|Original Published Date: November 30, 2018|
There are a few organization that I dread writing about. The Orioles have historically been one of them. As I started to dig into the system though, I realized that it’s better, maybe even good. Now, let’s not get carried away. They are not a Top 10 system, but there is some legitimate talent in the organization that should develop into big leaguers.
Leading the list is Yusniel Diaz. He was the big piece in the Manny Machado trade and has improved his hit tool enough that he should be able to get to the power and speed that are in his profile. Austin Hayes and DJ Stewart are two big bats that should be able to contribute to Baltimore as early as next year. Hays had an injury-plagued 2018 campaign but assuming he’s fully healthy, the ceiling still remains a full-time regular.
I also like the pitchers in the system. And now, with Buck Showalter gone, hopefully, the final part of their development can be achieved. You see, something hasn’t been right in Baltimore for a long time. They’ve had talented pitchers in their system but they all seem to get hurt or underachieve at the major league level. Take Dylan Bundy. He was one of the best high school pitchers to enter the draft in years. Sure, he got hurt but he recovered and then Showalter overused him and now the velocity is gone. I’m not sure he’ll ever be the same guy again. Of course, as of the time of this article, the Orioles haven’t named a new manager or General Manager for that matter, so perhaps nothing will change.
As a reminder, I grew up in Baltimore and the Orioles were my introduction to baseball. I loved them as a kid and watched nearly every game on TV and the others, I listened to on the radio. So, if you read a little snark in some of the profiles, well…it might be a little frustration coming out of an ex-fanboy. Personally, I think it’s deserved.
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1. Yusniel Diaz (OF)
Highest Level: Double-A ETA: 2019-20 Fantasy Ceiling: Top 30 OF
Yusniel Diaz was the prize in the deal that sent Manny Machado to the Los Angeles Dodgers last July. I saw Diaz play a few times in 2017 and as the old saying goes, the ball makes a different sound when it comes off his bat. He has tremendous bat speed and while to-date, it’s been more doubles power than over-the-fence power, I think that changes as he matures.
What concerned me was his ability to control the strike zone. There was too much swing and miss in his game. That changed this year when he walked more than he struck out before the trade and while that didn’t hold when he became a member of the Orioles, it was still very good. Throw in average speed and the profile points to an impact performer at the big league level.
I think the ceiling is Top 30 outfielder. Granted, that might be a reach, but I’m betting that the home runs will come and Camden Yards will help. Therefore, I’m projecting a .280/.350 hitter with 20 home runs and 10 to 12 stolen bases.
2. D.L. Hall (LHP)
Highest Level: Low-A ETA: 2020-21 Fantasy Ceiling: Top 30 SP
I wasn’t sure what to think when the Orioles selected D.L. Hall with their first pick in the 2017 MLB Draft. I loved the talent but I worried about the history the Orioles have in developing pitchers. Let’s face it. It’s not good. Long gone are the days where they developed starters like Palmer, McNally, Cuellar and Dobson; although only Palmer and McNally were drafted by the Orioles. In recent memory, there are the likes of Dylan Bundy, Kevin Gausman, and Hunter Harvey; all first-round picks.
But, so far so good with Hall. In fact, you can argue he was the best pitcher in the Sally League. In 22 innings, he pitched to a 2.10 ERA striking out over a batter an inning but he also gave up over four walks per nine. The ERA and great WHIP were instead driven by impressively giving up only 68 hits in 94.1 innings.
He did his damage with a promising three-pitch mix led by a fastball that can touch the mid-90s and a curveball that is going to be a plus, if not a double-plus pitch. He didn’t always repeat his delivery but he pitched the entire season as a teenager, so I’m not too worried about that.
I’ve put a number two starter ceiling on Hall and believe that he has the arsenal and athleticism to do that. Will the Orioles through their development move that ceiling down or will he get hurt? Time will tell.
3. Austin Hays (OF)
Highest Level: Triple-A ETA: 2019 Fantasy Ceiling: Top 40 OF
After having one of the best statistical performance in all of the minor leagues in 2017, Austin Hays seemed primed to make a major contribution in Baltimore in 2018. But, the baseball gods had other ideas as an ankle and shoulder injury zapped his power causing him to struggle mightily to start the season. Finally, the Orioles shut him down in late May and while he didn’t set the world on fire when he returned, he’s played much better in August. In September though, the Orioles decided to play it cautious and recommended Hays have ankle surgery to repair the stress-fractured that had caused him so many problems.
Assuming he comes back healthy, and there is no indication that he won’t, we still very much like Hays long-term. The ceiling continues to be a solid power hitter with 20 home run upside. Assuming he can become more patient at the plate, he has the ability to hit .260 to .270 with upside.
4. Ryan Mountcastle (3B)
Highest Level: Double-A ETA: 2019 Fantasy Ceiling: Top 15 3B
My good friend and colleague Tim McLeod has been a fan of Ryan Mountcastle for a while. Me, I just didn’t see it. While I like the raw power and believe there is 20 to 25 home run power, his approach was so aggressive that I worried once he got to the big leagues, pitchers wouldn’t throw him a strike and he would still swing. For instance, in 159 plate appearances in Double-A in 2017, and walked three times – 3 times.
This year, he repeated Double-A and while he was still very aggressive at the plate, he did walk more – 6.1% of the time. When you combine that with an 18.5% strikeout rate, it might work. Look, he’s never going to be an on-base machine, but if he hits .260 with a .310 OBP, that should be acceptable if it comes with 25 home runs.
5. Grayson Rodriguez (RHP)
Highest Level: Rookie ETA: 2022-23 Fantasy Ceiling: Top 45 SP
The Orioles selected Grayson Rodriguez with their first pick in the 2018 MLB Draft (Pick 11). At 6-foot-5 and 230 pounds, needless to say, he’s a big boy. In fact, there’s likely no physical projection remaining, which is just fine as he reportedly hit the upper nineties during his brief professional debut over the summer. In eight games, he pitched to a 1.10 ERA while striking out 17 and walking six in 16.1 innings.
The Orioles not only liked his arsenal but commented on how much they liked his polish and makeup. They believe they’ve drafted a front-of-the-rotation arm and they very well might have. I’m not going completely all-in and dropping his ceiling to a number three starter. Why? I’m Just going with the odds. Big high school pitcher without projection rarely become top-of-the-rotation arms. Doesn’t mean it can’t happen, but I’m not ready to go there yet.
6. Dillon Tate (RHP)
Highest Level: Double-A ETA: 2019 Fantasy Ceiling: Top 50 SP
Originally drafted by the Rangers as the number four overall pick in the 2015 MLB, Dillon Tate started to put things together after being traded to the Yankees in 2016. The Yankees re-worked his mechanics and the results were impressive. He went from a guy who couldn’t throw consistent strikes to plus control. He walked under three per nine with Yankees in 2018 and once he was traded to the Orioles, the walk rate dropped to less than two per nine.
While he has good stuff with a fastball that he can run up to the mid to upper 90’s, the strikeouts are not there. This is pushing his ceiling now from a number 2/3 starter to a number 3 / 4 starter. He just has yet to find that out-pitch. If he had, I doubt the Yankees would have moved him for a rental of Zack Britton.
He’ll likely see time in Baltimore in the second half of 2019. I’m not sure I would be buying just yet as it might take him a while to adjust to the difficulty of pitching in the AL East.
7. Hunter Harvey (RHP)
Highest Level: Double-A ETA: 2019 Fantasy Ceiling: Top 40 SP or bullpen arm
I’m not sure what to say about Hunter Harvey. I’ve long been a huge fan since I saw him out pitch Lucas Giolito in Low-A back in 2014. Since then, due to injuries, he just hasn’t pitched. He had elbow problems that he tried to rest and rehab, only to have Tommy John Surgery in 2015. He missed all of 2016 and couldn’t stay on the field in 2017. Finally, 2018 begins and he’s pitching. Not only is he pitching, but he’s also pitching well.
In nine starts in Double-A, he pitched to a 5.57 ERA but he struck out over eight per nine with a 3:1 strikeout-to-walk ratio. But just when you start to get excited, he dislocates his pitching arm trying to avoid a foul ball. And get this, he got his shirt caught on a rail and bam..his arm is hurt. You just can’t make this stuff up.
As a fantasy owner, I’m more than frustrated, but imagine how he must feel. The dream is sitting there and his body just will not cooperate. Believe it or not, he just turns 24 in December, so it’s not like he’s a 27-year-old prospect.
I think the Orioles push him to the majors next season, likely in a bullpen role and slowly build up his innings, kind of what they did with Dylan Bundy a few years ago. The kid can pitch with premium stuff, and with Showalter out of the picture, maybe there’s a chance he can reach his full potential.
8. D.J. Stewart (OF)
Highest Level: Majors ETA: 2018 Fantasy Ceiling: Top 45 OF
I continue to be high-man on D.J. Stewart. I say that, but candidly, I’m not sure. There could be another writer out there who will give him a similar ceiling, but the point is: I like him. I don’t like the body, but I like the swing, the power potential, and the ability to steal a handful of bases annually.
He followed up his 20-20 campaign in 2017 with a good, not great year in Triple-A. The power drop was surprising (he only hit 12). While I don’t believe he’s a perennial 20-20 performer, if you told me he would hit .270 with 20 to 25 home runs and 10 to 12 stolen bases, I would not object.
Stewart did get a September call-up and took full advantage. In 17 games, he hit three home runs and stole two bases. While he struck out too much, I still maintain he’s a sub 20% strikeout guy who can walk 10% of the time. If he does that, he’ll be an impact performer as the raw power should play.
9. Rylan Bannon (3B)
Highest Level: Double-A ETA: 2019-20 Fantasy Ceiling: Top 20 3B
Rylan Bannon was part of the return for Manny Machado at the all-star break last July. While Yusniel Diaz was the main piece, Bannon has a chance to get regular at-bats in the big leagues.
Drafted in 2017 in the 8th round, Bannon is moving through the minor leagues quickly based on his ability to control the strike zone and get on base. In 161 games, he’s posted a .398 OBP. He’s also slugged .528 with 32 home runs. Much of that damage was done in the California League, so I’m not completely buying the home run output. But, a .280/.350 average with 15 to 20 home runs with a handful of stolen bases is definitely in the realm of possibilities. He’s a player to definitely watch and remember, he will hit in the bandbox known as Camden Yards.
10. Ryan McKenna (OF)
Highest Level: Double-A ETA: 2021 Fantasy Ceiling: Top 60 OF
Ryan McKenna might have been the best player over the first two months in the Carolina League last season. In 67 games, he slashed .377/.467/.556 with eight home runs and five stolen bases. He showed excellent control of the strike zone, striking out 15% of the time and walking 12% of the time.
The Orioles promoted him to the Eastern League and he fell back to reality but still showed enough tools to project him to be a big leaguer one day. It’s likely to be as a fourth outfielder in Baltimore, but he has plus speed, understands what he’s doing at the plate, and with a little bit of pop. He’s a Top 300 player for me.
11. Zac Lowther (LHP)
Highest Level: High-A ETA: 2020 Fantasy Ceiling: Top 60 SP
Zac Lowther pitched extremely effective this year in High-A. In 17 games, he pitched to a 2.53 ERA striking out 9.7 per nine while limiting his walks to 2.5 per nine. He gave up less than a hit per inning, keeping the ball in the ballpark.
While the performance was fantastic, he did it with just average stuff. His fastball sits 89 to 90 MPH with an average curveball and change-up. All of his pitches play up because he pounds the strike zone with good command of each pitch. The fact that he’s a lefty helps, but in the end, I believe he’s more of a number four starting pitcher as opposed to what his stats might suggest.
12. Jean Carlos Encarnacion (3B)
Highest Level: Low-A ETA: 2022-23 Fantasy Ceiling: Top 15 3B with extreme risk
The Orioles didn’t get any front-line players back when they traded Kevin Gausman and Darren O’Day to the Braves at the trading deadline last July. The one player they got back with the highest upside is Jean Carlos Encarnacion.
He was a late sign by the Braves out of the Dominican, signing at 18-years-old. He has flashed some power and speed in the lower minors hitting 12 home runs last season and adding five stolen bases. He also struck out 26% of the time, walking just 16 times in 126 games. That clearly needs to improve in order for his tools to play. He should start next season in the Carolina League.
13. Keegan Akin (LHP)
Highest Level: Double-A ETA: 2019 Fantasy Ceiling: Top 75 SP
Keegan Akin had a very good season for the Bowie Baysox last season. In 25 starts, he went 14-7 with over a strikeout an inning. On the negative, he continues to walk too many and did give up 16 home runs. The biggest cause for his poor control is his delivery. He short arms his pitches and is more aiming the ball. Because of his height, he does throw over the top to create plane.
The stuff though is pretty average and until he can throw strikes, he’s a back of the rotation starter. He is a lefty and with some potential tweaks to his delivery, he could settle into a number four starter at the big league level.
14. Luis Ortiz (RHP)
Highest Level: Major ETA: 2018 Fantasy Ceiling: Top 75 SP
After getting stuck in Double-A for parts of three season, Luis Ortiz broke through last season. In fact, he got a September call-up to Baltimore to cap off a very nice season. Granted it was only for one start and not a very good start at that, but at least he made it. Now the question is does he have staying power.
Originally drafted by the Rangers, Ortiz was traded along with Jonathan Villar for Jonathan Schoop last August. He has a three pitch mix with a fastball that sits 92 to 93 MPH with a slider and change-up. None of his pitches is plus but he has learned to throw strikes as he’s moved through the minor leagues. His ceiling is a number four or five pitchers but he might be better suited in the pen to allow his fastball to play up.
15. Adam Hall (SS)
Highest Level: Short-Season ETA: 2022-23 Fantasy Ceiling: Middle Infielder
Adam Hall is an intriguing player in the Orioles system. He’s likely no more than a utility player at the big league level, but I like his swing and he has double-plus speed and the ability to steal bases. But the approach is very aggressive and he strikes out too much for a guy with well below-average power.
The intriguing part is that while he’s very raw at the plate, I do like the swing and well, you can’t teach speed. If he can learn to hit, the Orioles might have something. They clearly like what they saw in 2017 when they gave him a $1.3 million dollar signing bonus after drafting him in the second round. He’s not draftable yet in a Dynasty League, but he’s a kid to monitor.