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Orioles minor league report: Jordan Westburg, Gunnar Henderson impress in first Triple-A action; 2021 draftees perform well

It was quite the week for the position players among Baltimore’s top prospects.

In the majors, Adley Rutschman’s bat started to heat up, and Kyle Stowers joined him up there. Gunnar Henderson and Jordan Westburg were promoted to Triple-A and immediately impressed. Heston Kjerstad at last made his pro debut for Low-A Delmarva and didn’t wait long to record his first hit. At High-A Aberdeen, Colton Cowser and Connor Norby showed signs they’re coming into the form that made them the Orioles’ top two draft picks a year ago.

That group’s progress will be vital to this rebuild’s success. Getting strong performances from some of the less-heralded pitchers in the system, as was the case last week, will only help.

Each week, The Baltimore Sun will break down five of the top performers in the Orioles’ prospect ranks and hand out some superlatives for those who didn’t make that cut.

1. Triple-A Norfolk infielder Jordan Westburg

In spring training, the Orioles gave Westburg a start at third base in a road night game against the New York Yankees, with manager Brandon Hyde saying he wanted Westburg “to feel like he’s getting close to the big leagues.” His first week with Norfolk certainly gave that impression, as well. Westburg hit .455 with a 1.387 OPS, and half of his 10 hits went for extra bases in the form of two doubles, a triple and two home runs. Potentially noteworthy for the future, Westburg, Baltimore’s No. 7 prospect, drew the start at shortstop over third-ranked Henderson in their Triple-A debut, though they split the position evenly over the course of the week.

2. Double-A Bowie right-hander Zach Peek

The December 2019 trade that sent Dylan Bundy to the Los Angeles Angels has already produced one member of the Orioles’ rotation in right-hander Kyle Bradish. Perhaps Peek could someday join him. Across two starts last week, the 24-year-old worked nine innings, allowing one run on five hits and striking out 11 against one walk. On Sunday, he completed five innings for the first time since his season debut, lowering his ERA to 3.13 in the process. He’s not striking out batters at nearly the rate he did a year ago, but after spending most of March on the injured list, Peek has given up one run in his past 13 innings.

3. High-A Aberdeen infielder Connor Norby

Baltimore’s second-round pick last year, Norby hit his fifth home run of the season on the final day of April, slugging .521 in the opening month of his first full professional season. He then went all of May and a third of June without a homer, but he went deep both Saturday and Sunday to show that a turnaround could be coming. The same could be said of Cowser, 2021′s fifth overall selection. He recorded three doubles among his seven hits, balancing his four strikeouts with his four walks. Cowser’s OPS for the week was .878, while Norby’s was .925.

4. Low-A Delmarva outfielder Trendon Craig

Craig was the Orioles’ final pick of the 2021 draft, with the $250,000 signing bonus he received as a 20th-round pick the highest Baltimore gave to any player selected after the eighth round. Of late, he’s been showing why, with hits in nine straight games and multiple hits in six of those. He went 9-for-18 last week, with one of each type of extra-base hit to post an OPS of 1.405 for the week. After missing the first month of the season and hitting .164 in May, Craig is batting .395 with a 1.044 OPS thus far in June.

5. High-A Aberdeen right-hander Carlos Tavera

Our third straight honoree from the Orioles’ 2021 draft class, Tavera pitched six shutout innings for the IronBirds in his start Wednesday, striking out eight on 18 swinging strikes while allowing one hit and two walks. A fifth-round pick tied for the highest-taken pitcher of general manager Mike Elias’ three-draft tenure in Baltimore, Tavera had a 0.49 ERA, .098 batting average allowed and 38.8% strikeout rate in four May starts to earn South Atlantic League Pitcher of the Month recognition. His outing before last week’s gem — surrendering seven earned runs while recording seven outs — probably spoils a repeat, but it doesn’t prevent this start from beginning another impressive run.

The top prospect not featured so far

Although Westburg was the one recognized above, Henderson was no slouch in his first week with the Tides. He homered on the second pitch he saw, then seemingly got little else to hit the rest of the week. While putting up a .963 OPS for the week, Henderson walked eight times in his 27 plate appearances, or nearly 30%. Henderson, who doesn’t turn 21 until the end of this month, has walked 49 times in 53 games this season while striking out 41 times. His on-base percentage is .460.

International acquisition of the week

Dominican right-hander Juan De Los Santos had started in his first 10 appearances with Low-A Delmarva, but because his scheduled outing last week fell on a Wednesday — No. 20 prospect Carter Baumler’s designated start day as he builds up following Tommy John surgery — De Los Santos worked in relief for the first time this year. After Baumler pitched three hitless, scoreless innings, De Los Santos finished the game, striking out 10 without a walk while allowing one earned run in six innings. Signed after Elias took over in the 2018-19 international signing period, the 20-year-old has a 3.62 ERA this year and has already set a career high for innings.

The best former top-30 prospect of the week

With Grayson Rodriguez suffering a potentially season-ending lat muscle strain, innings the Orioles had ticketed for their top pitching prospect will need to go elsewhere. Perhaps Blaine Knight could snag some of them. Selected two rounds after Rodriguez in 2018, the 25-year-old right-hander didn’t allow a hit or run in a 3 1/3-inning relief appearance last week for Norfolk. His outing a week before was a scoreless start of three innings. Those two outings have lowered Knight’s Triple-A ERA by more than a run and a half to 7.01, so he clearly has a way to go before earning a major league opportunity, but he is perhaps trending in that direction.

Time to give some shine to …

Just when you thought we were done highlighting 2021 draftees, it’s 16th-rounder Peter Van Loon’s turn for recognition. In a two-start week with Aberdeen, he struck out 13 across nine innings, allowing one run on six hits and four walks. Van Loon, 23, has a 3.18 ERA in 10 bulk outings for the IronBirds, striking out 28.5% of batters. He’s given up two home runs; the only pitchers in the organization to allow fewer per inning among those who’ve thrown at least 30 frames are Rodriguez and Knight.

Short-season snippets

Outfielder Braylin Tavera hit .286 with a home run and .804 OPS in his first professional action in the Dominican Summer League after receiving the largest signing bonus the Orioles have ever given a Latin American amateur this winter. His predecessor in that regard, catcher Samuel Basallo, went 5-for-14 (.357) for Baltimore’s Florida Complex League team. Right-hander Cesar Alvarez, a part of the Orioles’ first full international signing class under Elias, also performed well in his stateside debut, striking out five in four scoreless, walk-free innings. Alvarez had a 2.49 ERA with a K/9 over 12 in a dozen DSL starts last year.

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