Brink Ambler glances at the lineup card for Triple-A Norfolk and a smile creases his face. And he isn’t filled with joy because of the two Orioles on injury rehab assignments.
Cedric Mullins and Ryan Mountcastle would liven up the place if it needed a spark. It does not. The joint was jumping long before their arrivals.
The Tides are the first half International League kings. If you want to crown them, then crown their butts. It’s going to happen anyway, with or without you.
Ambler is the hitting coach whose classroom is filled with valedictorians. On the night in Nashville that they clinched, the Tides had Colton Cowser batting third behind Mullins and Mountcastle, Jordan Westburg in the cleanup spot, Heston Kjerstad fifth and playing left field, Connor Norby sixth at second base and former Cuban batting champion César Prieto seventh at third base.
In MLB Pipeline prospect rankings, that’s No. 2, 3, 4, 7 and 16. Outfielder Hudson Haskin, who’s 13th, was on the bench.
Ambler isn’t on the fence when grading what he sees on a nightly basis.
“It’s been awesome,” he said. “These guys are incredibly talented, and they’re also really, really good guys and really intrinsically motivated and desiring to continue to get better every day. Not just being content with what their current skill set might be. It’s been really, really neat to see that combination of talent with drive to continue to improve. This lineup, it’s unbelievable. It really is.
“Also, we take pride in being a lineup that’s going to be really, really tough to pitch to, and the guys love it. They love being that team that can put up eight at any given time. It’s been cool. And a lot of these guys have come up together and they’re pretty tight knit, as well. They enjoy seeing each other succeed, and even when they might not be having their best day, if their buddy does something really cool, that’s a good moment, as well.”
The pipeline keeps pumping talent to Double-A Bowie, challenging the front office to find room on Norfolk’s roster. Kjerstad, Prieto and Haskin earned their promotions. Coby Mayo is using his tremendous power to hit sky-scraping home runs and pound on the door to the International League.
Ambler stays in contact with first-year Bowie hitting coach Sherman Johnson, who’s passing along the prospects for further educating and to maintain the philosophies driven by the organization.
“I don’t really know a whole lot about what moves may or may not happen,” Ambler said. “I know that Sherm and I have a really good relationship, and so it’s been great to get to work with him and sort of handle those handoffs as guys come up, and things like that. And I feel like those guys have a really good plan down there. And it’s been awesome to see them be able to come up and continue the work that they were doing down there with Sherm and feel like they don’t need to do something different because they get to this new level.
“There’s talented hitters all up and down this org at a whole bunch of different levels, which is really exciting.”
Cowser is a star pupil, the fifth-overall pick in the 2021 draft out of Sam Houston State who hit his ninth home run Wednesday and entered last night’s doubleheader batting .341 with a 1.034 OPS and 43 walks in 48 games.
“He can do a lot of different things really, really well,” Ambler said. “He can hit the ball very hard from line to line. He has an elite ability to command the strike zone. His recognition of pitches and ability to discern balls from strikes is as good as I’ve seen from a minor league player, and so he gets himself into pretty good counts and is able to take advantage of that. And he has an ability to create this quality of contact that can be from line to line at very, very hard velocities at great angles, and so those combinations make a really, really tough out at the plate.
“It’s been really cool to watch him this year sort of add pieces to that puzzle in terms of his approach and his plan, and finding out how guys are going to pitch him and being willing to adjust off of that.”
The waiting to debut with the Orioles doesn’t appear to be the hardest part of the experience for Cowser. He knows it’s coming. He isn’t losing sleep over it.
“I don’t think he’s really thinking about that,” Ambler said. “If you know Colton, you know that he’s a fun-loving guy. He loves to make the energy positive and upbeat wherever he is. He loves to poke fun at guys and make sure that they’re having a good time, as well. He’s genuinely enjoying what he’s doing, and it’s been nice. He’s been able to really keep his head down and just grind through his work.
“To me, I think he’s enjoying being a part of this team with a bunch of his buddies and continuing to work on his skill set. Whatever happens will happen. I think he’s just working to be ready for whenever a situation allows for it to happen.”
Orioles second basemen are batting a collective .227/.280/.363 in 73 games, with a .643 OPS that ranks 24th in the majors. They find ways to contribute, whether a clutch hit or defensive play, but the overall production isn’t creating a barrier for Westburg.
The Orioles are doing it by waiting to promote him. Allowing him to focus on improvements in a few areas, including defensively, while also determining how to make room for him. Who goes before they can select his contract.
The 2022 organizational Minor League Player of the Year followed an impressive spring training by slashing .290/.369/.565 with 15 doubles, two triples, and a team-leading 17 home runs and 52 RBIs in 63 games before last night.
“Westy is awesome,” Ambler said. “He has this unbelievable work ethic. I mean, his drive to train hard, to challenge himself in training, to find how the game is responding to him and to be able to counter that, is unmatched. It’s been really cool to get to witness that. And this year especially, the league has sort of tried some new tricks, that maybe a pitcher might not have something listed in his report that he would do a whole lot to certain right-handed hitters but he’ll do it to Westy, and it’s been really neat to see him handle the task of being uniquely game planned for, which is a really cool moment that not a lot of guys get, to be that circled guy in the lineup.
“He’s a guy who has a really good idea of what he’s going to do, and he’s done a nice job. Early in the year, he had a lot more sort of pull-side power and slug than he has had at times in the past, and so that was sort of a new skill set that he tapped into. And after that he wanted to make sure he was able to still use the whole field. He’s really done a nice job of incorporating those two things and blending them together. If you make a mistake and it shows up in his zone, he’s going to make you pay for it.
“He’s a guy who is really, really good at being his own coach, and is good at creating plans and approaches that make sense for what he is trying to do. So, a super solid player, really good hitter. Honestly, he’s done a lot for our guys in terms of showing them the ropes, how to go about your work like a professional. He’s been a really good steadying force for this group, and a lot of the other players have been able to take really positive influence from him. And I know that he’s talked about, he’s the epitome of, keep your head down and just keep doing the work, and that’s 100 percent what he does. That’s truly his personality.”
Kjerstad has been under a microscope since the 2020 draft, when the Orioles made him the second-overall pick out of the University of Arkansas – an underslot selection but one that gave them the best left-handed hitter available, according to executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias. The last moment when it all seemed perfect for player and organization, with a diagnosis of myocarditis to follow and a couple of setbacks, including a hamstring injury in spring 2022.
The needle swung over to the positive side again with Kjerstad named the Arizona Fall League’s Most Valuable Player, a .381/.409/.810 line in spring training with four doubles, a triple and four home runs in 23 games, and a bump from Bowie to Norfolk on June 5.
Before last night, Kjerstad hit a combined .314/.387/.590 with 13 doubles, four triples, 14 home runs and 26 RBIs in 258 plate appearances. He had three doubles, a triple and three home runs in 12 games with the Tides, and he homered again last night in the opener and doubled in his first at-bat in Game 2.
“I’m just really happy for Heston that he feels like he’s his normal self and he’s able to show what he can do, and this is what we all knew he was capable of,” Ambler said. “It’s really great to see that, after that big setback, that he’s been able to get to where he wanted to be, and sort of be him again and feel like he was good physically. And now he’s just having fun going out there playing.
“The bat is so good. He can hit at the highest level in terms of pitching, in terms of approach. I’ve been really impressed with some of the things he’s told me on the top step as he’s game planning for the pitcher in that at-bat, what he’s trying to do. So, he’s been really impressive. And I think he’s another guy who’s doing a great job challenging himself in his training and just trying to soak up all the lessons that this league is here to teach him and how they’re going to pitch him and adjust to him. I’m confident that he’ll be able to find a way to counter and find a way to solve those problems.”
The Orioles gave Prieto $650,000 during the 2022 international signing period, understood the challenges he faced adjusting to the minors and life in the U.S., and watched him flourish this year at Bowie. He stayed with the Baysox through 58 games, batting .364 with a .406 on-base percentage, until the Orioles could fit him onto Norfolk’s roster.
The move was made Tuesday with Terrin Vavra on the injured list with a right shoulder strain. Prieto had a two-run single last night in the first inning of Game 2 and hit his first home run in the third inning.
“I really love Prieto,” Ambler said. “Prieto is an awesome guy. He’s a true character and a really good hitter. It’s been great to see him working on the things that he’s learning how to adapt into his game. I know that he’s done a great job down there with Sherm, working on identifying how to sort of work the at-bat from a strategy standpoint. Not just putting any ball in play that he can hit because his contact tool is so outrageously good that his at-bat can end early if he swings at a pitch that he doesn’t actually want to put in play.
“It’s been nice to get to be around him last year a little bit in spring training and this year in spring training and now to have him here. We’re really excited. He’s a great player and a really great clubhouse influence, as well.”
Mullins is just passing through while recovering from a groin strain. He hit a two-run homer Wednesday in his first rehab game and played in both ends of the doubleheader, starting in center field and then serving as designated hitter, batting twice before Westburg replaced him.
The Orioles will be the next team tasked with making room. They set up a final test for Mullins and he seems to have passed it.
“He’s great,” Ambler said. “We’re excited to have him. He’s been awesome for the guys just to be around. Another guy who knows exactly what he wants to accomplish, gets his work in. I thought he was really good. He did a nice job in terms of helping guys out, in terms of crafting approaches and things in the dugout. I thought he looked good. It was great to have him, and hopefully he’ll continue through his rehab and get to make the next step.”
Mountcastle went 0-for-5 with three strikeouts Wednesday and 0-for-3 with a strikeout last night in the first game. He’s on the IL with vertigo, but also moving in the right direction, as it were, by facing pitchers again.
“We only had one BP because we’ve had some weird weather here, but he’s working hard,” Ambler said. “I think these guys on these rehabs, they’re getting their work in, they’re making sure that they’re getting what they need to and trying to get ready for that ultimate next step, when they can start playing in the games again that they’re looking toward.”