Samuel Basallo and the Orioles’ international prospect revolution

On Thursday of last week, MLB Pipeline released its latest update to its Top 100 prospects list, and an update on each team’s Top 30 prospects along with it. Once upon a time, this would be the height of August’s excitement for Birdland. It wasn’t that long ago that prospect rankings were more exciting than the on-field product for the O’s. Thankfully those days are now dead and gone.

However, there’s still something to be excited about with this latest outlook update. While Jackson Holiday continues his reign as the number one prospect in baseball — and Coby Mayo’s rise to MLB’s Top 30 — is exciting, it’s not surprising. Perhaps the biggest surprise when it comes to future Orioles stars is the rise of catcher Samuel Basallo. The 19-year-old backstop from Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic has seen his stock rise from the fringes of the Top 100 to now be among the game’s best prospects at No.50.

It’s not hard to see why Basallo spent the 2023 season moving up the prospect rankings. Before the 2023 season, Fangraphs pegged Basallo as a player who could break into the Top 100 by the 2024 season. Instead, the powerful left-handed catcher has exploded ahead of schedule with his performances in A-ball. In 83 games with Delmarva this year, Basallo mashed 12 homers and 19 doubles while hitting .299 and showing the type of advanced on-base skills that have become a trademark among Orioles prospects.

There are many similarities between what makes Mayo such an exciting prospect and why evaluators have fallen in love with Basallo. Between his power, plus-plus arm strength and a highly projectable frame that will allow him to add more muscle as he matures, Basallo has all the makings of a catcher in the same mold as seven-time All-Star Brian McCann. He’s currently still in the adjustment phase at High-A Aberdeen, but is already showing his surprising power against older competition.

However, Basallo’s rise represents more than just another singular success story in the Orioles’ growing line of super prospects. What Adley Rutschman was to the Orioles’ draft efforts, Basallo was the Orioles’ big entry into the international market. Mike Elias gave Basallo the largest international signing bonus in Orioles history when he signed him for $1.3 million in 2021. And just as Rutschman became the face of a new generation of Baby Birds drafted and developed under Elias, Basallo he is the face of a growing segment of foreign prospects who could revolutionize the Orioles’ minor league system.

While Basallo is the only international prospect to crack the MLB Top 100, he’s not alone when it comes to the Orioles’ Top 30. The next biggest international signing is the switch, 18-year-old outfielder Leandro Arias from DR. If Basallo is the Dominican Adley, Arias could be the Dominican Gunnar Henderson—a long and lean player with above-average power who could develop into even better power as Arias fills out. The 18-year-old joins compatriots Frederick Bencosme (19) and Luis Almeyda (17) as international position players in the O’s top 30.

Even more interesting than some of those players are the two international pitching prospects who snuck into the bottom of the O’s top prospects. Ranked No. 29 is 22-year-old righty Juan Nunes. Part of the Jorge Lopez trade return — the trade that keeps on giving — Nunez has blossomed in his first full season in the Orioles system. A diminutive pitcher at 5’11”, Nuñez has become one of the best strikeout artists in the Orioles’ minor leagues, racking up 106 Ks in 86 innings between Delmarva and Aberdeen. With a fastball that sits in the mid-90s and a good slider, the 22-year-old’s home may ultimately be in the bullpen, where that high strikeout rate will surely play out.

The more interesting of the two at this point is 20-year-old lefty Luis De León. A recent Rookie ball graduate, De León’s only had five outings for Delmarva this season — but they sure were electric. The lefty’s best outing to date saw him throw five no-hitters against the Kannapolis Cannon Ballers while striking out eight. At 20 with little major league experience, it’s impossible to be sure what kind of pitcher De León will develop into. However, as a lefty with a plus fastball that touches 97, and two offspeed offerings that show signs of being plus, the ceiling seems limitless for De León.

Since Elias & Co. committed to making the international market a priority in its approach to grouping, then it became a question of when that commitment would bear fruit. And now, with Basallo leading the charge, Birdland is finally seeing those fruits. This was the last hurdle the Orioles needed to clear to catch up with the rest of MLB’s elite in the team pool. The reigning champion Astros were built on the backs of international prospects such as Jose Altuve, Yordan Alvarez, Framber Valdez and Jeremy Peña. While the current best team in baseball—the Atlanta Braves—built much of their franchise around coached players, they also have two of the biggest international free agent success stories in Ronald Acuña Jr. and Ozzie Albies.

For too long the Orioles have been trying to build a winning team with one hand tied behind their back. They were attempting the MLB equivalent of an NFL team building a team without drafting from the SEC – and the results were predictably lackluster. With these international prospects the Orioles have been able to fill their minor league system with young talent on a different schedule than the college prospects they rely on in the draft. More importantly, though, they’ve bolstered their talent pipeline with the types of prospects that come out of nowhere to really put a team over the top. So don’t be surprised when the names Basallo, De León, Arias and more join the O’s in celebration of a World Series title.

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