Sunday, the Orioles will add another top prospect to their farm system through the first overall pick in the MLB draft. Their recent first-rounders still playing for their minor league affiliates all had great weeks in the lead-up to another one joining them.
Who exactly their first pick will be remains somewhat of a mystery, with executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias saying this weekend the club’s list of options remains at five and will likely stay there until they need to make the pick about 7 p.m. Sunday.
Not wanting to give any advantages to the teams picking behind Baltimore or the representatives who will negotiate the signing bonuses for these players, Elias has been understandably quiet about who the Orioles are considering. But it’s believed Baltimore’s quintet aligns with the five players viewed as the best available in this draft class: Georgia high school outfielder Druw Jones, Oklahoma high school shortstop Jackson Holliday, Florida high school outfielder Elijah Green, Georgia high school second baseman Termarr Johnson and Cal Poly shortstop Brooks Lee.
It marks the ninth top-five selection Elias has been involved with since 2012, dating to his time with the Houston Astros.
“We’ve done well, but we haven’t always hit the picks perfectly,” Elias said Saturday. “But one thing that we have done is not give much of an indication of what we’re going to do. The way the system is set up, that’s beneficial.”
Some of the Orioles’ recent top picks starred this week, two of whom were Elias’ selections. Each week, The Baltimore Sun will break down five of the top performers in the Orioles’ prospect ranks and hand out some superlatives for those who didn’t make that cut.
1. Triple-A Norfolk left-hander DL Hall
Baltimore’s first-round pick in 2017, Hall has had an up-and-down tenure at Triple-A, including a bout with pitch-tipping that led to a rough pair of starts to close June. But he has emphatically moved past that. On Wednesday, Hall struck out a career-high 14 in six innings, allowing a run on three hits and two walks. He induced 31 swinging strikes among his 98 pitches; for comparison, John Means’ 113-pitch, 12-strikeout no-hitter last season featured 26 swings and misses. Removing the two starts against Lehigh Valley where he had tipping issues, Hall has struck out more than 44% of the batters he’s faced in his other 10 starts for Norfolk.
2. Low-A Delmarva outfielder Heston Kjerstad
The narrative around the Orioles’ underslot drafting strategy — taking a player slightly lower in the rankings in the first round, signing them to a bonus below the slot value and spreading those savings to talented later-round picks — could certainly change if Kjerstad keeps producing as he has. The No. 2 pick in the 2020 draft has done nothing but rake since returning from the heart condition myocarditis and a left hamstring strain, ailments that kept him off the field for two years after his selection. After hitting .529 and walking six times against two strikeouts last week for Low-A Delmarva, Kjerstad was promoted to High-A Aberdeen on Monday, leaving the Shorebirds with a batting line of .463/.551/.650 in 98 plate appearances.
3. Double-A Bowie outfielder Colton Cowser
Kjerstad’s promotion brings some high-draftee pedigree to Aberdeen that was lost when Cowser, Coby Mayo and Connor Norby were bumped to Bowie. After a slow start to his first full professional season, Cowser, last year’s fifth overall pick, seems to be finding his footing. He hit .273/.360/.500 last week for the Baysox, with two doubles and a home run representing half of his hits. He’s still striking out an atypical amount, but the results otherwise suggest he’s heading in the right direction.
4. Triple-A Norfolk second baseman Terrin Vavra
The success of Gunnar Henderson and Jordan Westburg — now ranked as Baltimore’s No. 2 and 4 prospects, respectively, based on Baseball America’s latest top 100 — with Norfolk has fans clamoring for promotions, but Vavra is just as deserving of, if not more likely to receive, the chance to debut. Already on Baltimore’s 40-man roster, Vavra has been dynamic as a table-setter for the Tides, continuing this week with a .350 average, .458 on-base percentage and an even 4-to-4 strikeout-to-walk ratio. In 177 Triple-A plate appearances, Vavra is hitting .329 with an .888 OPS.
5. Double-A Bowie right-hander Garrett Stallings
On May 8, Stalling pitched the first six innings of a combined no-hitter for Bowie. Over his next eight starts, he had a 16.96 ERA, allowing 16 home runs in 26 innings. Acquired from the Los Angeles Angels along with right-hander Jean Pinto for shortstop José Iglesias, Stallings has now thrived in two straight bulk relief outings. After striking out 10 in four one-run frames, Stallings threw six shutout innings out of the bullpen for Bowie on Friday. Pinto is also on a nice run at Aberdeen, with a 1.24 ERA over his past seven appearances.
The top prospect not featured so far
With Adley Rutschman’s graduation from prospect status, right-hander Grayson Rodriguez is now the Orioles’ top prospect. His injured right lat has cost him the title of the game’s consensus top pitching prospect, with Tampa Bay’s Shane Baz moving above him in Baseball America’s rankings. Although he’s progressing well, it’s still doubtful Rodriguez returns before September, meaning he’ll likely remain a prospect through the offseason. Elias said reimaging of the injury last week “looked great, as good as it could have.”
“Things are trending well, but we still have stuff to go,” Elias said. “We still do not have a timetable yet, either, just because of the nature of these lat injuries. We’re not at a sort of checkpoint where we’d start scripting that out.”
International acquisition of the week
When Delmarva’s Luis Valdez gets on base, he’s likely to break for second. That was the case this week, when Valdez walked seven times and singled four others and came away with five steals without being caught. He now has 41 this season, 20 more than any other Orioles minor leaguer. He doubled twice last week, as well, hitting .316/.519/.421.
The best former top-30 prospect of the week
The Orioles haven’t gotten much production out of third base this season, but Rylan Bannon continues to slug away at Norfolk. Part of the Los Angeles Dodgers’ package to acquire Manny Machado, Bannon hit .333 with a 1.100 OPS last week. Across his past 23 games at Triple-A, Bannon is hitting .257/.415/.554 with six home runs and 17 walks in 94 plate appearances. He didn’t do much with the 15 major league plate appearances he has received, and he didn’t get into any games for Baltimore in his most recent stint before being moved to the taxi squad and then returned to Norfolk.
Time to give some shine to …
Infielder Frederick Bencosme has performed well in his first month stateside. Signed out of the Dominican Republic in August 2020, the 19-year-old has hit .366 with a .427 on-base percentage for Delmarva after being one of the organization’s top performers in the Dominican Summer League last year. He hit .412 with a .945 OPS last week, walking and striking out twice each while stealing three bases.
Tuesday, 8:05 p.m.
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