Eight is enough: O's lead the way on the Baseball America top 100

Orioles executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias has said the current O’s top 10 prospects list is about as deep as he’s ever seen. And this is a man that worked for talent-rich organizations in St. Louis and Houston. 

That is quite a statement and it was pretty much proven sound when eight of those 10 were ranked among the Baseball America top 100 prospects list released Wednesday. The magazine has been producing top 100 lists early every year since 1990, and until yesterday the Orioles had never had more than five players ranked in the initial list of the year.

It was great news for an organization that stated a clear intention of building an elite talent pipeline and one that is going to have to thrive using a lot of its homegrown talent. Right now the Orioles have the deepest prospect pool in baseball, and that was not news before yesterday. Numerous outlets have ranked their farm No. 1, even before yesterday.

But a haul of eight is indeed a haul. Cleveland had the second-most with seven, while the Dodgers, Mets and Rays had six each. The Orioles never had more than five on this initial list until now. 

The O’s began the 2022 season with five and ended it with six on the Baseball America ranking of their players this way: Gunnar Henderson (No. 1), Grayson Rodriguez (No. 4), Jackson Holliday (No. 38), DL Hall (No. 55), Colton Cowser (No. 88) and Jordan Westburg (No. 89).

The new rankings yesterday have Henderson still at No. 1 with Rodriguez No. 6, Holliday No. 15, Cowser No. 41, Hall at No. 75, Westburg No. 76, Connor Norby No. 93 and Joey Ortiz at No. 95.

So the list does not include highly regarded prospects such as Kyle Stowers, Baseball America’s No. 9 O’s player, or No. 10 Coby Mayo. It doesn’t include Heston Kjerstad, who tore it up in the Arizona Fall League. It doesn’t include some of their emerging international talent.

But the list does show the O’s have high-end talent plus depth throughout their farm. The building of an elite talent pipeline, I imagine, is never complete, but the O’s have one very firm base right now.

Having Adley Rutschman ranked No. 1 on this list last January and Henderson No. 1 now gives the O’s two different players in back-to-back years atop the list. Since 1990, only Matt Wieters made it to No. 1 on this initial list release for the Orioles until Rutschman's selection last January. Now the O’s have two in a row.

They become the first team to ever have two players from the same draft class be No. 1 in consecutive years. The only team with two straight years with two different players getting to No. 1 before yesterday was St. Louis, with J.D. Drew in 1999 and Rick Ankiel topping the ratings in 2000.

And these were not all high draft picks, at least not at the very top of the draft. Although it is true that every O’s top pick going back to Hall in 2017 has been a top 100 player.

But five of these players were selected No. 21 overall or lower, with Hall (No. 21 in 2017), Westburg (No. 30 in 2020), Norby (No. 41 in 2021), Henderson (No. 42 in 2019) and Ortiz (No. 108 in 2019).

Elias’ first five picks in his first O’s draft of 2019 were Rutschman, Henderson, Stowers, Zach Watson and Ortiz. That is shaping up as potentially a monster draft for the Orioles.

Now fans want to know this: Will this lead to success in the major leagues?

During a Baseball America chat on the top 100 yesterday, Matt Eddy of the BA staff said this in answering a question about the Diamondbacks:

“A system being top-heavy is a very good problem to have. It tends to signify a prospect base that is extremely talented, close to MLB or both. In general, a high farm system rating in the present leads to MLB success in the future. Right now, the D-backs have a high farm system rating.”

And Arizona has three of the top 13 on this list. The Orioles are the only club with two of the top six ranked players and have three of the top 15.

Last fall I interviewed MLBPipeline.com’s Jim Callis on the strength of the O’s farm.

“The teams with the very best farm systems almost always contend about a year earlier than you expect,” Callis said. “And the Orioles did that last year. Sometimes they take a step back the next year and then they are good to go, smooth sailing from there. The Astros are a team that comes to mind. The Cubs come to mind. It happens a lot.

“In 2023 with the Orioles we will see more of the long-term pieces kind of fit into place in the big leagues and then be part of that lineup. From that point on, maybe they don’t have room for all their talent and they trade players from the farm.

“Nobody ever has too much talent. If you don’t have places for everyone to play on your big league team, you consolidate prospects and trade them for a bigger piece.”

So yes, the farm really works for the big club mostly in two ways: producing talent to help the team win and producing prospects to trade to help it win.

Elias admitted in end-of-year interviews last season that the Orioles are likely to make future trades involving prospects. 

“We just want to keep stacking good players and good drafts and good international development so that we’re able to use our players, because we don’t have the same amount of money as the Yankees, you know? There’s going to be times when our richness in players is going to be what we have to lean into in order to win out here,” he said.

In the 34-year-history of this list, as mentioned, the O’s previous highest number on this list was five ranked players in 2008, 2021 and 2022. They had four players in 1991, 1992, 1993, 1994, 1995, 1999, 2004, 2006, 2009 and 2010. They had no players on the list in 2003 or 2016.

They have never had three in the top 15 before yesterday, and Henderson joins Matt Wieters (2009) and Rutschman (2022) as the only O’s No. 1 players in the initial list release. The Orioles have had the No. 2 ranked prospect on this list: in 1990 (Ben McDonald), 2013 (Dylan Bundy) and 2021 (Rutschman).

Underscoring how important signing international players can be, there are 29 international signees on this top 100 with 46 high school draft picks and 25 from colleges.

And by the way, while eight on this list is a massive number, it was matched by one team and exceeded by two as recently as 2019 on the Baseball America poll. That year San Diego and Tampa Bay had nine players ranked, and Atlanta had eight. 

Another plus for the club is that seven of the eight players have made it at least as far as Triple-A and done well when they got there. We know about Henderson and Rodriguez last season with Triple-A Norfolk. But in 91 Triple-A games, Westburg has an .869 OPS. In 27 games at that level, Cowser’s OPS was .767. Over 26 games Ortiz was at .967, and in nine games Norby produced an OPS of 1.123.

Meanwhile, some have already begun to wonder if a three-peat is in order, with Holliday as 2024's top prospect following Rutschman in 2022 and Henderson in 2023.

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