One of the biggest questions facing the Orioles for next season is how and when to turn over significant playing time to some of their top prospects? When is the right time to not only call up a player but commit to that player as a regular?
The Orioles have more than three players that are on the verge of cracking the everyday lineup or pushing to do that, but the three that are right on the cusp include two we have already seen in the majors in outfielders Colton Cowser and Heston Kjerstad and one we have not. That’s the big one, MLB’s No. 1 prospect in shortstop Jackson Holliday.
We have here three players ranked by at least one major outlet as among the top 25 prospects in baseball. Holliday is No. 1 by both Baseball America and MLBPipeline.com while Cowser is No. 11 by Baseball America and No. 14 via MLB. Kjerstad is No. 24 via MLB and No. 43 by Baseball America.
Sometimes an injury will determine when this player gets in the lineup and then it’s up to the player to take the chance and run with it. Sometimes a prospect will make the roster but not have regular playing time. That is always a big decision to make. Is the prospect better suited to just play every day on the farm or learn on the job in the big leagues even if not playing a lot? How will the prospect handle not playing a lot?
Cowser got into 26 games with the 2023 Orioles and hit .115/.286/.148/.433. Known for a good batting eye and patient approach with nice gap-to-gap pop, he managed a 16.9 walk rate in that limited sample with a 28.6 K rate. There is some swing and miss in his game, but this is also a player that gets at least average grades on defense and is considered a plus runner.
While some fans may have gotten down on him over that small sample, we should keep in mind that Adley Rutschman was hitting .176 with a .513 OPS and had no homers or RBIs after his first 20 MLB games. It doesn’t always happen from the jump.
Cowser has put up huge numbers at Triple-A where, for instance, this year he posted a .937 OPS in 87 games while Kjerstad was at .870 for 76 games. Over 114 Triple-A games over the last two seasons, Cowser has hit .280/.399/.498/.896. His slugging and OPS match and/or exceed Kjerstad in 38 more games for Norfolk.
Did Cowser’s play with the Orioles present some red flags or was he just the latest prospect to not tear it up right out of the box?
These are always critical questions for a front office as they should know their own players better than any other team obviously and how right they are in projecting future performance of their prospects can determine which players they hold on to and show confidence in and which they may trade. The trick here is trading a player who is still holding his value and in demand and before he reaches that point with enough major league time and struggles that doubt has crept in throughout the industry. Try finding the right balance to that question. It is challenging for any club.
As we review these players today, Kjerstad may be the most big league ready based off his big league time to date. In 13 games last September, he hit .233/.281/.467/.748 with two homers and a 106 OPS+.
Kjerstad, who made the O’s playoff roster against Texas, sure hit the ball hard. His first five MLB hits all had an exit velocity of 94 mph+ and his average exit velocity was 92.3 mph as an Oriole. He looked pretty polished in the box in his brief time.
He picked up a homer as his first career hit on Sept. 15 versus Tampa Bay and became the 11th player in O’s history to homer for his first career hit and first since Gunnar Henderson on Aug. 31, 2022 at Cleveland. Kjerstad also slugged his second career homer Sept. 19 at Houston and became the sixth rookie in team history with two-or-more homers in his first five career games. He joined Chance Sisco (2, 2017), Trey Mancini (3, 2016), Manny Machado (3, 2012), Andrés Mora (2, 1976), and Curt Belfary (3, 1965).
With Austin Hays, Cedric Mullins and Anthony Santander already starting in the Baltimore outfield, how the O’s find room for the rookies and when will be interesting questions to be answered. Will a trade or trades impact the outfield?
Holliday is another matter. He will turn 20 Dec. 4, but after just 36 games at Double-A and 18 at Triple-A, is the kid ready for the majors already? He could be and if the O’s deem this answer as yes, they may be about ready to just get on with it with the kid. Or do they need to see more in spring training? His day is coming, it’s just a matter of exactly when.
All MLB team nominees: Six Orioles are among the players nominated for the all MLB team. The first and second teams will be announced Dec. 16 on a live broadcast on MLB Network. The team, established in 2019, will be selected by both a fan and media vote, with each counting 50 percent. The nominees were announced last night.
One player will be selected for the first team and one for the second team at catcher, first base, second base, shortstop, third base and DH. There will be three outfielders selected for each team with five starting pitchers and two relief pitchers on both the first and second teams.
The O's Adley Rutschman was one of nine nominees at the catching position. He hit .277/.374/.435/.809 with 20 homers, 80 RBIs and a 128 OPS+.
Gunnar Henderson was one of nine shortstop nominees in a loaded field that includes Corey Seager, Francisco Lindor, Trea Turner and Bobby Witt Jr. Henderson hit .255 with an OPS of .814 with 28 homers, 82 RBIs and 100 runs.
Anthony Santander was among a list of 21 nominees in the outfield after batting .257 with a .797 OPS, 41 doubles, 28 homers and 95 RBIs. He finished third in the AL in doubles and was seventh with 70 extra-base hits.
Right-hander Kyle Bradish was among the 26 starting pitcher nominees after going 12-7 with a 2.83 ERA that ranked third best in the AL and fourth in MLB.
The O's had two reliever nominees among the 24 bullpen pitchers listed in Félix Bautista and Yennier Cano, who both made the 2023 AL All-Star team. Bautista is expected to miss all of next season after undergoing Tommy John surgery Oct. 9. This season he went 8-2 with a 1.48 ERA and 33 saves. Cano was 1-4 with a 2.11 ERA and eight saves.
Beginning last night and continuing through Sunday, Nov. 19th at 8:00 p.m. (ET), fans may vote for their 2023 All-MLB choices at mlb.com/allmlb once every 24 hours.