More on Machado trade and talking O’s prospects with J.J. Cooper of Baseball America

The Manny Machado trade to the Los Angeles Dodgers brought the Orioles a five-player return headlined by Double-A outfielder Yusniel Díaz. The rebuilding of the Orioles has begun.

Orioles executive vice president Dan Duquette made some comments last night that should prove very popular with the Orioles fan base. He laid out the plan that fans have been asking about often.

Duquette said more trades are likely and that, “In conjunction with that, we’re also going to be making significant investments this offseason in technology and analytics. We’re going to become more active on the international market and invest in our facilities and strengthen our overall baseball operation. That’s part of a plan that we have to have to get the Orioles back to competitiveness. But this is just the first step in a new direction.”

If the Orioles do all that Duquette promised, the first step will be a big step. And down the road, perhaps the day Machado was traded will be seen as the first day of a new era of Orioles baseball. The front office is on the clock.

Meanwhile and speaking of young talent, few analyze prospects and the minor leagues better than the staff at Baseball America. And even among that group of talented analysts, Baseball America executive editor J.J. Cooper is a longtime standout. During the recent All-Star Futures Game, he took some time to talk some Orioles prospects with me.

Steve Melewski: J.J., we all know that Single-A Frederick lefty Alex Wells throws 87 to 91 mph. What challenges does he face going forward without a big fastball?

J.J. Cooper: “With a guy like Alex, it can’t be average command, it can’t be above-average command. It has to be near top-of-the-scale command. Now, Alex has shown that at times. He has taken a little step back from having that otherworldly command. But the stuff is average at best at times, and the velocity dips below average. When it is all there working together, he can still baffle hitters. But every level he climbs the ladder, that challenge is going to be a little bit tougher. He’ll have to keep making adjustments to stay ahead of the hitters.”

Ryan-Mountcastle-throwing-orange-sidebar.jpgSM: Ryan Mountcastle is having another strong year with the bat and proving he can hit Double-A pitching. Your take on Mountcastle’s year?

Cooper: “Ryan Mountcastle has always been able to hit. The question has always been where will he end up on defense. But he is one of the best hitters in the organization and he should be that until he gets to the big leagues.”

SM: Could he be prove to be a player who both hits for average and has plus power?

Cooper: “I think that is possible. With him, we saw last year, he really worked to turn a little bit. To turn and burn a bit (show big pull power). When he gets a pitch to drive, he drives it. This year, I think you are seeing signs of that as well. He’s going to have to be that guy. Because third base is going to be a challenge for him with that arm. If he can’t play there, and it’s left field or first base, then you really want to be a guy that is hitting for average and power. He’s got a chance to do that.”

SM: It is impressive that Mountcastle can make top-100 lists even with those defensive questions?

Cooper: “There are different defensive uncertainties. Seth Beer, the first-round pick of the Astros this year, can really hit. But can he play first or left field enough to not be just a DH? With Ryan Mountcastle, we are not talking about “Can he get on the field?” We’re talking about “Can he play third base?” Well, maybe. And if can’t, he should be able to play left field. First base is kind of a fallback option. He has positions to play.”

SM: What was your take on the O’s draft, particularly the top picks in Grayson Rodriguez, Cadyn Grenier and Blaine Knight?

Cooper: “It’s a high-ceiling draft. And they’ve done this before. Look at DL Hall, the guy they took (in the first round) last year, who has really been good lately. He was one of the best prep pitchers in the 2017 draft class and he’s showing that so far. His ERA might be a little better than the peripherals would indicate. But you look overall, he’s a high-ceiling lefty, really athletic. The stuff to be at least a middle-rotation guy if it all comes together.

“Grayson Rodriguez is another guy that has that kind of ceiling or potential. He’s obviously further away. It sounds funny to say, but making that step to show you can do it in low-A is a big step. I say that because, right now ,the other guys in that 2016 and 2017 draft class, Riley Pint has not passed that test. Jay Groom has gotten hurt. DL Hall is already passing that test. Hall is probably on the fringe of the top 100 right now.”

SM: Speaking of that, which Orioles could push for top 100 right now that are not already there?

Cooper: “Hall, for the Orioles, is going to be the next guy. At this point, Hunter Harvey has been injured enough it’s going to be hard to make it. Stuff-wise, he has that chance. He’s just not had a chance to be healthy for a full season for a long time.”

SM: Did the O’s make a good pick getting Knight, the right-hander from Arkansas, in round three? He had quite a college career.

Cooper: “I like him. Solid starting pitching candidate that could move quickly. They got a good mix of high school and college arms in this draft. On pure stuff, Grayson Rodriguez has more stuff. But Blaine Knight’s stuff is more than enough to get hitters out at the big league level.”

SM: Will Knight’s competitiveness and some other intangibles translate to the pro level?

Cooper: “Absolutely. That is something where, if you are a scout, you feel comfortable when you see a guy do it on a very big stage. You know that is on his resume. There is less uncertainty there for two reasons. One, he has already held up pitching every seventh day in an SEC rotation against top competition. That’s important. Two, putting him in very big stages, stages he will not face in anything like that until he gets to the big leagues. Omaha (at the College World Series), there are no minor league games that matter that much and have 25,000 in the stands. He’s lived up to that. Those are important steps he’s already taken. At Arkansas, they expect to win, and when you go on the road to places like LSU, that is almost a playoff-type atmosphere he’s already been through.”

SM: How do you rank as prospects pitchers Zac Lowther, Keegan Akin and Michael Baumann?

Cooper: “I would say lining those up, Akin has the best pure stuff. Lowther has the best funkiness, deception and invisiball (lower-velocity fastball that succeeds). And Baumann has the best combination of the two. If I’m lining them up right now, I’m probably going to say Akin because he has the best stuff all together. But Baumann is right there with him. Lowther, he’s got the lefty advantage, but you are talking a guy again like Wells where the command is going to need to be fine and the deception has to always stay there. But he’s consistently done that throughout his college career and in the minors as well.”

SM: Thoughts on Cedric Mullins?

Cooper: “To me, with Mullins, he is at least a fourth outfielder. He’s going to probably get a chance soon. I think he will get a chance to prove he may be more than that and he may be more than that. Credit to him. Every level he goes to, and I’ll throw us into this, we’ve always said he’s good, not great. And every year, he does things well enough to keep getting moved up and noticed. He has earned a shot, and they need to see what he can do.”

So what is your take on the Machado deal and Duquette’s comments last night? You can read them here. Click here for more on the trade and here for my comments and opinion on the trade.

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