Anyone with experience in FarmVille or Harvest Moon (or, you know, people who actually grow stuff) can attest to the time and constant, meticulous care required to produce a yield from your plant of choice. A plan of care must be established and adhered to in order to meet its individual needs and create an atmosphere in which it can thrive. Three years ago, incoming Baltimore Orioles general manager Mike Elias planted a middle infield tree in the mythical garden of player development and after careful curating and monitoring, it’s bearing fruit in spades.
Elias has presided over four drafts in his tenure as General Manager and has targeted an archetype in one of the top rounds: athletic middle infielders with proficient on-base skills, defensive acumen at multiple positions, and sneaky power. These criteria combined with Orioles Player Development have resulted in a wealth of talent up the middle of the diamond.
The Baltimore Orioles have a collection of middle infield prospects that any MLB team would envy.
Gunnar Henderson is giving the Orioles their first taste of major league results with a flying start that has the baseball industry at large daydreaming about the player he appears destined to become. Henderson was an above-slot high school bat chosen in the second round of a 2019 draft that could go down as one of the best in franchise history depending on how the future plays out.
The 6’3” shortstop used last offseason to completely overhaul his plate discipline, which was just about the only semblance of a concern with Henderson’s profile, and quickly skyrocketed up prospect lists as he ran roughshod on every level of the minors despite being younger than pretty much every pitcher he faced (he’s only struck out 20% of the time since his promotion to the Orioles). It’s not a matter of if Henderson will be a star, it’s simply how big of one.
Some like myself expected Jordan Westburg to make a cameo in Baltimore before the season was done but the meteoric rise of Henderson may have delayed that cameo until 2023. It’s no fault of Westburg though – the 30th overall pick in the 2020 draft earned a promotion from Bowie to AAA Norfolk in June and has hit .264 with 26 home runs, 89 runs, and 12 steals between both levels. The plate discipline, you ask? Westburg has walked 63 times this season, good for a .353 OBP. The 26 home runs are tops among all batters in the Orioles organization.
Westburg had contact concerns entering his pro career and while he may never be a .300 hitter, he has all the makings of an above average offensive second baseman who can handle the defensive requirements the position entails.
Westburg isn’t the only intriguing middle infielder in Norfolk; may I introduce you to Joey Ortiz!
College bat? Check. Defensive wizard? Check. Above average walk rate? Yup. You can see why Elias took Ortiz, who was teammates with Kyle Bradish at New Mexico State, in the fourth round of the 2019 draft.
Few Orioles prospects have elevated their status as prospects like Ortiz has in 2022 thanks to an improved hit tool that could see his future outlook shift from defensive replacement to everyday middle infielder. Consistent contact and power had not been tenants of Ortiz’s game until a switch seemingly flipped in July that transformed him into a new hitter – in the last 90 days, Ortiz has a .336/.404/.580 slash line with 14 home runs, 65 runs scored, and 12.9% strikeout/10.1% walk rates during said timeframe and received a promotion from Bowie to Norfolk for his efforts. He’s a legit prospect, folks.
But wait, there’s more! BILLY MAYS HERE FOR CONNOR NORBY!
Describing these guys as good defenders with refined plate discipline and above average power is getting redundant – I’m telling you Mike Elias has a type!
Norby, the former ECU Pirate selected 41st overall last year, exemplifies all of the characteristics the Orioles front office looks for in a middle infielder, but his power has been the standout. After a power surge in his final season at East Carolina in which he went yard 15 times, Norby has followed that up with 25 home runs between Aberdeen and Bowie, trailing only Jordan Westburg for the organization lead.
That Norby was able to build on his college success after hitting just two homers between his freshman and sophomore seasons has to be a pleasing sight for O’s scouts and coaches, and he’ll have a cup of coffee in Norfolk to end the season and add to his impressive totals.
How could 1.1 from this past July’s draft be forgotten? Jackson Holliday has had a better swing than most pro hitters since he was three years old and fits the tall, athletic profile a la Henderson and Westburg. Holliday quickly received a promotion to Delmarva after it became apparent that the Florida Complex League was light work, where he finished with a .772 OPS in 57 plate appearances.
The Baltimore Orioles have vast organizational depth in the middle of the infield. What will they do with all of them?
It goes without saying the Orioles embarrassment of riches in the center of the diamond will behoove them going forward. Henderson could become a superstar talent. Westburg, Ortiz, and Norby are all close to MLB-ready. Holliday could very well follow a similar trajectory to that of Henderson.
The depth evokes yet another intriguing conversation: even if all of them reach their full potential, there simply aren’t enough starting positions for all five. With the Orioles heading into another competitive window, some of these middle infield prospects could be valuable trade chips that other organizations would covet. Maybe the Marlins would like Norby in a deal for Pablo López. Could they put a package together to pry Brady Singer away from Kansas City? Whatever the outcome, the Orioles have expertly curated a wealth of talent that should pay dividends both transactionally and in on-field results for the Birds.