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Orioles minor league report: Top of 2018, 2019 drafts excel amid Grayson Rodriguez’s injury, Adley Rutschman’s struggles

This upcoming week could’ve been a banner one for the Orioles’ rebuild, with the possibility of right-hander Grayson Rodriguez pitching to catcher Adley Rutschman — a pairing of the game’s top pitching and hitting prospects — at Camden Yards lined up to be a reality as soon as Tuesday.

Instead, what might have been Rodriguez’s final Triple-A outing ended abruptly with what proved to be a Grade 2 lat muscle strain that will delay his debut until September, if not early 2023. Rutschman, meanwhile, is 0-for-the homestand, with a hit-by-pitch Thursday all that provided him an on-base percentage in last week’s games at Oriole Park.

But even as Baltimore’s top picks in the 2018 and 2019 drafts dealt with their respective struggles, the other early selections of their draft classes excelled in the upper minors. 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. Double-A Bowie infielder Gunnar Henderson

Before he was promoted to Norfolk along with Jordan Westburg, Henderson had an atypical week, walking only once opposite seven strikeouts. He managed a .500 on-base percentage regardless thanks to going 10-for-21, with half of those hits going for extra bases to culminate in a 1.357 OPS and Eastern League Player of the Week honors. Even after a relatively disproportionate week, Henderson, the Orioles’ second-round pick after they selected Rutschman first overall in 2019, ranks second among all qualified minor leaguers 21 and younger in strikeout-to-walk ratio. He doesn’t turn 21 until the end of this month.

2. Triple-A Norfolk outfielder Kyle Stowers

Last year, Rutschman at one point homered on five straight Sundays. Stowers has managed to, in a way, outdo that, with five home runs in his past two Sunday games. He hit three May 22 against Charlotte, sat out May 29′s matchup with Gwinnett, then blasted a pair Sunday against Jacksonville. Taken behind only Rutschman and Henderson in Baltimore’s 2019 draft class, Stowers has homered nine times in his past 17 games to give him a system-best 12 home runs.

3. High-A Aberdeen right-hander Ignacio Feliz

After working in bulk behind right-hander Jean Pinto early on, Feliz’s past two appearances have come out of the IronBirds’ rotation. The latest featured five innings in which he did not allow an earned run and struck out seven. A 22-year-old Baltimore acquired in the minor league portion of 2020′s Rule 5 draft, Feliz has a 2.03 ERA and 39.2% strikeout rate across 31 innings in his past eight outings.

4. Low-A Delmarva infielder Noelberth Romero

The July 2019 trade that sent veteran pitcher Andrew Cashner to the Boston Red Sox is still a ways away from being known more for the two players Baltimore got in return than the meme it generated among the Orioles’ fan base. But more weeks like the previous one from Romero (hitting .300 with three steals and an .867 OPS) and outfielder Elio Prado (a .294 average to go with a .480 on-base percentage and even strikeout-to-walk ratio) will help them keep climbing from the Shorebirds up the Orioles’ system.

5. Triple-A left-hander DL Hall

With Rodriguez sidelined, Hall will be the next well-regarded Orioles pitching prospect to debut, though his arrival is nowhere near as forthcoming as Rodriguez’s appeared to be before his injury. In two starts last week, Hall struck out 15 batters of the 32 batters he faced over eight innings. Sunday, he completed five innings for the first time this season, needing 72 pitches to do so; his season high of 78 came in a four-inning outing the previous week. Improved efficiency will help Hall continue to build his pitch count and work toward the majors.

The top prospect not featured so far

With Henderson and Westburg promoted to Triple-A, seven of Baltimore’s top nine prospects are at that level or in the majors. The exceptions are both with High-A Aberdeen in Nos. 5 and 6 prospects Coby Mayo and Colton Cowser. With both having quiet weeks, we’ll focus here on Cowser, who has yet to feature in one of these recaps two months into the minor league season. The fifth overall pick in last year’s draft, Cowser’s first full season has gotten off to a relatively slow start, with a .759 OPS and uncharacteristic 29.7% strikeout rate. Last week was another quiet one for him, though he showed signs of perhaps returning to form. All three of his hits went for doubles, while he drew five walks against three strikeouts, his fewest in a given week all season.

International acquisition of the week

With another three steals last week, Delmarva utility man Luis Valdez now has 26 on the year, nine more bags taken than any other Orioles minor leaguer. That output comes despite a modest .328 on-base percentage, but last week, he slashed .381/.409/.429 to get recognized here.

The best former top-30 prospect of the week

Henderson and Westburg’s promotions — not to mention Terrin Vavra’s looming return from a rehab assignment — will shake up the Tides’ infield picture, but Cadyn Grenier has shown in recent weeks that he deserves to still get playing time. Grenier, who played with Rutschman at Oregon State then shared Baltimore’s 2018 draft class with Rodriguez when he was taken 37th overall, slashed .444/.542/.611 last week. He enters this week on a seven-game hitting streak, with six multi-hit games in his past 13 contests for a .984 OPS in that span. In his first true stint in Triple-A, the 25-year-old is posting career bests in walk rate and strikeout rate.

Time to give some shine to …

What proved to be Major League Baseball’s last 40-round draft came in 2019. Right-hander Noah Denoyer went unselected in those 40 rounds, but he’s thrived since signing afterward with Baltimore. In two bulk relief outings last week with Bowie, he allowed one run over nine innings with 11 strikeouts. Over 10 appearances this season between High-A and Double-A, the 24-year-old has a 2.31 ERA while striking out a third of batters faced, and over the past two seasons, he has 2.62 ERA in 30 outings, all but one of which has lasted at least two innings.

Short-season snippets

The Orioles’ Florida Complex League and Dominican Summer League affiliates began play Monday. After having multiple FCL teams for the past few years, Baltimore has dropped back to one, though the organization still has two DSL teams. Many of the Orioles’ top international signings in recent years are on these rosters, with Braylin Tavera — who received a franchise-record $1.7 million signing bonus this winter — playing in the DSL with catcher Samuel Basallo and shortstop Maikol Hernández — who signed for $1.3 million and $1.2 million the previous signing period — on the FCL team. Outfielder Heston Kjerstad, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2020 draft, is not on the Orioles’ FCL roster and is expected to make his professional debut with Delmarva in the near future.

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