Return of minor leagues brings excitement and much unknown for Orioles

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Tuesday was a special day for the Orioles that had nothing to do with a late-night loss in Seattle.

DL Hall struck out a whopping 10 batters and allowed just two hits in 4 1/3 scoreless innings for Double-A Bowie.

Grayson Rodriguez pitched four scoreless frames for High-A Aberdeen, striking out five and surrendering one hit.

Gunnar Henderson hit an impressive opposite-field two-run homer in his first at-bat at Low-A Delmarva.

Yusniel Diaz drove in a run for Triple-A Norfolk.

Not even a three-strikeout showing in No. 1 prospect Adley Rutschman’s Double-A debut could spoil the evening.

Minor league baseball is back, which means even more for an organization still in the abyss of an exhausting rebuild. With the work of so many prospects out of the public eye as the COVID-19 pandemic canceled the 2020 minor league season, it was tough not to feel as though the rebuild had all but been brought to a standstill, which is unsettling when the Orioles have lost nearly 150 more games than they’ve won since the start of 2017. Of course, much work was still being done down below — in unusual ways ranging from virtual classes to individual workouts being done in backyards and other random locations — but being able to track the daily progress of prospects in an improving farm system is a large part of what keeps diehard fans going as the major league club flounders.

Seeing real professional baseball results for the likes of Rutschman, Rodriguez, Hall, and Henderson for the first time since the end of 2019 is both exciting and a relief. And that’s not even accounting for interesting newcomers such as Kyle Bradish, who has yet to throw a regular-season pitch for a Baltimore affiliate after being the top arm acquired in the Dylan Bundy trade some 17 months ago.

“It’s been a long time coming — I guess now over a year and a half of time for a lot of new people to the organization,” said director of player development Matt Blood, who added how pleased he was with how players looked this spring despite such a long layoff from organized baseball. “Everybody wants to get out there and to play and to compete. I think just about every single person is just thrilled that we’re getting this opportunity, and we’ll get to see how this whole thing goes.”

With that excitement comes some trepidation, particularly on the pitching side. Even with top prospects like Rodriguez and Hall who spent much of last summer and fall at the alternate training site in Bowie and the instructional league camp in Sarasota, how do you determine the appropriate number of innings to target for each pitcher in 2021?

If the early weeks of the injury-riddled major league season are any indication, organizations need to be concerned about walking the fine line between keeping arms healthy and ramping up development after so much lost time.

“Every single pitcher we’re going to be watching carefully and monitoring,” said Blood, whose vision for the organization is to develop an abundance of starters and multi-inning relievers this season. “This is a little bit of an unprecedented situation. The roster sizes are larger. We will have large numbers of pitchers on each roster, so we will be monitoring it. But also we want these guys to get their work in, so it’s a little bit of a double-edged sword.”

Of course, the new minor league season will begin to reveal just how fruitful — or detrimental — 2020 was as organizations attempted to think outside the box to continue player development in strange times. Some who maintained the proper growth mindset are bound to shoot up prospect lists while others unable to adapt will see their stock plummet. The alternate training site format provided a unique opportunity to develop top prospects from concentrate without the competitive environment of daily games that sometimes prompts players to lean on bad habits that may work at the lower levels before being exposed in the majors.  

It will be interesting to see how the 2021 season unfolds as a more competitive switch is finally flipped.

“I think there was a benefit to it just in the developmental sense for a lot of prospects,” said pitching prospect Zac Lowther about the alternate site last month. “I know that the growth during games can be tricky because you’re out there for 140 games for a minor league season. When you don’t have to play every day, it helps your mindset and your work become more intentional and more focused instead of being result-oriented. Being able to do that kind of gives you a little leeway to struggle and not have the consequences because baseball is a game of struggles.”

The Orioles hope those struggles remain at a minimum while keeping players of the future healthy and on the right developmental track in 2021.

Kjerstad, Baumann at extended spring training

The status of top outfield prospect Heston Kjerstad has created much angst since general manager Mike Elias revealed in February that the second overall pick of the 2020 draft was dealing with myocarditis, which is inflammation of the heart.

The condition sidelined the 22-year-old Kjerstad last fall and prevented him from reporting to major league camp this spring, but he will soon be reporting to extended spring training in Sarasota after recently arriving in Bowie.

“He had been working out at the alternate site getting back acclimated to everyday physical activity,” Blood said. “He will be down in Florida in a week, and he’ll continue his progression there. It’ll be a slow buildup process for him. No need to rush him as he gets back to full health, full baseball condition, and then eventually into games.”

Kjerstad isn’t the only high-profile prospect being slow-played as pitcher Mike Baumann remains in Sarasota. He was shut down with a flexor mass strain in his pitching elbow last August and didn’t appear in any Grapefruit League action despite being added to the 40-man roster in the offseason and taking part in major league camp this spring.

Baumann pitched to a 2.98 ERA and struck out 10.3 batters per nine innings in 124 innings spent between Bowie and former High-A Frederick in 2019. That success elevated his prospect status substantially and prompted the Orioles to name him their minor league co-pitcher of the year.

“He had the little flare-up at the alternate site last year,” Blood said. “We’re just slow build, being cautious with him, managing some discomfort in his arm. Hopefully, he’ll be back by the end of the month.”