O's international program keeps taking steps forward and a new class is coming

Basallo

The Orioles continue to see strong signs that their international program is really starting to hum. As they get set to open a brand-new Dominican complex, in recent weeks they had four international players ranked among the top prospects in the Florida Complex League. They had seven players taken in September in the Dominican Winter League draft, led by catching prospect Samuel Basallo.

Basallo is the shining star right now among the O’s international talent, but is far from the only talent starting to get noticed.

“In recent years we planted some seeds and the flowers are starting to come up,” said the O’s Koby Perez, promoted recently from senior director of international scouting to vice president of international scouting and operations. “Our staff and scouts on the ground have done a fantastic job finding talent and I can’t say enough about our player development system. Some of the fruits of our labor are starting to show.”

Perez and the Orioles will unveil a new international signing class when the signing date arrives on Jan. 15.

“We feel good about this upcoming class,” Perez told me at the Winter Meetings in Nashville. “We feel like we’re going to have a couple of players that are publicly ranked in the signing class. And there are other guys, maybe not publicly ranked, but that we value highly as we have in the past. We’re excited and can’t wait to Jan. 15 to get these guys under wraps.”

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Several questions for O's fans

DL Hall ALDS 2023

Time for more questions for Orioles fans. A pre-Christmas edition.

It's an occasional winter feature at Steve's blog. Answer one or all the questions. Respond to the answers posted by others. Just read it all and keep your opinions to yourself.

All is possible here today.

Now on to the questions:

1) We have debated often here recently the club's need or lack of such for a starting pitching addition. So do they roll the dice with what they have or add on?

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Taking a look at a few facts with some opinions, too

o'hearn trots @ MIL

Time to take a look at a few facts that came out of the 2023 baseball season and see how some of them may play out in 2024. This is where our opinions come in.

Fact: No. 1-ranked prospect Jackson Holliday has played just one full minor league season and just 145 career games on the farm. He rose four levels last year, but played only 18 regular season games and four more in the playoffs for Triple-A Norfolk. Now he could make the 2024 Opening Day roster for the Orioles.

Opinion: O’s executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias got everyone’s attention at the Winter Meetings when asked if Holliday could make it to Baltimore for Opening Day.

"It's definitely a very strong possibility,” Elias said during an interview session in Nashville. “I don’t want to put the cart before the horse, but he had a historic first full season in the minors. Probably, you have to go back into, like, the '80s or '90s to find something similar to that, in my opinion, for an American kid out of high school. Got to Triple-A. Wasn’t there a huge amount of time, didn’t tear the cover off the ball, but he more than held his own and did well.”

As I have written a few times this offseason, sometimes teams just want to “get on with it” with a top prospect. They know the talent is immense and they move the youngster to the majors to complete his development while at the same time helping the big club. Holliday, as talented as he is and as mature as he is for age 20, is about at that point.

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Here is a chance to see a host of O's prospects on the field together at one time

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They will be playing in a game that doesn’t count, and it won’t even be a nine-inning game. But in mid-March at spring training in one game, we will be able to see many, maybe even just about all, of the Orioles' top young prospects on the field at one time.

It is a cool concept called “Spring Breakout,” a four-day event from March 14-17 in which each big league club’s top prospects will play another team's top group as part of a spring training doubleheader. Major League Baseball announced the event on Wednesday afternoon.

The Orioles' prospects will play the Pittsburgh Pirates' prospects on March 14 at Lecom Park in Bradenton, Fla. The schedule lists the clubs playing the major league spring game at 3:05 p.m., with the second part of a doubleheader being the prospects match starting their seven-inning game at 7:05 p.m.

No broadcasts for spring have been announced yet, but MLB Network was promoting a broadcast of the O’s and Pirates on the airwaves on Wednesday when this event was announced.

One of the neat things every year in spring training is seeing the prospects play in major league spring games. Whether they are there for just a short time or for longer, it has to be thrilling for the young players and also cool for the fans to see this young talent taking the field wearing the orange and black and representing the Orioles.

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Now in the NL, Ohtani can chase Frank Robinson for MVP history

Ohtani at OPACY

Now that he has moved from the American League to the National League, if Shohei Ohtani of the Los Angeles Dodgers wins an MVP award while wearing Dodger blue, he will join the one and only one player in baseball history to have won MVP awards in both leagues.

That player is former Oriole Frank Robinson, who won the NL MVP with Cincinnati in 1961 and the AL award in his first year with the Orioles in 1966 when he both hit for the Triple Crown and led the Orioles to their first World Series championship.

But oddsmakers say Ohtani is not the favorite for the 2024 NL MVP. Atlanta outfielder Ronald Acuna Jr., the 2023 winner, is. SportsBetting.ag released early MVP odds on Wednesday and listed Acuna at 3-1 and Ohtani at 6-1 to win in the NL. Ohtani and his two new teammates are the second, third and fourth betting favorites. Mookie Betts is at 7-1 with the Dodgers Freddie Freeman at 9-1.

In 2023, Acuna produced the first 40-70 season in MLB history. He hit .337/.416/.596/1.012 with 41 homers, 73 steals, 149 runs and 106 RBIs.

Ohtani won the AL MVP honor this year while with the Angels and it was the first time both winners were unanimously selected. Each got all 30 first-place votes. Acuna is the first player born in Venezuela to win the NL award. Two other Venezuelan-born players were winners in the AL, Miguel Cabrera (2012-13) and Jose Altuve (2017).

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Trying to guard against regression in the rotation in 2024

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The Orioles rotation – whether they add to it this offseason or not – just might be good enough now to take another run at an American League East championship. Currently, I expect that four members of that rotation look firm: Kyle Bradish, Grayson Rodriguez, John Means and Dean Kremer.

A fifth or even someone that could bump someone else out of that four could be in a group that includes Tyler Wells, DL Hall and Cole Irvin.

Surely, the Orioles could call on five of that group of seven and feel pretty good about their rotation right now. And again, they may add to that list of pitchers and maybe add someone who is pretty good. At least that was part of the plan when this offseason began.

The O’s rotation ERA of 4.14 for the 2023 year was just seventh-best in the AL for the full season. But it was much better in the second half at 3.74. An ERA of 3.74 for the year would have ranked first in the AL as Minnesota at 3.82 led the AL in rotation ERA for the season.

Kremer and Bradish got off to slow starts this year and Rodriguez had a 7.35 ERA at the end of May. The Orioles were 35-21 at the end of May and four games out of first place. So they were doing just fine, but things would get better in the second half when their pitching – especially among their starters - really got going.

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Is this pitcher a bit overlooked in the Baltimore rotation?

Dean Kremer white jersey

He is not the forgotten man in the Orioles starting rotation but maybe he is at times slightly overlooked.

With Birdland excited about Kyle Bradish and Grayson Rodriguez at the top of that rotation and the return of lefty John Means late last year in addition to the potential to add another starter, we can look past the 2023 contributions of right-hander Dean Kremer.

And we certainly should not, although on the stat sheet, his ’23 was not as strong in some respects as his ’22. But last season Kremer made 32 starts and the Orioles went 24-8 (.750). That stat alone should grab your attention. For comparison, they went 19-11 (.633) in Bradish’s starts and 14-9 (.609) when Rodriguez took the mound.

That doesn’t make Kremer a better pitcher since so much goes into that record like the defense behind you, run support and the ability for the late relievers to close out your game. But Kremer puts his team in position to win such a high percentage of his starts.

His season was marred by a slow start. In fact, his ERA was 6.67 in April. But then it was 3.59 his last 26 starts, as the Orioles went 21-5. Had he posted a 3.59 ERA for the full year he would have finished ninth in the AL in that stat.

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A look at the potential for O's bullpen after Kimbrel addition

Craig Kimbrel

The addition last week of right-hander Craig Kimbrel as Orioles closer certainly could be big for the Birds, who will play the 2024 season without All-Star closer Felix Bautista.

In fact, we could come up with a potential Opening Day O’s eight-man bullpen right now that features four lefties and four right-handers and looks quite strong on paper. And it does not even include Mike Baumann, Jacob Webb or Bryan Baker.

You start with Kimbrel at the back-end, pitching the ninth and looking to add to a resume that includes nine All-Star games and 417 career saves – eighth-most in MLB history.

Some of the criticism of this move is a bit surprising.

For one, he pitched so well last year after early May and yes, we know he had a couple of rough games in the NL Championship Series. But it doesn’t wash away all that happened before that, and he helped get them there.

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Shohei Ohtani got crazy dollars, but won't be coming to the AL East at least

Ohtani at OPACY

Hey, O’s fans look at it this way – the O’s Opening Day opponent just became a weaker team. The O’s host the Los Angeles Angels on March 28 to start a new season. And look at it this way – Shohei Ohtani is not coming to the American League East.

Juan Soto is headed our way, but Ohtani is not after agreeing to a staggering deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers for 10 years and $700 million.

When free agency began it was thought Ohtani’s deal might start with a five in front of it. But not a six, right? Well right, it was not a six.

While we wait to find out if this deal does indeed include a massive amount of deferred money, the $70 million dollar average annual value tops the Oakland Athletics entire season payroll for 2023 of $62.2 million per Sportrac. The Orioles, per that outlet, were at $71.1 million for last season.

Ohtani’s deal is such a whopper it doubles the combined totals of the previous two biggest MLB free agent contracts which were the Aaron Judge deal last year of nine years for $360 million and Bryce Harper’s Phillies deal of 13 years for $330 million.

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The O's run of No. 1-ranked prospects is both amazing and unprecedented

Jackson Holliday

Analysts have used words like "astounding" and "amazing" while noting that the Orioles have had three straight players move to the No. 1 spot on the national top-100 prospects lists. Adley Rutschman went to No. 1, and then so did Gunnar Henderson. And during the 2023 season, Jackson Holliday ended the year at No. 1.

Rutschman, Henderson and Holliday, all going to No. 1. The first two are already productive major leaguers. The third could join them on Opening Day 2024.

Talk about building an elite talent pipeline. You can’t get more elite then No. 1.

During the Winter Meetings, I interviewed Jonathan Mayo, MLBPipeline.com prospects analyst. He talked about this remarkable run of No. 1 prospects by the Orioles.

“It is really astounding,” said Mayo. “Adley and Jackson being No. 1, that is sort of how it’s supposed to be when you have the No. 1 pick. But they have not missed on the No. 1 pick. At least not yet. Jackson Holliday has not played an inning of big league ball, so we don’t put the cart ahead of the horse. I think we all expect him to be a good big leaguer. They didn’t miss on those, and people miss on No. 1 picks often. Even if they end up being OK big leaguers, they don’t wind up becoming that No. 1 prospect.

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The O's turned the AL East upside down in '23 and the big boys were not pleased

Mountcastle celebrates

Hey 2023 Baltimore Orioles, this is all your fault.

We could be thinking that when the Orioles turned the American League East upside down by going from 110 losses in 2021 to 101 wins and the division championship in 2023. The Orioles finished in first place for the first time since 2014.

To the delight of Birdland, the Boston Red Sox finished last with 78 wins and the New York Yankees were in fourth with 82 wins which was their fewest in a full season since 1995. They missed the playoffs for the first time since 2016.

All this upheaval in the AL East has the big-market, big spenders not too happy perhaps with the 101-win Orioles and 99-win Tampa Bay Rays. If anyone thought they would sit idly by and watch the O’s and Rays take over this division without throwing more money at their problems, you were sadly mistaken.

Juan Soto, welcome to the AL East. Shohei Ohtani, would you like to join him? Yoshinobu Yamamoto, who might get $200 million dollars, might not be far behind.

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O's get their man for the bullpen at the Winter Meetings

Craig Kimbrel NL All-Star jersey

NASHVILLE – It was a 2023 Winter Meetings where the Orioles did not come home with a Rule 5 draft pick but did head home with a new closer for the 2024 season.

Right-hander Craig Kimbrel, 35, agreed to terms with the Orioles on Wednesday. It was reported via several outlets to be a one-year deal worth $12 million with a team option at $13 million for 2025 that includes a $1 million buyout. The Orioles officially announced the signing in the afternoon yesterday.

The team checked a big box with this move, added to the back-end of their bullpen and now they can move on to the continued pursuit of a starting pitcher to join the top half of their rotation. If they check that box, that would be a nice 1-2 punch to the Baltimore offseason. A team that won 101 games last year, is close to set to take on the competition and try and repeat their AL East title.

Kimbrel led the National League in saves four straight years with Atlanta from 2011 through 2014. He is a nine-time All-Star that ranks eighth on the all-time saves list with 417. He is just three saves shy of Kenley Jansen, five behind Billy Wagner and seven back of John Franco.

This deal gives the O’s added late-game bullpen depth and a proven closer who converted his first 16 saves chances in 2023. Opponent batters hit .181/.273/.337/.611 off him. He got out both left (.608 OPS against) and right-handed hitters (.612).

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Close on a closer: O's search for bullpen help may be nearing the end (updated)

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NASHVILLE – The Orioles' search for a back-end-of-the-game reliever and a starting pitcher may now be down to just a search for a starter. The club is, according to numerous reports, closing in on a deal with free-agent right-hander Craig Kimbrel, a pitcher who is a nine-time All-Star with 417 career saves.

Even at 35, Kimbrel could be impactful for the Orioles in the later innings and could wind up as the 2024 closer with all that experience saving games on his resume.

For the 2023 Philadelphia Phillies, he went 8-6 with a 3.26 ERA and 1.045 WHIP in 71 games covering 69 innings. He recorded a 3.7 walk rate and 12.3 strikeout rate. He allowed just 44 hits over 69 innings for an average of 5.7 hits allowed per nine innings.

Kimbrel pitched three scoreless innings in the first two rounds of the playoffs, but yielded four runs over three innings when the Phillies lost the National League Championship Series to Arizona, and he took two losses in that series.

Opponent batters hit just .181/.273/.337/.611 off Kimbrel, who recorded 23 saves for the Phils with a save percentage of 82.1, which was a bit under the percentage of O’s closer Félix Bautista at 84.6. Bautista will miss the entire 2024 season after Tommy John surgery, so Kimbrel’s addition, when and if it becomes official, would deepen the Baltimore bullpen and allow Yennier Cano to move back into a setup role. The O’s would also have the likes of Danny Coulombe, Cionel Pérez and Dillon Tate for late-game innings. Pending their roles, Tyler Wells and DL Hall, among others, could also pitch significant bullpen innings.

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A door is ajar: With Elias' comments, O's provide Jackson Holliday a path to Opening Day roster

Jackson Holliday white jersey

NASHVILLE – The Orioles made news of sorts yesterday without making any signings or trades. The news was that there is “very definitely a strong possibility” that No. 1 ranked prospect Jackson Holliday will be on the Opening Day roster March 28. That is how O’s executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias answered when asked about the possibility of the kid being there for the opener. 

Earlier in the winter, Elias was indicating the O’s were open to his chance to make it on Opening Day but also that they would make that decision during spring training. Yesterday’s pronouncement gives Holliday, who turned 20 Monday, a great chance to be there for the opener against the Los Angeles Angels at Camden Yards.  

"It's definitely a very strong possibility,” Elias said during an interview session at the Winter Meetings. “I don’t want to put the cart before the horse, but he had a historic first full season in the minors. Probably you have to go back into like the 80s or 90s to find something similar to that in my opinion for an American kid out of high school. Got to Triple-A. Wasn’t there a huge amount of time, didn’t tear the cover off the ball, but he more than held his own and did well.”

Holliday rose four levels, from Low Single-A to Triple-A, batting .323/.442/.499/.941 while rising to become the No. 1 prospect in the sport and he also played in the All-Star Futures Game in July.

“He’s now going to be back in spring training. He just turned 20. To me that’s a big year of development – 19 to 20. You get taller, you get heavier, you get more mature. Just a lot of good things that can happen. We just want to see what he looks like,” said Elias of Holliday, who led all of the minors scoring 113 runs and he was fifth in on-base percentage.

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O's Matt Blood talks about his new role with the club and Anthony Villa's promotion

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NASHVILLE – In late October, coming off a season that produced 101 wins, an American League East championship and a top-rated farm that produced the No. 1 prospect in the sport for the third straight year, the Orioles made several promotions in their scouting and player development departments.

Matt Blood was promoted from director of player development to vice president of player development and domestic scouting. Joining Blood to help head up player development now will be Anthony Villa, 29, who has been with the Orioles since the 2020 season. He is Blood's replacement as director of player development. Villa was first an O's minor league hitting coach, then a minor league hitting coordinator for the lower levels of the farm and last year he was hitting coordinator for the entire system.

His promotion was first reported here on MASNSports.com.

A 19th-round draft pick of the White Sox in 2016, Villa played in the minors for three seasons. He's been a fast riser in the O's organization. Now he'll have even a larger role in player development. 

“First of all, Anthony and I have been working closely on running this player development system for a while," said Blood. "He’s one of the leaders of our hitting department, but he also has great energy just toward the well being of players and their development. He has always had great ideas and thoughts on how we can do better by our players.

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O's Mike Elias on weighing trade possibilities and MLB Network's Dan O'Dowd on the Orioles

Jordan Westburg white jersey

NASHVILLE – Saying you “have to give something to get something,” Orioles executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias is in somewhat of an enviable position when it comes to making a trade. Whether it would happen here at the Winter Meetings or later.

He doesn’t feel pressure to make a trade. Just because he has probably the deepest farm system in baseball doesn’t mean he has to deal from it. During his press update with local media Monday, he talked about making good trades that are balanced and indicated just because you can outbid others for a deal doesn’t make it the right deal.

But he also knows when you cannot outspend clubs to sign free agents you may to have to outbid them with prospects in trades.

“We are as well-equipped as any team to rattle off prospect packages for any player,” said Elias. “That doesn’t mean that we want to do that just because we have the No. 1 farm system, and we could theoretically outbid any team. At some point it becomes a trade that you don’t want to do. It equips us to get involved in every conversation. But there is more to making trades than just being the high bidder. The trade has to make sense. A lot of our prospects are so close to the majors if they are not there yet. These are guys that are going to help the 2024 O’s too. We have to keep all that in mind.”

I asked Elias if the Orioles are prepared to lose some of their best prospects?

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MLB Pipeline analyst talks O's prospect depth for possible trades (plus Hyde on Holliday)

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NASHVILLE – When you have one of the deepest and maybe the deepest farm systems in baseball, making trades from that prospect depth is a good way to add to your major league roster. For the Orioles, it’s a big change from the rebuilding years when they were trading to acquire prospects in dealing players such as Trey Mancini, Dylan Bundy and, going even farther back, Erik Bedard.

Now the Orioles are rumored to be looking to acquire a pitcher such as right-hander Dylan Cease via a trade. Cease has two years of team control left, at a cost of perhaps around $25 million. That is a pretty low dollar amount for two seasons of a pitcher of that quality, one who finished second for the American League Cy Young Award in 2022, going 14-8 with a 2.20 ERA. A pitcher projected to get $8.8 million this year via arbitration.

If, as reports indicate, his trade market is “robust,” it might take a team with numerous quality prospects to pull off that deal. A team like the Orioles could also offer one of several young veterans who already have a proven major league track record.

Jonathan Mayo, who covers prospects for MLB.com and MLBPipeline.com, shared a few thoughts this morning on the Orioles' prospect depth. Is now the time for Baltimore to pull the trigger on a deal to use prospects to get something to help the 2024 club?  

“That is what it is pointing to, not being privy to the conversations going on,” Mayo said. “They have infield and outfield depth and have choices, where they can make a trade and a team like the Chicago White Sox can get someone they can put right into their Opening Day lineup. Guys that are just about ready, and (the Orioles) bring in a starting pitcher like a Dylan Cease. And they could do it without completely stripping the system bare.

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The pursuit of pitching could pick up steam as Winter Meetings begin today

Dylan Cease

NASHVILLE – With the understanding that the MLB Winter Meetings and what happens here or doesn’t is not any finish line to the offseason, but just one milestone, the Orioles' front office contingent has arrived ready to seek pitching additions and perhaps make other tweaks to their big league roster.

The Winter Meetings began here last night and run through Wednesday.

The Orioles seek pitching and that has not changed. With closer Félix Bautista out for all of 2024, they could use an arm to add to the back-end of their bullpen. If that turns out to someone with closing experience, all the better. They would like to also add a starter that fits in the top half of their rotation. A pitcher who could join the likes of Kyle Bradish, Grayson Rodriguez and John Means (a current projected front three) to produce a formidable rotation to carry a contending team through the rigors of the 162-game season.

I interviewed O’s executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias after the early November General Managers' meetings in Arizona.

In that interview then he made it clear that a late-inning reliever is at or near the top of his wish list. Bautista, who posted a 1.48 ERA and 33 saves with a 16.2 K rate, underwent Tommy John surgery Oct. 9.

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Still robust and impressive: The O's top 10 prospects list

jackson holliday

With the release of a new top 10 O’s prospects list this week by Baseball America comes confirmation of what we already knew: the O’s system remains loaded. They currently hold the title of top farm system in all of baseball.

The new top-100 prospects lists are likely to come out sometime in January and February. But on the latest lists from Baseball America and MLBPipeline.com, the Orioles have six top-100 prospects.

Here is how Baseball America ranked them this week on its new team top 10.

1) Shortstop Jackson Holliday: Did we expect anyone else? The player drafted No. 1 overall by the Orioles on July 17, 2022 has lived up to the hype and then some. He played at four levels last summer – ending the year at Triple-A Norfolk – and hit .323 with a .941 OPS and led all minor league players in runs scored, with 113. He played above-average defense and has 60-grade speed. He was the O’s Minor League Player of the Year and Baseball America’s National Player of the Year after a season in which he played in the All-Star Futures Game. Speaking of the future, his day in Baltimore could be close. Holliday will celebrate his 20th birthday tomorrow.

2) Catcher Samuel Basallo: He turned 19 in August. He is a super-fast riser that has become the shining star of the O’s international program. He rose three levels last year, producing 20 homers and a .953 OPS. He played four games at the end of 2023 at Double-A Bowie, where he will likely start the 2024 season. It could end for him at Triple-A. The tools and production are loud for this guy. While Holliday is the third straight O’s farm player to be No. 1 in prospect rankings, Basallo could be the fourth. Yes, impressive by the Orioles. 

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Baseball America's deep dive into minor league pitching data produced interesting O's results

Grayson-Rodriguez-Norfolk

It is no secret that on those top 30 prospects lists, the Orioles have many more hitters than pitchers. But a recent article in Baseball America was interesting and enlightening about the O’s pitching on the farm. In several spots, Baltimore's farm pitchers scored well.

It was Baseball America’s Farm System Statcast Pitching Rankings, co-authored by Geoff Pontes and Dylan White. It is a deep dive into minor league pitchers, aggregating full-season pitchers data, metrics and stats for hurlers between ages 17 and 26.

The BA goal was “to more accurately understand which organizations have the highest quality of overall pitching talent.” And they were attempting to “view the developing pitching talent in each organization, not the team’s ability to stock quality MiLB free agents into Triple-A bullpens.”

In an all encompassing stat called “Stuff+” per BA it “is a blended metric of each organization’s STF+ (based on their internal model), per pitch Run Value, xwOBA, and pitch quality metrics such as in-zone whiff% and chase %. The resultant number was then scaled on a wRC+ scale where 100 is average and a standard deviation is 10 points.”

The Orioles organization ranked tied for third with the New York Yankees with a score of 114, behind only the Los Angeles Dodgers at 116 and Tampa Bay Rays at 119.  

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