The Orioles unearth diamond in Etzel in the MLB Draft League

May 15th, 2024

This story was excerpted from Jake Rill's Orioles Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

ABERDEEN, Md. -- In the spring of 2022, was wrapping up his second (and final) baseball season at Panola College, a junior college in Carthage, Texas. He wasn’t sure what his next steps would be -- until one day, when he received a random phone call.

It was an invitation to participate in the MLB Draft League, which had been founded the previous year. The league, which consists of six teams, is broken into two parts -- the first half in June and early July features Draft-eligible players, followed by a second half in late July, August and early September for pro players who have exhausted amateur eligibility.

Etzel was a first-half player for the Williamsport Crosscutters, and he performed so well that it impacted the trajectory of his career.

“It was probably one of the most fun summers I’ve ever had playing baseball,” Etzel said.

After tearing up the Draft League -- where he slashed .371/.463/.586 in 33 games -- Etzel went on to play the 2023 season at the University of Southern Mississippi. Another strong showing there (where he slashed .317/.381/.472 in 66 games) led to the Webster, Texas, native getting taken by the Orioles in the 10th round of the ‘23 MLB Draft.

Since then, Etzel has thrived over his first 10 months in Baltimore’s Minor League system. He slashed .323/.455/.510 in 30 games across three levels last year (four in the Rookie-level Florida Complex League, 21 with Single-A Delmarva and five for High-A Aberdeen), and he’s off to a terrific start for Aberdeen in 2024.

A 6-foot-2, left-handed-hitting outfielder/first baseman, Etzel has played 30 games for the IronBirds this season. He’s slashing .309/.400/.455 with six doubles, two triples, two homers, 19 RBIs, 20 runs scored and 19 stolen bases. His 34 hits are tied for fifth most in the South Atlantic League.

Of all the places Etzel has played baseball, one best set him up for early excellence in pro ball.

“The Draft League actually prepared me the best,” Etzel said. “It was the same schedule that we do today.”

Etzel credits then-Williamsport manager Jesse Litsch (an MLB reliever from 2007-11) for creating a routine he called “a day in the life of a Minor Leaguer.” Everything was geared toward getting players prepared for their eventual post-Draft careers.

Another reason for Etzel’s strong start to his 2024 campaign is his work this past winter.

“Just having a great offseason and working hard through the offseason and Spring Training,” Etzel said. “I feel like those are the biggest moments -- leading up to the season -- [that determine] how well you start the season.”

In the winter, Etzel worked out at Dynamic Sports Training in Houston four times a week. He said he added 15 pounds of muscle from his listed playing weight of 211 pounds. He’s continued to follow a program put in place by Aberdeen strength and conditioning coach Chris Frosch.

The Orioles’ Minor League coaching staff was impressed by the shape Etzel showed up in at the start of the spring. They’ve always been a fan of his bat, which the organization was thrilled to land as late as the 10th round of the Draft.

“The hit tool is pretty high with him,” Aberdeen hitting coach Zach Cole said. “He finds ways to get on, whether it’s a line drive just over the shortstop or pummeling one in the gap. He showed up ready, and he’s continuing it.”

Etzel is also impressing his IronBirds teammates this season.

“He knows what he’s good at, he sticks to his plan,” said outfielder Enrique Bradfield Jr., Baltimore’s No. 5 prospect per MLB Pipeline. “He’s a gamer. He’s a ballplayer. Having him on your team is always a plus.”

“Dude’s bat-to-ball skills are incredible,” said catcher Creed Willems, the Orioles’ No. 29 prospect. “He finds a way to get the job done.”

Although Etzel isn’t among Baltimore’s top 30 prospects, that could change in the future. He’s been a first-half standout in the Minors, and it may not be long before he makes the next jump to Double-A Bowie.

“He is super exciting, definitely under the radar,” Cole said. “He’s a guy that could climb the system pretty quick.”

Here are some additional recent Minor League highlights:

Triple-A Norfolk: (O’s No. 3 prospect and No. 21 overall) has homered twice over his past three games. The 22-year-old infielder leads the International League with 13 home runs this season.

Double-A Bowie: (O’s No. 7) recorded his second three-hit game of the year in Bowie’s 2-0 loss to Binghamton on Tuesday, going 3-for-4 with two doubles. The 22-year-old outfielder is hitting .303 with an .878 OPS through 28 games for the Baysox this season.

Single-A Delmarva: Luis De León (O’s No. 17) threw four scoreless innings last Wednesday at Kannapolis. The 21-year-old left-hander has a 2.16 ERA through his first six starts of the season for the Shorebirds.