BALTIMORE -- Down the stretch last season, Orioles fans were rewarded with glimpses of the team’s future. Hunter Harvey made his long-awaited Major League debut on a mid-August night in Boston, striking out two batters in what would be a preview of things to come. Less than three weeks later, Austin Hays was summoned as a surprise September callup, and he contributed immediately, making a series of highlight-reel defensive plays and becoming a quick fixture at the top of the order.
If nothing else, seeing two of Baltimore’s top 15 prospects perform well in orange and black sparked optimism for a rebuilding club that has slogged through consecutive 100-loss seasons. More of that is on the way.
The Orioles are expecting nearly half of their top prospects to join them in camp when Spring Training opens Tuesday -- many of whom have a chance to debut at some point in 2020. The headliner, reigning No. 1 Draft pick Adley Rutschman, is not a candidate to reach the Majors this season. But nearly every other blue-chipper in Sarasota could crack the big leagues by summer’s end, from No. 4 prospect Ryan Mountcastle and No. 5 Yusniel Diaz to hurlers like No. 9 Dean Kremer and No. 11 Keegan Akin down to No. 24 Rylan Bannon and No. 28 Dillon Tate.
Long term, the Orioles’ goal for their rebuild is to create an elite, self-sustaining talent pipeline. And while their 2019 Draft class furthered that goal, the truth is, every upper-level prospect in the organization predates executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias and his new front office. But consider them the first wave anyway, because there is plenty of opportunity in Baltimore and they are all about to come after it at once.
“We feel really good about where the Orioles [as an organization] are,” Elias said earlier this winter. “A big part of that was the talent that was here when we got here.”
Hays (Baltimore's No. 91 overall pick in 2016) and Harvey (No. 22 overall in ‘13), two of the O’s highest-profile selections of the past decade, are both healthy after years lost to injuries in the Minors. They are the only two with jobs that are more or less guaranteed for Opening Day, with Hays projected to patrol center field and Harvey earmarked for a back-end bullpen role. The four other 40-man roster residents are Mountcastle, Kremer, Akin and outfielder Ryan McKenna; all of whom were added last November.
Whether the Orioles opt for Akin and/or the soon-to-be-23-year-old Mountcastle to break camp with the club will be a storyline all spring. It would be more likely that both arrive sometime in the first half of the season and quickly become priorities, with Mountcastle in a first base/right field/designated hitter carousel and Akin in the back end of the rotation. Akin will spend the spring fighting for looks alongside Rule 5 Draft picks Brandon Bailey (No. 21 per MLB Pipeline) and Michael Rucker.
Kremer, Diaz, Bannon and left-hander Bruce Zimmerman -- all pieces in the July 2018 Manny Machado deal with the Dodgers -- will begin the year at Triple-A Norfolk. The same is true for No. 10 Zac Lowther and No. 20 Alex Wells, though the O’s might be inclined to give both southpaws a full year at that level. The soon-to-be-ranked Zimmerman should present another option if he proves he can handle Triple-A hitters, while Bannon must prove he can do the same with Triple-A hurlers. Both will be a phone call away should the opportunity arise over the summer, as it did often for the rebuilding Orioles in 2019.
All of them will be in camp with something to prove.
“I want to create as much competition in spring as possible,” manager Brandon Hyde said recently. “We had a lot of guys who wish they had better years last year and haven’t had a whole lot of MLB experience. ... I’m just trying to see who will be able to build on their experiences from last year.”
In short, the Orioles’ ever-churning roster seems scheduled for a more permanent facelift, even if it is stretched out over a summer or two. Year 1 of the rebuild under Elias, Hyde and Co. was about patience, evaluation and overhaul. Entering Year 2, much work remains to be done. The hope is that signs of progress soon become plainer to see.