During a preseason Zoom call with local media just one day before the start of the 2021 MiLB season, Baltimore Orioles top prospect Adley Rutschman said that he “felt like a big piece of my life was missing” when referring to the 2020 season that never was for hundreds of minor league ball players.
I’m not a professional baseball player, but as someone who pretty much stops paying attention to the major league side of things once minor league play gets underway each year, I felt that. But this year is much different than past seasons down on the farm and it’s already making up for lost time in terms of entertainment value. In my first year of writing extensively about the Orioles minor league system, Cody Sedlock was the number one overall prospect, Jomar Reyes was fourth overall, and Matthias Dietz was seventh. Turn to 2021 and the national media is highlighting shortstop prospects outside of the Orioles Top 30 as prospects to watch this year, believing Joey Ortiz has all the makings of an everyday big league shortstop. Talk about growth!
(You can discuss this on the BSL Board here.)
The Baltimore Orioles now possess a top five farm system in all of baseball (per MLB Pipeline) and there truly isn’t a dull night at the affiliate level. With three of the four Orioles full-season affiliates broadcasting their home games on TV (come on, Aberdeen), it’s not difficult to find quality baseball, get your first look at a few 2020 draft picks, or watch in awe as guys like Gunnar Henderson make their full-season debuts with mammoth opposite-field bombs.
I wanted to take a moment and highlight one major group of prospects we hadn’t watched before this year. To be honest, a few of these guys I hadn’t even heard of before they found their way to the Orioles organization, but that’s what makes this entire process so much fun, finding out who these guys are and what they are made of. If only my graduate school advisor could see the amount of research I do now. Sorry for being such a pain.
Back to the real focal point here. Let’s dive into our first looks at the large group of former Los Angeles Angels prospects who Mike Elias has acquired recently for Dylan Bundy, Alex Cobb, and Jose Iglesias. Due to a lack of minor league baseball in 2020, we didn’t get an opportunity to see any of the four prospects acquired for Bundy and any previous video on this quartet was either non-existent or very limited. But I’ve spent the last two weeks digesting an absurd amount of Baltimore Orioles minor league baseball, with a bigger focus on this particular group.
Orioles send Dylan Bundy to Los Angeles for RHP Isaac Mattson, RHP Kyle Bradish, RHP Kyle Brnovich, RHP Zach Peek.
I’m going to say it now because I believe I’m legally required to. We’re talking about extremely small sample sizes and we’re many years away from evaluating any of these trades, but we’re still going to discuss them.
Kyle Bradish: Just before the start of the 2021 minor league season, Orioles Director of Player Development Matt Blood was cited in MLB Pipeline’s camp report on the Orioles as saying Kyle Bradish should be in the same conversation as top pitching prospects Grayson Rodriguez and DL Hall. That’s high praise for someone who entered the year ranked 31st on FanGraphs’ list of top Orioles prospects and 13th on MLB Pipeline’s.
With just one year of experience under his belt (debuted at High-A in 2019), a wonky delivery, and high walk rate with below-average command per scouting reports, Bradish and his potential is difficult to pinpoint without having the opportunity to watch him live and opinions on his future greatly varied. After his first few starts, it’s clear that Matt Blood’s belief that Bradish’s industry scouting report being a bit “light” may be correct.
Despite Altoona’s centerfield camera looking as if it was connected to cheap, stolen wifi and Bowie’s awkward camera angle and blurred feed, Bradish looks like one of the top pitching prospects in this system. Listed at 6’4” and just under 200 pounds, Bradish has the makeup of an arm that can easily work deep into games and his over-the-top delivery is an uncomfortable look for hitters. The curveball is capable of producing swings and misses at the major league level right now and some reports believe it’s not even his best secondary pitch. As for the fastball, it turns out that the reports of increased velo numbers at last year’s Alt Site were accurate. He’s touched as high as 97 mph in game and has been sitting 93-95 mph.
Through his first two games, Bradish has tossed 9.2 scoreless innings, allowing five walks and four hits with 16 strikeouts at the Double-A level. If he can continue to limit the walks and keep all of his moving parts in order, the combo of Bradish and Hall could be well on their way to taking over rotation spots at the major league level in 2022. In the meantime, my co-hosts and I over at On The Verge pegged Bradish as a name that could skyrocket up prospect lists this season. So far, so good.
Kyle Brnovich: Before making his debut in Aberdeen, the last time Brnovich was on a mound in a real game was May 25, 2019, right down the road from me at Veterans Memorial Park on the campus of James Madison University. He struck out seven across eight innings to put Elon into the Colonial Athletic Association championship game, closing out an All-American collegiate career for the Phoenix.
More than 700 days later, Brnovich made his pro debut, striking out six across five scoreless innings. He allowed just one hit, a bunt in the 5th inning.. He followed that up one week later with another dominant outing, allowing just one run across 5.2 innings with five strikeouts. Not a single hitter has reached base via the walk against Brnovich, thus far. He owns a 0.19 WHIP, .056 average against, and a 65 percent groundball rate.
Armed with a knuckle-curve that keeps hitters fishing, Brnovich is able to command the strike zone and use his high-80s/low-90s fastball to his advantage. That will be one of the biggest things to watch moving forward, but we’ve seen a handful of lefties (Akin, Zimmermann, Lowther) come up through this system and show promise without high velo numbers. Even if he does get pushed to the bullpen eventually, the curveball is a weapon and his changeup is good enough to keep around as a third pitch.
High-A shouldn’t be much competition for him this season so we’ll have to wait until he moves up to AA to get a better idea of what his future role will be.
Zach Peek: Yet another Orioles pitching prospect who was able to successfully increase his velo thanks to an offseason velo program implemented by the organization, Peek’s early season numbers don’t quite match what you see when you watch him live.
Peek works in the mid-90s and put in extensive work on his changeup, a swing and miss pitch for him, over the winter, and has performed well in his first three outings. We got our first center field camera view of Peek’s stuff this past week (Delmarva has a more bird’s eye view feed) and you can see just how good his breaking ball is from this video cut by Spenser Davis from Next Level Academy where Orioles prospects Peek and Brenan Hanifee have trained.
Peek did give up a home run on Opening Day, but settled in and struck out three across two innings before rain came in and ended his first start prematurely. He rebounded well later that week, striking out three more hitters across three scoreless innings. Peek’s third outing came in relief due to Michael Baumann being sent to Delmarva for a few rehab outings, but Peek struck out another three hitters across three innings. Each affiliate has stuck to a strict five-man rotation thus far and bullpen arms have been receiving regular work, but Peek seems to draw the short straw every time it’s his turn to pitch. A regular routine for the rookie wouldn’t hurt.
The few reports out there on Peek point to his need to consistently repeat his delivery and work on tunneling his fastball/secondary offerings, two things he’s clearly been working on. Like Brnovich, even if Peek becomes a reliever/up-and-down swing-man at his…peak….we’ll look back very favorably on this Dylan Bundy trade if Bradish becomes a rotation piece and even just one arm among Peek/Brnovich/Mattson becomes a viable option.
Isaac Mattson: Speaking of Mattson, we haven’t seen much. Often described as the most MLB-ready of the four arms, Mattson did make his MLB debut on May 7th against Boston, but was soon sent back down to Triple-A where he has allowed three runs on five hits in one inning of work. Mattson can give you 94-95 consistently in short stints, with good movement on his fastball and changeup. His move to the bullpen resulted in a quick promotion across three levels in 2019, but then 2020 happened and 2021 has seen him bounce around a bit, with COVID protocols making the Norfolk Shuttle a much more bumpy ride this year.
Baseball America’s J.J. Cooper recently noted the struggles across minor league baseball thus far, highlighting the fact that there is no good substitute for not having games, even a well-run Alt Site just can’t replicate the real world of baseball. Barring any injuries at the major league level, it appears that Mattson will now have the opportunity to develop a routine in Norfolk’s bullpen, which is exactly what he needs at this point.
Orioles send SS Jose Iglesias to LA for RHP Garrett Stallings and RHP Jean Pinto.
Are we still upset about shipping off Iglesias seeing that he’s been worth just 0.1 fWAR 31 games into the season with a wRC+ of 82? Freddy Galvis has been worth 0.9 fWAR and has a 113 wRC+ with about three times as many extra-base hits as Iglesias. Just saying.
Garrett Stallings: Let’s go ahead and say it now, Stallings was rocked in his last outing on May 16th. Making his second start against the Hudson Valley Renegades (Yankees affiliate) in a week, Stallings surrendered six earned runs on seven hits and failed to make it out of the third inning, walking one and striking out just one in the process. It was rough to watch with a lot of hard-hits balls and very little of that command that propelled Stallings to a stellar SEC career in college.
However, Stallings gave up just one run on six hits across his first two starts (both went five innings), walking just one and striking out eight to begin his pro career. I was curious to see how some guys react to having to face the same team twice in one week this season and while Stallings didn’t exactly pass this test the first time, he’s put himself in a position to pass a different test, his ability to rebound from a bad outing.
Like most Angels pitching prospects, he didn’t pitch in 2019 after being drafted, so it’s been nearly two full years since he last took the mound and he’s doing so in High-A ball. There’s plenty of time to be patient with him as he finds a happy medium between his first two starts and his last outing.
Here’s what I saw that I like. Stallings works very quickly, which is always appreciated, and with a clear plan of attack in place before each batter steps into the box. He commands the bottom of the zone with his fastball, which doesn’t have the high velo numbers or appear to have a high degree of movement, but he commands the pitch so well and there is a bit of a hitch in his delivery that helps hide his stuff a bit. The curveball is a fun pitch that he can drop in for a strike or bury for a swing and miss and there’s certainly potential in his slider which may not have produced big swing and miss numbers in his last start, but like all of his pitches, was effective at keeping the ball on the ground. Eric Longenhagen of FanGraphs calls Stallings’ stuff “very vanilla” but still views him as a possible backend starter, and you know what, sometimes a nice bowl of vanilla ice cream is just what you need.
Orioles send Alex Cobb to LA for Jahmai Jones
I don’t need five years to wait and evaluate this trade. It was a massive win for the Orioles. Cobb pitched well in his first five outings for LA before finding his way back to the IL this year, but he’s not fooling me anymore after three years of writing the same “Alex Cobb can turn things around this year” piece.
Jahmai Jones: A former Top 100 prospect and someone a lot of Orioles fans are impatiently waiting to see take over second base duties at Camden Yards, Jones didn’t play at all last week and is currently on the 7-day minor league injured list. The announcement of his IL stint came on the same day in which a promotion announcement seemed too obvious, but we should have known better.
Through the first week of the season, Jones led the way in Triple-A with a 128 wRC+, hitting just .227 but logging one double, two triples, one home run, and four walks in his first six games. At this point, it’s just about consistency with Jones before he gets the call-up, specifically on defense. Jones botched a few plays during the first week of the season and wasn’t as sharp as you would like to see him out there. At the plate, there was a three-game hitless stretch sandwiched between good performances, and although we’re only talking about six games to start the year, making sure he can perform at a consistent level across a longer stretch of games would be much more beneficial to both his long-term success and the team’s success the big league level.
But the athleticism is for real and once he cracks the major league roster, he instantly becomes one of the most exciting players on the active roster. While he may not be an everyday starter for this team in three years, Jones can play all three outfield spots and second base, giving him that flexibility that Mike Elias loves. And maybe all of the swing changes throughout his career have finally led to a swing that can produce a high ISO and make him an offensive threat with a good, but not great, glove. I’ll take a player with the potential of Jahmai Jones over Rio Ruiz and Ramon Urias every day of the week.
Overall, it’s been a good start to the season for this group of prospects who will be under the radar a bit more as the season unfolds and it’s been a lot of fun finally having the opportunity to watch them live. Cheers to a healthy season and continued growth!
A former high school teacher and coach in the mountains of Virginia, Nick Stevens has been writing about the Baltimore Orioles and their minor league system for five years. When he isn’t at a minor league stadium, he’s enjoying a Wizards game or supporting his alma mater, James Madison University. Co-Host of The Verge.