Orioles' young infield nucleus bursting at the seams
SARASOTA, Fla. – Gunnar Henderson is just the tip of the iceberg. A cavalcade of infielders could be following him to Charm City before long.
Jordan Westburg (BAL No. 5/MLB No. 74), Joey Ortiz (BAL No. 8/MLB No. 99) and Connor Norby (BAL No. 9) all played for Triple-A Norfolk by the end of the 2022 season, while Coby Mayo (No. 10) reached the upper Minors for the first time as a third baseman himself at Double-A Bowie. In other words, some sorting will be needed, first in the upper Minors and then eventually in Baltimore.
“They see the competition, and they just want to play in the Major Leagues,” said director of player development Matt Blood. “Whatever will get them up there is what they want to do. In Gunnar’s case, he can play seven positions on the field. Wherever he’s needed, that’s where he’ll go, and that’s what he wants to do. It’s the same for all the other guys. If they want to be there and help contribute and compete, whatever it takes to get them is what they’re all willing to do.”
Ortiz is the most surefire defender of the bunch as a shortstop with elite instincts, great hands and a strong arm, and the 24-year-old, who also has some experience at second base, is perhaps one big reason why Henderson has locked onto the hot corner. His bat came around at Norfolk (.967 OPS in 26 games), and it might not take a ton of time until he displaces Jorge Mateo at the six.
It will likely be more complicated for the others.
Westburg is likely to continue to rotate through second, short and third – he has played all three almost equally this spring -- and Blood didn’t rule out the 2020 30th overall pick bringing his 55-grade arm to the outfield. Norby, primarily a second baseman, is also expected to get time on the grass while others get looks at the keystone, and Mayo – who has a 70-grade cannon but lacks footspeed – seems primed to try out the outfield corners soon too since Henderson occupies his usual position at third.
Last year’s No. 1 overall pick Jackson Holliday will eventually figure into the depth, and the O’s haven’t shied away from throwing him into the mix with a lengthy stay on the Major League side this spring.
As the Orioles try to turn the corner toward full-blown contention, there is a dream of a fully homegrown infield at Camden Yards, but it’s going to take work in the Minors to make all the puzzle pieces fit first.
“It’s the philosophy we have with all of our players,” Blood said. “We don’t try to pigeonhole them into one position. We want them to have flexibility, so that the Major League roster itself can be as flexible as possible.”
Camp standout: Heston Kjerstad
Following his bout with myocarditis that held him out for all of 2021, Kjerstad’s Komeback was supposed to come last spring, only for hamstring issues to hold him for longer. He eventually played 65 games at two A-ball levels, looking like a player coming off a long absence, only to reemerge in the Arizona Fall League, where he hit .357/.385/.622 with five homers in 22 games.
That was closer to looking like the left-handed slugger the O’s took second overall in 2020 following his stellar time at Arkansas. Kjerstad’s momentum has carried into the spring as he entered Wednesday as the Baltimore leader with 12 hits and 24 total bases while slugging three homers over 28 plate appearances.
“I don't think that he had quite gotten all the way back to that [Arkansas] player at any one point last season,” Blood said. “I think he was still working his way through. I think the Fall League is where maybe he was starting to feel even more like himself. Then I think this spring, he's finding some real confidence that ‘Yeah, I’m Heston Kjerstad, and I'm really good at baseball.'”
Breakout candidate: Samuel Basallo
With Adley Rutschman quickly becoming arguably the game’s best catcher, the Orioles should be set behind the plate for much of the rest of this decade. That won’t stop them from developing more backstop prospects, and they have a promising long-term project in Basallo, a $1.3 million signing out of the Dominican Republic two years ago.
The 18-year-old catcher moved stateside for the first time last summer, hitting .278/.350/.424 with six homers in 43 games in the Florida Complex League, and he’s set himself up for a full-season debut in ’23. His size at 6-foot-3 and already present strength should make him an above-average power hitter down the line, if not straight away at Single-A Delmarva. Unlike Rutschman’s time as a low-level pro, Basallo does face some defensive questions and could continue folding in some first base to preserve himself over a longer campaign.
“I think he’s going to be challenged there,” Blood said. “We know that it's a year of development. Obviously performance matters, but for us, he’s going to be 18 years old at that level and we know that that will come with challenges. That's what development is all about. So for us, this is going to be a really productive year for him regardless of the exact numbers that he produces.”
Something to prove: DL Hall
A back issue has kept the 24-year-old southpaw from pitching in a Grapefruit League contest this spring, so the first thing to prove is his health. Manager Brandon Hyde told reporters over the weekend that Hall’s live BP session on Saturday went “extremely well” and that he could get in games before long.
Unfortunately, the lost time has kept Hall out of the conversation for a season-opening rotation spot and has deepened external concerns that he’s a likely reliever in the long run. Hall earns at least above-average grades for all four of his pitches, highlighted by a fastball that can touch triple-digits, but he’s continually posted walk rates above 10 percent in the Minors, including a 14.2 percent mark last season in 22 Triple-A appearances.
Even after he made 10 relief appearances in the Majors in 2022, Hall has still earned a longer leash as a potential starter. But the more he fights for a Major League place (when healthy), the shorter that leash may become unless the control shows vast improvement.
“I think he has the stuff to be a starter,” Blood said. “I think he's competitive. Being a starter at the Major League level is difficult, and there's a lot of competition, so we'll see where he lands. But I know, long term, it’s something we’ve been working toward, and we’ll see what happens.”