About 17 years ago, Ryan Minor began working his way through the Orioles’ minor league system and would go on to play four years at the big league level. These days, Minor is managing the High-A Frederick Keys of the Carolina League. Minor has overseen three position players that stand out as prospects this year in Nicky Delmonico, Christian Walker and Michael Ohlman.
Delmonico, who just turned 21, signed out of high school for a little more than $1.5 million. He debuted in 2012 with Delmarva, where he hit .249/.351/.411 in 393 plate appearances with 47 walks 73 strikeouts. Knee surgery cost him the last month or so of competition in Low-A.
This year, the 6-foot-2, 196-pound Delmonico was slowed down by a concussion that cost him nearly a month early in the season. However, he’s hit well at the High-A level with Frederick. He’s hit .256/.361/.498 in 241 plate appearances with 34 walks and 52 strikeouts.
“He’s a strong kid. He’s got a good strike zone knowledge for the most part. He swings at good pitches,” said Frederick manager Ryan Minor in a phone interview with Baltimore Sports and Life. “He’ll swing at some pitches out of the zone if he gets fooled a little bit but that’s typical of every young hitter.
“He squares balls up. He’s so big and strong. He’s athletic with his hands; he doesn’t mis-hit balls very often. That’s a good thing to have as a young hitter – to be able to go and not miss mistakes when pitchers do it. Just putting the barrel on the ball is one of those things that he has that a lot of people don’t have.”
Delmonico played first and second base at Delmarva last year, but has been playing third base for the Keys. Delmonico played first base on Monday – which was the first game after first baseman Christian Walker was promoted to Double-A – but was playing exclusively third base prior to that.
Having already tried him up the middle last year, the Orioles will likely give Delmonico every opportunity to play third base rather than hope that his bat develops the kind of thunder necessary to play a less demanding position at the big league level.
“He’s improving over there. It’s a new position for him. Any time you get moved to a new position, you’re going to have some ups and downs,” Minor said. “It’s tough when you’re [as] big and tall as he is to play that position consistently and have good feet and good hands. He’s one of those guys that it’s just gonna take a little bit of time for him to be comfortable over there and with all the work he does every day, it’s starting to get a little bit better. … I think he’s going to be OK. It’s just a matter of repetition and getting some game awareness over there.”
Christian Walker, 22, was a fourth-round draft pick of the Orioles in 2012 after winning two national titles with South Carolina in 2010 and 2011. Walker put up big numbers with the Gamecocks and has done the same with the Orioles. He hit .311/.370/.477 in 370 plate appearances between Delmarva and Frederick with 28 walks and 57 strikeouts. He made the U.S. Futures Game roster as an injury replacement and was recently promoted to Bowie. Listed at six feet and 220 pounds, Walker doesn’t have the frame typically associated with big league first baseman, but he can really hit.
“He went to a big, major college and was a very good hitter there. His strike zone knowledge is good,” Minor said. “We’ve made some adjustments with our hitting coach with his hands. Kind of a more direct path to the ball … sometimes, he would drop his hands. He’s corrected that and he’s done really well since he’s done that, as far as having a good path and not hitting flyballs that go up and hit some balls with backspin.”
The Eastern League will be Walker’s third level of minor league ball since April. He’ll be facing higher quality competition on a daily basis and will have to continue to make adjustments on the fly, just as he was doing with the Keys.
“I know that they’re throwing breaking balls away a lot and if he can consistently not swing at that pitch, he’s going to get good pitches to hit,” Minor said in regards to Walker’s adjustments in the Carolina League. “At the higher levels, they’re going to try to work you a little bit different and just try to make the adjustment early and be consistent with his hand path and swing at good pitches and I think he’ll be fine.”
Being a first baseman, Walker’s bat will have to carry the load for him to make it to the big league level and succeed there, but Minor is pleased with Walker’s glove, too.
“He’s done a real good job over there,” Minor said. “His footwork’s been good. He’s been at the right place at the right time. Just like anybody else in their young career, he’s still got things that he needs to work on – as do people in the big leagues – but he has a pretty good feel of what he’s trying to do over there and what we’ve asked of him. So he’s a guy that can stay there. He’s going to be OK over there.”
Michael Ohlman, 22, is a part of the Orioles’ 2009 draft class, which has produced sub-optimal results thus far. He signed out of high school for just under $1 million but had trouble staying on the field and his production was lackluster when he was on it. Ohlman hit .208/.302/.293 in 301 plate appearances split between Bluefield and Delmarva in 2010. He hit .224/.320/.307 in 431 plate appearances at Delmarva in 2011. And in 2012, he got off to a late start. During spring training, he suffered a shoulder injury in a car accident. A little more than a month later, he was suspended 50 games for testing positive for a banned substance.
However, the time off may very well have been a blessing in disguise.
“I just think when he missed some time – he was injured at the start of the year and he missed all that time – it was the first time he’s ever missed so he had a chance to get a lot of work in while he was hurt,” Minor said. “I think his maturity level went from being 20, 21-year-old kid to being able to just kind of realize that this was his job and took it a little bit more serious, I think. It’s really showed just in his maturity level and the way he is in the clubhouse and all that stuff as well, so it’s just kind of a growing up process and he really took off with it last year.”
The bat started to come around upon rejoining the Shorebirds last year — he hit .304/.411/.456 with 33 walks and 27 strikeouts in 209 plate appearances — but the bat has gone to another level in 2013. He’s hitting .325/.422/.585 with 33 walks and 57 strikeouts in 249 plate appearances with the Keys this year.
“He’s probably one of the better hitters in the league right now as far as making adjustments, getting to the fastball consistently and then using his hands well as far as breaking balls and off-speed pitches and keeping his bat in the zone a long time,” Minor said.
Ohlman, listed at 6-foot-4 and 205 pounds, likely faces the challenges that most big catchers have in staying behind the plate, such as developing and retaining the kind of athleticism and mobility necessary to play the position at a high level. Ohlman, according to Minor, has developed significantly behind the dish from when he first managed Ohlman. Ohlman now has more arm strength, moves better and is more adept at blocking pitches. Minor thinks Ohlman can stay at catcher.
“He’s doing pretty good,” Minor said. “I had him three years ago as a kid. He was 19 years old when he came to me the first time in Delmarva. He was just a really raw, young kid that was a little over-matched and he consistently got better. Physically, he’s gotten stronger with just being able to handle the grind of catching every day. … It’s just one of those things where he kind of grew into his body. He’s showing a lot better game-calling and being able to handle a staff.”
Video was taken by Luke Jackson on July 11, 2013 in Wilmington, Delaware.