A look at how an elite talent pipeline was built

Today's blog entry has spent a few weeks in my laptop. This was written in early September and no, I don't work that far in advance. Hardly.

But that was when the Orioles asked me to write an article that would appear in the Major League Baseball playoffs program if they made the postseason.

They didn't but hey, someone should get to read this!

The topic was building that elite pipeline, how the Orioles did it in Baltimore and how the young talent was helping the big league club turn around their losing ways. Let's begin!

The night of Sept. 3 when the Orioles played the Athletics at home, was one of the latest examples that the Baltimore farm system and player development operation was a big reason for the Orioles' turnaround in the 2022 season.

That night Baltimore had catcher Adley Rutschman, infielder Gunnar Henderson and outfielder Kyle Stowers all in the same lineup for the first time. It was the first time in Orioles history that the club had its first three picks from any one MLB Draft in the same lineup. And they were also the first three picks for executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias and his staff after Elias was hired by the Orioles in fall 2018.

Rutschman was the first Elias draft pick in Baltimore and second No. 1/1 pick (after Ben McDonald from 1989) in O’s history. Henderson was the second pick in that 2019 draft, No. 41 overall and Stowers was the third selection at pick No. 71.

The Orioles hit five homers that night and beat the A's 8-1 as their playoff push was on.

“It’s really special,” Stowers said before that game. “Coming in together, we were the first three picks of the new front office. The coolest part to see is not only how we have grown so much as players, but we have all become so close. It’s like rooting for your best friends.”

That big three is part of the larger and successful O’s player development operation. When hired, Elias stated the Orioles would need to build an “elite talent pipeline” if they were going to compete in the rugged American League East. The Orioles have done just that and the Baltimore farm system late this season was ranked No. 1 by Baseball America, MLBPipeline.com and ESPN.com.

It was further validation that Baltimore has not only drafted and developed players well under Elias, but that a multitude of new coaching hires over the last few years on the farm were making an impact as well. As were the club’s various efforts to upgrade and enhance its data and analytics operation. The O’s farm was humming on all cylinders as 2022 approached the postseason and now a burgeoning international operation was beginning to produce talent that is starting to rise up the ranks as well. That will serve as a welcome addition to the O’s farm, giving it a chance to maintain a high ranking in the industry for years to come.

As for the coaching additions, the O’s added some bright minds and they worked hard with the hitters to make better swing decisions to improve plate discipline and maximize damage in hitter's counts. On the pitching side, there was extensive use of data, analytics and technology to improve deliveries, velocity, spin rates, pitch design, and any aspects that would help the pitchers step up their games.

Among the players on the end-of-year MLB.com O’s top 30 prospects list, 26 were acquired by Elias and his staff through the draft, trades and international signings.

That top 30 included two draft picks each from 2017 and 2018, four from 2019, five from 2020, three from 2021, and six new selections from the 2022 MLB Draft. It included four players acquired via trades and four international signees. It included 22 position players and eight pitchers.

The Orioles have shown a preference in their first three drafts under Elias to take mostly position players and often college drafted position players with top 10 picks. In the 2019 through 2021 drafts, the O’s selected just four pitchers in the top 10 rounds of three drafts. But in 2022, a draft that produced another No. 1/1 selection in high school shortstop Jackson Holliday, the O’s drafted 12 pitchers and signed nine of them. They drafted and signed four top-10-round pitchers.

The improved 2022 Orioles at the big league level had a huge impact from their farm system. In May, the then No. 1 ranked prospect in baseball in Rutschman arrived to make a significant impact both behind the plate and in front of it. The O’s turnaround was already underway when he made his debut, and he took it to the next level. Later, players like Henderson and Stowers, Terrin Vavra and DL Hall would join him. They added to a nucleus that included some homegrown talent vets like Cedric Mullins, Ryan Mountcastle, Austin Hays and Ryan McKenna.

To further enhance their farm, the Orioles continue to make significant strides in international signings under the leadership of senior director of international scouting Koby Perez. Under Perez, the team has signed its first three international amateurs to bonuses of $1 million or more in club history.

The Orioles added catcher Samuel Basallo from the Dominican Republic to a then-club record $1.3 million bonus in January 2021. In that same class, they added Venezuelan shortstop Maikol Hernandez for $1.2 million. Basallo, at No. 12, is the club’s current highest-rated international signing by MLB.com and Hernandez is No. 27 on the list. In January 2022, the O’s handed out their biggest bonus ever to 16-year-old outfielder Braylin Tavera of the Dominican Republic at $1.7 million. He is rated No. 28 by MLBPipeline.com.

As 2022 ended, the club was starting to see some advancement up through their system from several international talents. Infielders Frederick Bencosme (No. 25 prospect) and Luis Valdez reached High-A and Cuban infielder Cesar Prieto (No. 18) was at Double-A Bowie.

And those players will soon have a new state-of-the art facility in which to learn and train. In March 2021, the Orioles broke ground on a new academy in Guerra, Dominican Republic, making a multimillion-dollar investment in their international program.

“We have made tremendous strides over the last couple of years in establishing our international presence and revamping our baseball operations infrastructure, and this project may be the most momentous step yet,” Elias said. “International scouting and player development are critical to the future success of the Orioles.”

The club made big improvement in its big league pitching in 2022 and right-hander Grayson Rodriguez is the top-rated pitching prospect in baseball, at No. 4 by MLB.com. He and Hall are top 100 pitching prospects. The O’s have also added young pitching via trades and Kyle Bradish, who came from the Angels in the December 2019 Dylan Bundy deal, impacted their rotation this season. At the ’22 trade deadline, the O’s added top 15 pitching prospects in Seth Johnson (No. 10), Chayce McDermott (No. 13) and Cade Povich (No. 14).

With a plethora of position player prospects having big years like Henderson, Stowers, Jordan Westburg, Colton Cowser, Connor Norby and Joey Ortiz and the top 100 arms in Rodriguez and Hall plus the pitching trade additions and international gains, the Orioles farm had quite a season in moving to the No. 1 rating this year.

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