When Baseball America released its latest top 100 prospects list on Wednesday, the Orioles had three players who made it and one that just missed.
Catcher Adley Rutschman was No. 5, right-handed pitcher Grayson Rodriguez No. 35 and left-hander DL Hall No. 47. Those are the club’s last three top draft picks, with Hall taken 21st overall in 2017, Rodriguez 11th in 2018 and Rutschman was the overall No. 1 pick last June.
When the 2019 season ended, Baseball America had tweaked its list a bit from the preseason and midyear, and the Orioles had five players listed. Rutschman was No. 5, Hall No. 35, Rodriguez No. 45, Yusniel Diaz No. 75 and Ryan Mountcastle No. 88.
Mountcastle was close but missed this year’s top 100 list after being ranked No. 71 before the 2018 season and No. 90 before the beginning of last year.
In November, he was an easy addition to the Orioles’ 40-man roster after a season when he was named both International League Most Valuable Player and the Orioles’ Brooks Robinson Minor League Player of the Year. The 36th overall pick in the 2015 draft out of a Florida high school hit .312/.344/.527 with an .871 OPS in 2019, his first season at Triple-A Norfolk. He added 35 doubles, one triple, 25 homers, 81 runs and 83 RBIs.
It was a real strong year, so after posting those stats and being a top 100 player twice before, why did Mountcastle miss this time?
“Let me start with he was really close,” J.J. Cooper of Baseball America told me during a phone interview yesterday. “And I know that sounds like something we say a lot, but he was in the 101 to 110 list. He was a guy who we did talk about and really had big discussions about whether he’d be in the top 100.
“Really, it comes down to questions about his defense. As a hitter, he is a top 100 prospect. But the questions about his defense include: Where is he going to play? He was a shortstop and there were questions, and now there are questions: Will he be a left fielder or first baseman? Every time you move down the defensive spectrum, the demands on the bat become more intense, and that was enough to keep him just off the list.”
The Orioles will certainly find a way to get Mountcastle in the lineup, and that is likely to happen this year at some point, maybe early in the year.
“As an AL team, the easy answer could be first base, and if that doesn’t work, he can be a DH,” Cooper said. “But it is really hard to come up with guys that come up as a designated hitter. Usually, guys come up at a position, and then having hit but with some questions with the glove, he moves to DH. Usually, that is what happens. We probably will see Mountcastle breaking in at some point at a position, but right now we don’t have a perfect answer as to what position that will be.
“Every year that the defense question is not answered, the possibility it won’t be answered in a positive way gets larger. When we were talking about Mountcastle moving from short to third, he had more options. We have worse options now. He’s not going to be a shortstop or third baseman. There are fewer options now.”
It should be pointed out the Orioles have not said Mountcastle’s days at third base are over. On the farm last year he made 83 starts at first base, 26 in left field and nine at third.
So Mountcastle just missed the list. That means there are 10 teams that had more players selected than the Orioles, led by Tampa Bay with eight and the Los Angeles Dodgers with seven. Eight teams had five or more players on the list.
“Another guy not that far off the list is Austin Hays,” Cooper added. “I won’t say he just missed the list by a spot or two, but he’s been on the list before. With him it’s been (about) being healthy, and there are some selectivity questions (at bat), as with Mountcastle too. Is Hays going to be so aggressive at the plate that he might struggle to hit for average because of that? But I wouldn’t be surprised at all if Hays doesn’t have a good year in 2020.”
Rutschman, who turns 22 on Feb. 6, hit .254/.351/.423 last season after he signed for a draft-record $8.1 million bonus. He ended the year with Single-A Delmarva and played for the Shorebirds in the South Atlantic League playoffs.
Rodriguez, who shared the Orioles’ Minor League Pitcher of the Year award with Michael Baumann, went 10-4 with a 2.68 ERA for Delmarva with a 0.99 WHIP. Hall was 4-5 with a 3.46 ERA at Single-A Frederick. He had a strikeout rate of 12.9 per nine innings but a walk rate of 6.02.
This is the third year in a row for the Orioles to get three players on the Baseball America list. Before 2018 it was Hays (No. 21), Chance Sisco (No. 68) and Mountcastle (No. 71). Before last season it was Diaz (No. 37), Hall (No. 54) and Mountcastle (No. 90).
The last time the Orioles had four players was in 2010 with Brian Matusz (No. 5), Josh Bell (No. 37), Zack Britton (No. 63) and Jake Arrieta (No. 99).
They had five players just once, and that was in 2008 with Matt Wieters (No. 12), Chris Tillman (No. 67), Radhames Liz (No. 69), Troy Patton (No. 78) and Nolan Reimold (No. 91).
The Orioles have had four players ranked on the Baseball America list 10 times in 31 years since the first list was published in 1990. Twice they did not have a single player on it. That happened in 2003 and 2016.
The Orioles continue to build some farm depth. And while they have just three players officially on the list, it was nearly four, and they’ve got three others (Diaz, Hays and Hunter Harvey) who have been on the list previously and could have gotten consideration this time. In fact, Baseball America listed Mountcastle, Hays and Diaz as getting votes from its editors but falling short of the final top 100.
“There is more depth now,” Cooper said. “By this time next year the Orioles will have added another premium pick in the draft (selecting No. 2 overall in June). Plus they have second- and third-rounders at the top of those rounds, which will continue to fill out this farm system.
“I would say the biggest way the system is better now than it was a year ago is it has Adley Rutschman in it. He’s an absolutely premium prospect, and having a prospect at No. 5 says a lot.
“The other thing is that the Orioles’ pitching development is solid, and Grayson Rodriguez is a better pitching prospect than he was a year ago. I’ll be interested to see the so-called second-tier arms on the farm. Will one of those guys emerge? The fact the Orioles are starting to spend internationally is making their farm system deeper.”
The Baseball America top 100 included 28 right-handed pitchers and 20 outfielders. Rutschman is one of nine catchers listed, the most since 2011. There are 70 players born in the United States and 30 from other places. The last time the Orioles had a homegrown international player on this list it was lefty pitcher Eduardo Rodríguez, ranked No. 65 in 2014.
At No. 5, Rutschman is the highest-ranked Oriole since Dylan Bundy was No. 2 in 2013. The Orioles had the top-rated player once, when Wieters was No. 1 in 2009.