BALTIMORE — To the Orioles, being crowned baseball’s top farm system by MLB Pipeline is less of an achievement and more of a marker, a step toward the type of sustainable success at the big league level they’ve been building toward now for years.
Headlined by Adley Rutschman and Grayson Rodriguez, the system boasts the sport’s consensus best position player and best pitching prospect and three other Top 100 talents. Baltimore’s five Top 100 prospects are tied for third most overall and are reflective of a system that’s grown by leaps and bounds during their rebuild.
“It’s a great milestone for us in a multi-year process to transition the way the Orioles franchise runs,” executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias told MLB.com. “It’s has historically been a franchise that focused heavily on Major League free agency to field its teams, and going forward, we need to be oriented towards an internal player pipeline furnished by the Draft, Latin America and player development. For us to do much of anything at all in our division, step one was always going to be putting together a top-tier player pipeline that has to start in the Minor Leagues.”
It’s also indicative of how quickly the system has improved in such a short time: the Orioles slid in at No. 13 in 2020’s preseason rankings and were ranked fifth prior to Opening Day 2021, leapfrogging the Rays, Tigers, Mariners and Marlins. Baltimore had never been ranked in the top 10 prior to 2020; Pipeline began ranking full systems in 2015.
“We've got a thriving system now, so we just keep going from here,” Elias said. “Seeing external validation that our group of players stacks up very well against the rest of the industry and the Minor Leagues is a good indication that we're on the right path.”
Here is how it got there:
When Elias took over after the 2018 season, he inherited one of the sport’s lowest-ranked systems. But it wasn’t completely bare. The Orioles had drafted upside high-school pitchers DL Hall and Rodriguez in the first-round in 2017 and 2018, had second rounders Zac Lowther and Keegan Akin, righty Mike Baumann, international signee Alexander Wells, and added outfielder Yusniel Diaz, right-hander Dean Kremer and southpaw Bruce Zimmermann in Deadline deals that sparked the rebuild.
Few of those trades have worked out to date, with Diaz yet to reach the Majors and Kremer, Lowther and Akin struggling to stay there. Diaz became the org’s top ranked prospect at the time of the deal; he’s No. 12 now, evidence of how far the system has come in that time. The bonus has been how Hall and especially Rodriguez have blossomed, though Hall was limited by elbow concerns this season.
Here is where the Orioles’ approach has been most intentional, focused and fruitful to date. Fourteen of their current Top 30 prospects were drafted by Elias, despite there only being five rounds in the 2020 Draft. The Orioles had the top overall pick in 2019, the second selection in 2020 and the fifth in 2021 -- and are vying for the top overall pick again next year.
They’ve used those picks (and many others) on bats, specifically college bats: Elias drafted hitters with 23 of his top 25 picks, 19 from the college ranks. Top overall prospect Rutschman headlines the group, while top 2020 pick Heston Kjerstad is yet to play professionally due to myocarditis. The Orioles went underslot to grab Kjerstad and also Colton Cowser in 2021, then opted to stockpile college outfielders afterwards. They are particularly excited about shortstops Gunnar Henderson and Jordan Westburg, their second selections in ’19 and ’20, respectively; Westburg reached Double-A this summer, while Henderson is at High-A as a 20-year old.
Elias has been highly transactional during his tenure, trading almost every veteran contract that he inherited and swinging deals for several he signed via free agency, namely José Iglesias and Freddy Galvis. All told, he’s swung more than a dozen separate deals in three years, all for prospect-heavy returns. The Orioles have targeted pitching in these deals, largely as a way to offset their bat-heavy Drafts.
The spoils can be found up and down their Top 30 list, from No. 8-ranked righty Kyle Bradish (part of a four-pitcher package for Dylan Bundy) to No. 13 INF Terrin Vavra (Aug. 2020 deal with Rockies for Mychal Givens), No. 14 LHP Kevin Smith (acquired from Mets for Miguel Castro), No. 18 2B Jahmai Jones (from Angels for Alex Cobb) and No. 30 1B Tyler Nevin (Rockies, Givens). They’ve also been intentional about acquiring recent international signees in many deals, viewing it as a way to help jumpstart their nascent presence in Latin America.
The Orioles’ decision to eschew the international market left them behind the eight ball for years; Elias acknowledged from the start that building a presence there from scratch would be a multi-year endeavor. It’s not yet complete, but three years in, is showing real potential: the Orioles announced plans for a brand new Dominican academy and handed out their first seven-figure bonuses this year, to Venezuelan shortstop Maikol Hernandez (No. 19) and Dominican catcher Samuel Basallo (No. 25). They are also excited about the upside of No. 29 outfielder Luis Gonzalez, left-hander Luis Ortiz, and others.
“This year we showed we’re ready to go all-in,” international scouting director Koby Perez said in January. The Orioles’ investment and presence in the region are only expected to grow.