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Assessing the FCL Roster After the MLB Draft

photo: Eric Garfield
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As the summer gets even hotter in Sarasota, the Orioles thriving minor league system is measuring progress at the lowest levels in ways other than wins and losses. A new group of players has begun their tracks upward and soon there will be even more from the amateur draft. The complex level has seen lots of athletes come and go since the practice season began in January. I’ve been lucky enough to watch, film and take notes on all of them so before the Bradfields and Horvaths and Sharkeys get here, let’s review what has gone down in Birdland South.

Firstly the graduates. Pitchers Zack Showalter, Brayner Sanchez, Luis DeLeon & Erick Rodriguez have made the jump up to Delmarva with varying degrees of success. Mostly ‘pen for Sanchez and Rodriguez here and all starts for DeLeon and Showalter  except for entering an inning after Zac Lowther’s one at Atlanta, they’re making the transition to A-ball. The organization felt that they were prepared as well as ready for a higher challenge in affiliated ball so they’re Shorebirds now. Like a majority of assessments they’ve made, this one was on the money too. All four are doing quite well at the level above rookie ball.

Versatile IF/OF prospect Rolphy Cruz was too hot in Florida so he forced the farm execs to start his track upward too. At this point in the season, it’s more of an issue if you don’t have graduates whose collective loss is felt at the rookie level. The Orioles are happy to have reinforcements in Delmarva and the draft will create more moves in the upcoming days.

The players still on Florida’s Gulf Coast don’t want to be here, but recognize this part on the process of them improving as players. A crucial reminder, stats do not tell the whole story here. So while the ones online don’t include extended spring training or metric data they show a snapshot more than a total story.

We can start at catcher. Yasmil Bucce looks to be the best combo of bat and glove so his offensive skill is starting to shine through some. Even when off-balance or beat with a pitch he can drive his bat through the zone cleanly with consistency so he gets hits from less than ideal contact and bleeders. In a recent game he broke his bat but had enough arm behind the swing initially to push it over the infield for a single. Blocking he’s just as consistent which is vital at this level. Each backstop lets their fair share of balls roll past them but they face a great deal more pitches in the dirt than at higher levels. In terms of arm he’s shown the best mph (or very close) and the best accuracy.  The one knock has been health but it’s 100 degrees every day, he’s taking foul balls and bouncers off his face a dozen times a day all while adjusting to a new country, culture and schedule.

First time through, it’s about survival and Bucce is going to make it.

Slugger Aneudis Mordan has been a breath of fresh air at the plate as his ABs are smart for a youngster and the results speak for themselves. His power bat has been established in the middle of the lineup from day one where he’s done damage of the over the wall variety. Behind the plate he’s still adjusting as the passed ball count is extremely minimal at one, but the stolen bases are a work in progress. Six caught of 22 attempts shows an area where improvement is required. From the video his pop time looks adequate, the transfers happen cleanly and the footwork is good enough so it seems the throw or the mph behind the throw is the ‘work on it’ part. Mordan beat a baserunner vs the Pirates by about two feet on Friday so that skill is improving.

Kenny Baez on the other hand throws it hard enough that even when it bounces or hits the mound it beats the runner to second base. He’s also got enough pop and loft behind his swing to drive the ball into the power alleys. When he’s on time he’s really dictating where the ball lands; he’s got the potential for that kind of barrel control but when he’s off he’s behind and starting late.  Reps and cage work can clean that up.

Carlos Rodriguez is working his way back from injury this summer so his availability is priority number one. So far so good: he’s here. He’s a hand/eye coordination type hitter with pop so when he gets in a groove he’ll be up to affiliated ball quickly.

Around the infield there are a few prospects starting to emerge blended with vets maximizing opportunities like they always do in a good farm system. Roberto Martinez is one of those vets and at 20 has already seen time at Delmarva. Leading in a quiet but not sullen way Martinez is batting .333, OPS’ing .820 and making plays at first. The ABs are more demonstrative of a plan, in a small sample he has nine strikeouts to four walks.

Victor Gonzalez is hitting well at the complex with his six extra base hits in 40 ABs helping him to a .524 slugging % early on. It’s yet to start affecting his results but a 16:2 strikeout to walk ratio is not sustainable. Victor said before the season that this year would show the player he really is and the Orioles evaluators should be happy with the hitter he’s becoming in their program.

Leandro Arias is an infielder with all of the physical traits. Hand and foot speed, flexibility, elite level balance and strength all blend together in the youngster who won’t turn 19 until February. In-game his movements are electric and I look forward to when fans can see what he can do on one foot or moving at full speed. Hitting and throwing it hard consistently are already trademarks of his game, it’s easy to speculate on how they’ll be when he finishes an entire year in the team’s strength and conditioning program. From what I’ve seen, his throws from third and the shortstop hole come with plenty of sizzle but his footwork and hand/eye skills fit best at short.

Edwin Amparo excels at second where his coverage of the bag is top notch. Tagging is an area where you can see how fast and strong his hands are but watching video it’s more evident at the plate. His load into the swing is identical every single time frame to frame like a major league vet. Even when he gears up to swing out of his shoes it’s the same path in the same sequence. Like Frederick Bencosme before him, this seems like the beginning of a high hit/AB profile when things are going right.

Maikol Hernandez is repeating the level and doing so with so much more success all around. There have been streaks of both good and bad performances but in 2022 that would wear on him and in 2023 you can’t even tell. He’s progressing through the season well so far while handling every grounder, line drive and pop up anywhere near him flawlessly. His internal clock and confidence are improving with each grounder. Now it’s time for him to be challenged at another level, he’s close to outgrowing the FCL.

Christian Benavides has hit a home run and made some plays at third base early on. The defensive consistency is getting there and his skill level and desire are obvious. He’s an emotional player. Upright in his fielding posture, his quickness at the bag and shoulders always pointing toward 1st base minimize mistakes while displaying a clean fundamentals package. Liners over the bag have beat him but anything in front of him is going to be an out, definitely a positive sign for a young corner. Athletic enough to make a high percentage of his barehand opportunities, the nickname ‘Benny Machado’ seems fitting. I saw Manny make those same plays in that same dirt during his development.

Alfredo Velàsquez has an interesting 2B/SS based skill set but his calling card is raw athleticism. Loud contact plus good long speed show that he has the potential to max out these gifts. Accurate throws and footwork along with a high baseball IQ present a very worthwhile prospect for the complex crew. His first contact was a double off the wall and scouts immediately started asking who he was. That’s a sign.

Second baseman Aron Estrada has perhaps the fastest set of hands on the roster.  His transfers have that electric feel to them. Estrada missed five weeks with an injury, returning 3 games ago to everyday use. Since coming back he’s hitting .300/on-base .375 with a double & a steal.

Corner Eruviel Castillo has the most level swing on the roster. Even when he swings his hardest Castillo stays upright through the zone which helps when he makes contact. At 19 the organization knows that he can produce a good AB, but he’s yet to get the consistent playing time that can show who he is as a player. In drills and batting practice that stroke gets warm so he looks to be a hitter. An 8:5 k:BB ratio helps that case.

Outfield is almost all vet and one of them is on the mend after a brief rehab. Junior Lara is probably the best accelerator and base to base mover in the entire FCL. Due to recent circumstances Lara has been on the mound almost as much as in the field which isn’t maximizing his abilities but is showing that he’ll help the team try and get through a difficult spot.

Kevin Guerrero now steals bases aggressively and swings with reckless abandon regularly. Qualities of an experienced complex player; neither was true last year. The way to see his confidence on display is tracking fly balls, as his defense is also at a career high level. KG is not always loud, but he is always the first one out with a hand or a word of support, especially for the new guys.  That makes a difference, his valuable experience paying dividends.

Lefty Teudis Cortorreal has the kind of swing that loops into breaking pitches and drives them upward so when he’s warm his hits go RF and RCF. Improvements are clear in his approach as he shows some patience in ABs now where that wasn’t the case before. Hard to see in the box score but that’s huge for Corto as he can now be selective and execute a plan at the plate to counter the one that pitchers have for him.

Braylin Tavera is not a vet. He’s new, but he presents a true five-tool athlete dripping with ability. In the last few weeks he’s raised his game defensively because of daily practice with coaches. The kind of athlete he has shown to be can simply add on while utilizing unique qualities to help in the process. Always able to get to fly balls, he’s now confidently catching them in space showing a true center fielder’s glove. With the bat he gets to his power often but can shorten up to play the aim game if the situation or count calls for it. Just as good with a single to move a rally along as a home run to open one wide open, Tavera is building an impressive results resume in Sarasota. He’s worthy of the top prospect type of talk.

Raylin Ramos is a hitter and a highly confident athlete. A righty with a rigid and stiff stance he sprays the ball well which is reflected in his career batting average. Enough speed to steal bases, a good enough eye to maintain a high on-base % and a strong enough arm to get OF assists or keep runners in check, he seems like the kind of player who would thrive with more reps. His early development has been positive, it’s not hard to see him as an everyday player next season.

Carlos Vicioso is a quick runner who can identify a fly ball’s landing spot and get there efficiently. He’s well aware of this skill and likes to show it off with flair, he’s going to catch it. This is how natural CFs think. Vici truly patrols that part of the field. Yet to get things rolling offensively, he has the distinction of giving up a 3-run HR before getting his first hit which he’s itching to change.

Thomas Sosa is a strong lefty with broad shoulders, long legs and quick twitch ability that you see in every movement. He’s starting to get results and gaining in confidence. His swing is timing based but when it all clicks he’s a pull-side bopper with an uppercut that’s crafted to smash 400-foot blasts. Sosa has a big arm to go with advanced bat speed and coordination, he’s another five-tool prospect. If I’m another org, he’s someone that I target because it’s all in front of him and it could be a ton. When his strikeouts and walks normalize and his exit velocities are more reflective of his strength the Orioles could have a potential star in the making.

As far as the pitchers the group is full of skills with varying levels of experience. Some of that experience is happening right now as they try to last innings, win individual battles and be ready for more in the blistering Florida sun. It’s not an easy ask.

All four of righty Bryan Bautista’s outings have been starts. He’s been asked to get at least 9 outs in all of them and to this point has been successful. 15k/7BB in 17IP isn’t reflective of how good he can be. Tall and slender with a low effort delivery Bryan presents a positive package for the instructors to work with. Raul Rangel has shown improvement in a vital area this season, the weight room. He’s looking bigger all over and the physical difference has translated to some on-field successes.  He’s lasting through innings, even high stress ones much better and has performed in a variety of roles from opening games to closing them. Getting a noticeable amount of backspin on his cutter, he’s dictating counts to right handed batters and putting them away efficiently. Righty Harif Frias has had some strong appearances, and has limited the walks in recent weeks but is getting hit too hard for an arm with his late bite so his assignment is to avoid the heart of the plate.

A group of newer pitchers is getting used to pro ball in the US so they’re just getting their feet wet. Eccel Correa started Friday and had problems with two-strike finishers. Noelis Cuevas is a lefty with the kind of action on pitches that you can see in the upper deck  Anthony Bello is 24 and debuted vs Pittsburgh Friday after a hot 8 IP in the DSL.

Yeiber Gonzalez is also new so he’s learning the DSL and FCL are not the same.

Juan Rojas, a key piece in the Jorge Lopez return package has rehabbed his injury and begun to pitch in games. Through two games (4IP) he’s even with k:BB with four, has not given up a run yet and is playing his breaking stuff off well located heat.  This is exactly how he looked pre-injury.

Much like Delmarva’s Luis Sanchez, Antjony Morillo had to deal with both king-term recovery as well as a timeline that didn’t correspond with the season. Coming back to regular usage his stuff looks great (like Sanchez)but he must get used to completion once again. Jorge Morla has been up and down so far, his best start was cut short as he had to exit early due to extreme heat.  When he’s rolling his best weapon/skill seems to be changing speeds as he possesses a both fade and a tumbler type of change.  The swings can be bad against Morla and he brings some flair to the mound too.

Junior Piña, a very tall righty presents a unique mix of skill, hand size and delivery. High-mph offerings are not a challenge for him, and he can mix in devastating movement to supplement the arsenal. The problem has been finishing once he lands in these favorable counts. When it clicks for Piña watch out. His time here reminds me of Dan Hammer’s. There were a few long innings with Hammer but the staff was always ready to teach and Dan’s thriving now.  In terms of stuff he’s in his own tier down here.

Grabiel Salazar is a former outfielder who can gas it up and bring some fire to the mound. Control and command is where he needs to be better but it looks like he can. Pedro Figueroa is in a similar spot, both of them low in terms of appearances. Eddy Alberto has had a couple of starts where he’s hitting his spots, and a handful where he can’t locate but has showed endurance. Yonatan Pineda, Omar Hernandez, Isaac Solano and Elvis Polanco are holdovers who’ve combined for less than 20 IP but are yet to get on track. Coming into games down or in high pressure situations isn’t ideal but does present a chance to learn.

The teaching won’t stop as the draftees arrive; instead it’ll increase. Remaining atop baseball in terms of skilled players brought in and improved future stars emerging requires year round dedication and planning.

As new athletes make their way to Sarasota I’ll be watching, filming and asking questions to show you how they play too.

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