I don’t typically find myself quoting other articles too often when I write, but at a young age, my dad taught me that you win championships up the middle in baseball. It makes sense, especially at a young age, when your best athlete always plays shortstop and your second best typically ends up at second base. You need to have a strong athlete behind the plate and if you have a good centerfielder, you can then hide the kid that picks flowers rather than watching the game in the left field or right field. The reasoning behind this obviously changes as we move closer to the majors, as I hope at least, we won’t find too many right or left fielders picking flowers in the professional ranks. However, I do believe it and I think the fact that we see so many shortstops and centerfielders drafted in the first few rounds, especially in the top 10, shows just how valuable these positions are.
Rather than take up space here, I’ll direct you to an article written by Bill James in 2007, Strength Up the Middle | Articles | Bill James Online, where he digs further into it and likely provides a better, more concise, conclusion than I can. It’s an interesting and quick read that I’d highly recommend, especially if you’re an Orioles fan looking for some good news beyond the incredible starts from Cedric Mullins, John Means, and Trey Mancini because over the last 2 drafts, 2019 and 2020, General Manager Mike Elias and his front office have taken building up the middle to a new level. Of the first 7 picks in the 2019 draft and all 6 picks of the abbreviated 2020 draft, the Orioles have selected 10 players that are currently playing up the middle. 2 catchers, 5 middle infielders, and 3 centerfielders. Only 2020 draftees Heston Kjerstad, Coby Mayo, and Carter Baumler man positions in the corners or on the mound. All 10 of these players are currently spread across the rosters of the 1st place Bowie Baysox, the 1st place Aberdeen Ironbirds, and the 1st place Delmarva Shorebirds, just to provide some more good news for us struggling O’s fans.
This will be the case until he debuts in Baltimore and can no longer be called a prospect, but no Orioles article would be complete without Adley Rutschman. The best prospect in baseball not named Wander has not disappointed early in the year. With 24 walks to 22 strikeouts, Rutschman is just getting on base at a .435 clip while slugging 4 HR and spending some time at 1B to give the knees a rest. Another interesting name to keep an eye on though is Maverick Handley, a 6th round pick in 2019 out of Stanford. A 3-year starter at Stanford, Handley is a superior athlete behind the plate, providing great defense and versatility that could be very valuable down the road as a potentially perfect handcuff to Rutschman. With 7 walks in his first 55 plate appearances and 7 stolen bases, the great eye and athleticism have fully been on display thus far, oh and by the way, he has thrown out 54% of would-be base stealers without committing an error behind the plate. Both Rutschman and Handley should move quickly and could be a formidable pair in Baltimore before we know it.
— Scott Greene (@Scotty_Ballgame) June 2, 2021
The middle infielders
It’s hard to say that any player or group of players is more exciting than a group that would include the second-best prospect in baseball, but if this group of players may do that. The quartet of middle infielders currently at Low-A Delmarva and Joey Ortiz , now with AA Bowie, make up an incredibly talented group. This group is led by Gunnar Henderson, who admittedly may end up at third base. All Henderson is doing thus far is leading the Low-A Carolina league with 8 HR and 35 RBI, 5 more RBI than the next closest player. The 2nd round pick in 2019 is slashing .330/.393/.660 and won’t turn 20 for another month. All those RBI don’t come without guys getting on base in front of you and boy have the bats in Delmarva done that. Of players with 35 or more at bats in the Carolina League, 5 of the top 6 on base percentages belong to Shorebirds. Two of those players, Jordan Westburg (1st Rd. 2020) and Anthony Servideo (3rd Rd. 2020) are part of this group.
If any player in the Carolina League is hotter than Henderson, it just may be Westburg. Slashing .366/.484/.592 with 3 HR and 5 SB through 20 games at Low-A Delmarva, the Mississippi State product was just promoted to Aberdeen (High-A). Westburg has been splitting shortstop and third base with Henderson and should make his way to Aberdeen in a similar role with Joey Ortiz sooner rather than later. Incredibly Servideo is off to a bit of a slow start only hitting .246 thus far. However, that just makes the .489 OBP that much more impressive. Servideo has walked 28 times in 92 plate appearances, which also happens to lead the Carolina League. Rounding out this incredible group are Darell Hernaiz (5th Rd. 2019) and Joey Ortiz (4th Rd. 2019) both off to solid starts.
Incredibly we’re going to look at 3 outfielders here without more than a passing mention of 2020 1st round pick and top 3 Orioles prospect Heston Kjerstad, however, Hudson Haskin who went 37 picks after Kjerstad is off to a start that will make you, at least for a minute, forget that Kjerstad has not made his 2021 debut yet. Slashing .333/.451/.476 with 3 HR and 11 stolen bases, Haskin is part of the quintet of players leading the Carolina League in OBP while finding himself with the second most steals as well. Haskin never stole many bases while at Tulane, but he has been showing off the potential plus-plus speed thus far. He should stick in centerfield and could easily be a future 20/20 player in Baltimore.
First, Hudson Haskin goes deep for his 3rd home run of the season, and then Gunnar Henderson annihilates home run number 8 of the year! pic.twitter.com/p5firxSyLt
— The Verge- An Orioles MiLB Podcast (@BSLOnTheVerge) June 3, 2021
Not to be outdone by the incredible OBPs in Delmarva, Kyle Stowers is doing the same thing in Aberdeen, posting a .406 OBP with 6 extra base hits and 20 walks in his first 106 plate appearances. While he’s athletic enough to be in centerfield currently, he has spent most of his time in rightfield thus far because Zach Watson shares the outfield with Stowers in Aberdeen. A 2019 3rd round pick, Watson can fly and play fantastic centerfield. The bat is a bit behind the legs and glove, but with the depth in the outfield in Baltimore right now, they can afford to let Watson progress.
So, if Bill James and my Dad are correct, this group of 10 prospects might be a pretty solid indication that a championship may not be far off in Baltimore.