picks. Do you think Kjerstad could be next season’s Henderson and blaze through AA and AAA and have a September call up? Maybe a better shot for 2024 though.


Jon Meoli: I'd say low on all fronts except for maybe Westburg. Even there, it's not like there's a real need in the majors for him, and given the Orioles' best avenue to upgrade their lineup is with an impact middle infielder, all that would do is push one of Ramon Urias or Jorge Mateo to the bench, and not necessarily open a roster spot for Westburg. He could be in the mix earlier than the rest, who I assume will be more second-half considerations due to spending only a month or less in Norfolk this year. Between Gunnar Henderson, Grayson Rodriguez, and DL Hall, the Orioles have plenty of entrants into the RoY race who should be on the roster from Opening Day and be eligible to get them a bonus pick. As for the second part, I think Kjerstad could perform better in Bowie but my pick for that trajectory a la Henderson is Coby Mayo if anyone is going to do it.

Zach (Baltimore):

    Is there any evidence that Jud Fabian's decent K% at Delmarva was the result of a player dev adjustment, or was he just feasting on younger pitchimg?


Jon Meoli: A good question on someone who I'd bet is on this list and a larger topic of discussion when we do this chat next year. I think a combination of Fabian's pitch recognition, ability to kill fastballs, and appetite for the challenging developmental program the Orioles provided him was behind Fabian's success. His strikeouts in college weren't necessarily because of chase but because of his swing, and I think he did a good job cutting down on that this year at Florida and continued to improve after being drafted. It might be a long-term challenge to keep the strikeout rate managable, but he made strides in gameplanning and has the bat speed and feel for the strike zone to do that while tapping into his considerable raw power, which is along with his center field defense his carrying tool. I wouldn't consider it a mirage, but it was also so short for a reason--it wasn't really a challenge at Delmarva, and they knew Aberdeen would be.

Ned (va):

    Could Joey Ortiz have a surprise potential ROY vote getting campaign in a similar vein that Jeremy Pena did? Both are seen as plus defenders. Similar profiles out of the draft. Pena had a 4% walk rate and a 24% K rate as a 23 y/o in AAA. Ortiz had a 7% walk rate and 14% K rate. Pena's ISO was about .100 points higher but some of that could be attributed offensive environment


Jon Meoli: I think Ortiz legitimately remade himself into a big leaguer this year and is going to get a chance to do that somewhere in 2023, but I think it's hard to see him breaking camp with the team or having enough playing time to get into RoY consideration. I'll have to do more work on the Pena comp. It would certainly be good for the Orioles if that was his ultimate outcome.

Neal (DMV):

    Do you view Jordan Westburg as a current frontrunner to earn a starting spot on the big league club out of spring training?


Jon Meoli: This has partially been answered and probably should have been looped in with another, but I think if the Orioles' starting shortstop isn't on their roster right now, it's a free agent, not Westburg. He could be added to the roster if they needed to, but it seems more likely he'll have to wait at least a little bit for his chance, and maybe it happens at second base instead of short.

SC O’s Fan (South Carolina):

    With their 2023 first-round pick in late teens (17) do you think Elias will be willing to draft a pitcher?


Jon Meoli: This is a good question. We saw in the Astros years that they took some pitchers with their later first-round picks after being scared off them at the very top of the draft, and even though Nolan McLean didn't sign this year, they had pitchers line up with their picks higher than ever before this year. I'm not sure they need to take a pitcher for the sake of it, though. The current strategy of taking high-level hitters early and targeting pitchers with specific traits (hoppy fastballs, multiple breaking balls, etc) has worked pretty well so far. And typically, high college bat draftees move quickly, which makes them attractive trade pieces. Which I suppose leads to the next question.

Warren (New London):

    We've seen farm systems improve dramatically in a few years before, but I can't think of another example where this happened without a major influx of prospects from other organizations. Can you put your finger on what the Orioles have been doing so well? Is it more that they're drafting the right guys, is it more that they're developing them well, or is it both in equal measure?


Jon Meoli: I think the Orioles' success has a lot of factors behind it, and the aspects of it you mention are big parts of that so we'll start there. They clearly have certain profiles and player types they like in the draft, and have a program in place to enhance those hitters' strengths while quickly addressing their deficiencies. Look at someone like Dylan Beavers, the Orioles' second pick this year and the first player off this top-10 list. They had draft meetings with the minor league hitting staff to look at his swing, talk over his case for selection, and decide whether someone with his significant tools who needed a lot of swing work was going to be worth a pick at No. 33. They were all-in, they went to work with him immediately, and from his junior year at Cal to his time in pro ball, Beavers made a few adjustments to his stance and swing that allowed him to increase his in-zone contact rate, make better swing decisions, and elevate his top-percentile exit velocities. All those things--the scouting, the pick, the development--happen in concert with one another, so the fact that it has proven successful means they're doing something right. Same goes on the pitching side, where they identify and develop pitchers with traits they believe can play in the majors and help them create those weapons through data-driven instruction and pitch design. I think the fact that everything moves in the same direction, all the messages are consistent, and the organization knows its strengths have contributed to the level of turnaround we've seen over the last few years.

Reagan (Nashville):

    Given how deep the system is and since they seemingly always hit on at least 3 of their first 5 draft picks since 2019, do you think the O's are becoming one of the model Org's for drafting and player development?


Jon Meoli: I didn't want to lump this in with the last one, but I think they're at the vanguard of hitting development in the same way organizations like Tampa Bay, Cleveland, Houston, the Dodgers etc are for pitching. I remember a conversation with someone in the organization after the lost 2020 season where I just kind of wondered aloud why the hitting program couldn't take the same step forward in 2021 as the pitching program did in 2019, and the answer was that the field wasn't as developed and best practices weren't established in the same way it was for pitchers. That, and the fact that hitters are still on a basic level reacting to pitchers and thus at a disadvantage, made this person skeptical this could happen quickly. Only it has. They've created a program that, while the major league efficacy will only be able to be measured in the years to come, has helped significant amounts of talent blossom on the farm.

Ned (va):

    How did you weight Westburg and Norby's more polished offensive approach and relatively limited defensive value vs Ortiz glove and offensive breakout?


Jon Meoli: In this case, Westburg was ahead because of his offensive profile and the fact that he can capably play any position on the infield. Norby and Ortiz were basically a toss-up, but I feel like Norby might have a bit higher of an offensive ceiling that makes up for the lack of positional flexibility.

Brandon Hyde (USA):

    Where will I play all of these guys when they come up?


Jon Meoli: Hello Brandon, this is a good question, especially considering the tough road breaking into the lineup that Kyle Stowers and Terrin Vavra had. That said, Adley Rutschman and Gunnar Henderson were everyday players from the jump, so I guess it depends on the player. I think you'll need to see some high-level defense from a Westburg or Ortiz to feel comfortable with them at shortstop, so spring training will be important to you. I feel like you'll start Colton Cowser in left field even though he can handle center out of deference to Cedric Mullins, and you'll not really know where to play Coby Mayo, only that you want him to have four at-bats a night. Mike will probably trade some of them before these headaches land on your desk, though, so I wouldn't sweat it.

Ivan (Maryland):

    Could younger arms like Jean Pinto be top 20 prospect once they get more experience?


Jon Meoli: There are a lot more pitchers on the back half of this list than in years past, a testament to the development of some lesser-heralded guys who have developed into potential major league arms (Justin Armbruester, Noah Denoyer, etc). Jean Pinto was in the top-30 last year and while he didn't have as impressive a year as 2021, he's still in the mix. I'd look at the Delmarva rotation next year closely if you want to see the next wave of pitchers who could be breaking in. Some of the international arms mentioned a few answers ago fit that bill. I've heard Trace Bright's name a few times as a potential sleeper from inside and outside the organization--his TrackMan was described to me as "ridiculous"--and put recent draftee Preston Johnson in that mold as well. And he's a little older, but I think Carlos Tavera would be a much bigger name on this list if he were healthy all season. He was dominant in the first half at Aberdeen.

DL Hall (Baltimore):

    Where could my role end up being on this team?


Jon Meoli: One last question here from a person purporting to be DL Hall. Not a lot to think about with this one--I think you're a starter all the way, and look forward to seeing that over a full season. I think the stuff plays, and I think the command will largely be enough to force hitters to make decisions on pitches that look like strikes early, and I think it'll look really good when it's on, even if it won't look great when you don't have it. There's no reason you shouldn't stay as a starter in my mind, though.

Jon Meoli: That's all the questions that came through the chat, so that'll wrap this up after a relatively crisp pace. It's like the minor league pitch clock came to the BA chat for the day. Thanks again to everyone for the great questions, for the BA staff for trusting me to handle the O's organization again, and to everyone who contributed to this list in any way. Looking forward to the world seeing the rest of the top 30 when the handbook comes out, and hope whatever the Orioles do trade-wise happens before that goes to publication so we can have as accurate a list as possible in the print edition. Thanks again, and check in on my Substack linked at the top of the chat if you're interested in more Orioles content like this!

Gunnar Henderson (Photo By Nick Cammett Getty Images)

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