J.J. Cooper says O’s farm has “taken a big step forward”

The Orioles’ minor leagues had a good year in 2017. That is the opinion of several national analysts I have spoken to in the last two weeks. Today, here is the second part of a series of interviews with national analysts on the O’s farm.

For the Orioles, 2017 was a year where outfielder Austin Hays moved from Single-A Frederick to Double-A Bowie and then to the majors. He was a finalist for Baseball America’s Player of the Year Award. The Orioles had four players ranked among the top 20 prospects in the talent-laden Double-A Eastern League. They had two league MVPs with Bowie’s Garabez Rosa and Frederick’s Ademar Rifaela. Frederick and Bowie made the playoffs and multiple players made league top 20 lists and mid-season and postseason All-Star teams.

There were some things for the Orioles to brag about. But these interviews come from sources outside of the organization.

Here are comments and opinions of J.J. Cooper of Baseball America:

Cooper said the O’s had a strong year on the farm: “There have been a lot of fallow times in the Orioles farm system over the years. But you look now and can say that this is one of the more promising Orioles farm systems that I can remember in many years.

“We had them coming into the year ranked No. 27 (in organizational rankings) and they were No. 27 the year before that. Now very fair to say they will be nowhere near the bottom of the list this next year and they are a top half farm system, at least right now.”

How did they improve?: “It really helps when you have a guy have the season Austin Hays had. They hit a home run on the Austin Hays pick in the third round. If we were re-drafting right now, he’s an easy first-round pick. We had him, I think, 49th on the (Baseball America 500) and we liked him, too. He has flown through the system and produced at every level.

“He has shown the ability to hit for average and power, and to make a lot of contact and to do it with defensive value. He is probably a right fielder with that arm, but he can play center, as well. You put all that together - that’s an impact player.

“Having an impact player, and we saw it with Manny Machado, is really more important that having depth. But the system depth-wise is better than it’s been also. You put those two together and the system has really taken a big step forward.

“You look at the draft they had this year and DL Hall is one of the better prep pitchers in that class. But they also had some draftees this year at (short-season Single-A) Aberdeen that were impressive. Zac Lowther is a crafty lefty that always seems to get swings and misses. Mike Baumann from Jacksonville has legit stuff. Even having Tobias Myers there allowed them to get Tim Beckham. And he had the best month of his life after the trade.

“There is more pitching in the system than there has been in a while and there now are hitters. That Double-A (Bowie) club had a number of guys you say you are going to see in the major leagues. Guys like Ryan Mountcastle, Cedric Mullins, a really good defender in center, DJ Stewart - this team has a number of guys to be interested in on the farm than it has in years.”

Did the O’s improvement come together fast in the last year or were there some things not noticed until now as some players’ stats improved?: “I think you look at it, the last couple of drafts, there has been a significant talent infusion. In recent years they have hit on later round picks - second-, third-, fourth-, fifth-rounders. By the way, we didn’t even mention that Hunter Harvey has made it back from Tommy John surgery after missing large parts of three seasons and he is (once again) one of their top prospects.

Mountcastle-Hits-Keys-Sidebar.jpg“You go back to the ‘15 draft and it looks like they hit on Mountcastle. They hit somewhat on DJ Stewart. The ‘16 draft, they emphasized pitching. And not all those college pitchers have really taken steps forward, but they haven’t needed to because they’ve gotten other guys deeper from that draft. I like their draft this year as well. But it starts with having an Austin Hays that they got No. 91 in the (2016) draft and having him turn into one of the top 50 or better than that prospects in the game. When that happens, that’s a game-changer in some ways because you are not supposed to get that talent at the 91st pick in the draft. Getting a first-round talent in a later round is a giant boost for a farm system.”

So Hays will move way up some prospects lists, but how high can he go?: “It is hard to say exactly because we are a good ways away from our next version of that. But when you talk about the best outfield prospects in the game, let’s compare him to (Atlanta’s) Ronald Acuña, our Player of the Year. Acuña, across the board, may be a grade higher, a 70 runner, not a 60. But he could be No. 1 on our next (top 100) list. You can compare Hays to Acuña. He’s just a little bit older and maybe the speed and defense is a little less. I think Hays has a chance to be a top 20 prospect when we get back to re-ranking them this offseason.”

How many players might the Orioles get in the next top 100?: “(Chance) Sisco, I would describe as he’s definitely a consideration. There are still some defensive questions there, but we did see a better (defensive) second half. You want to see some sign of power kicking in with the excellent bat-to-ball skills he’s shown. He’s in consideration more than a lock. You also have to put DL Hall in consideration as a premium high school pitching prospect. We are definitely talking about Hunter Harvey. It’s been a long time since he’s had a full healthy season. But we’ve seen with Jameson Taillon and Dylan Bundy that guys can miss massive amounts of time as a pitcher and the question is, is his stuff still as good? Harvey has the same stuff he had before the injury. The question before the injury was will he be durable enough? We are not going to know that until 2018, 2019, 2020. That is going to be a concern, but on pure stuff he is a potential top 100.

“Mountcastle is an interesting guy. We will have a lot of debates on him. We all believe that Mountcastle can hit and then you have to think about where is he going to play and how will that effect his value. Is he a third baseman or maybe a left fielder with below average foot speed - that starts to diminish his value a bit. To me, my guess is he is a guy we talk about for the top 100 but who doesn’t quite make it. But, again, it is still very early in this process.

“The Orioles could have four or five. I could see up to five as the top end. That would be Hays, Sisco, Harvey, Hall and Mountcastle.”

Where might the O’s wind up in the next organizational rankings?: “Very likely in the top half and it is so early in our process that it is hard to be more specific than that. Once we rank all our top 30s, we can quantify it more. But you see Hays, Hall, Sisco, the depth they have and some pitchers we like at the lower level, and it does feel like a top half of the 30 systems. Whereas when we talked about the Orioles in recent years, it was near the bottom. Now we are talking about three to five guys in the top 100 this year and last year there was one guy and it was pretty clear there was just one.”

If you missed the first story here on the O’s farm published a week ago today, click here for that with Baseball America’s John Manuel.

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