Five things we learned from Orioles spring training
After six long weeks of spring training, the Orioles are heading north to play in games that finally count.
Most of camp was drama-free, without injuries or transactions disrupting the team’s ramp-up. That slightly changed the final week with injuries to reliever Mychal Givens and catcher James McCann, as well as the decision to start top pitching prospect Grayson Rodriguez in Triple-A.
Before Baltimore begins the season against the Boston Red Sox on Thursday, here’s a look at some of what we learned about the Orioles this spring.
Grayson Rodriguez isn’t invincible
The Orioles’ decision to not have Rodriguez open the season on the major league roster was controversial.
The move led to questions about the organization’s true motivation for sending him down as well as questions about what the rotation could look like later in the year.
What isn’t controversial, though, is the fact that Rodriguez didn’t perform well in camp. The Orioles’ top pitching prospect’s spring wasn’t all bad — he still displayed plus velocity and an impressive changeup.
But he did legitimately struggle, regardless of whether it was enough for him to be sent back to Triple-A. The five starters who made the rotation — Kyle Gibson, Dean Kremer, Cole Irvin, Kyle Bradish and Tyler Wells — all had at least one start of five or more innings, while Rodriguez never recorded more than 12 outs.
In each of his final three spring starts, the 23-year-old had one blowup inning, usually when he started facing the lineup a second time through the order. Twelve of his 15 runs allowed came in those three frames.
“This is his first true major league spring training,” manager Brandon Hyde said after Rodriguez’s final spring start. “I think we have to remember he’s a really young player. Sometimes it’s OK to go through some rough patches to know that you have to make some adjustments.”
It is just a matter of time before Rodriguez makes his way to Baltimore. But he showed this spring that immense talent doesn’t automatically lead to success against big league hitters.
The kids can play
How much time do you have?
The list of the Orioles’ top prospects who stood out when they were in big league camp is long.
The top one is Heston Kjerstad. The No. 2 overall selection of the 2020 draft, Kjerstad proved that his offseason comments that he believes he can reach the big leagues by the end of 2023 weren’t just lip service. Kjerstad, who missed all of 2020 and 2021 with heart and hamstring ailments, was perhaps the Orioles’ best hitter in spring training with a 1.219 OPS and nine extra-base hits.
Another Orioles outfielder who impressed this spring was Colton Cowser. The No. 5 selection of the 2021 draft, Cowser displayed his two best traits — his raw power and his plate discipline. He clobbered a 467-foot home run — a blast that would have been farther than all but two home runs hit in the majors last season outside thin-aired Colorado — and walked in 28% of his plate appearances.
The prospect who stuck with the Orioles the longest was infielder Jordan Westburg. The No. 30 overall pick in 2020, Westburg spent all of spring training in major league camp and more than held his own with a .306/.368/.510 slash line.
Orioles executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias said Monday that Westburg, who has 413 career plate appearances in Triple-A, is “really close” to making his way to Baltimore.
“He continues to open eyes,” Elias said. “I want these guys to come up and stay, and I expect that’s going to be the case with Westburg. I expect it’s going to be soon, and I expect he’s going to do really well.”
When these players make it to Baltimore remains to be seen. But this spring was certainly an indication of what they’re capable of.
The Orioles have plenty of depth
Can there be such anything as too much depth?
Of course, the Orioles aren’t quite there yet, but perhaps the starkest difference between the 2023 spring compared with those during the rebuild is the number of major league-caliber players at the club’s disposal.
The rotation and bullpen competitions are evidence of that.
In addition to the five starters in the rotation, the Orioles have a handful of other starters who either have high pedigrees as prospects (Rodriguez and DL Hall), pitched well in 2022 as major league starters (Spenser Watkins and Austin Voth) or are injured and expected back midseason (John Means).
In the bullpen, injuries to Dillon Tate and Mychal Givens are certainly setbacks for a group of largely inexperienced relievers. But the pitchers who are likely to fill those vacant seats — Mike Baumann and Joey Krehbiel — are still viable options.
Depth is a good thing, but what the Orioles still lack, for now, is a top-tier starting pitcher to headline the rotation. Veteran Kyle Gibson is an innings-eater and is a candidate to bounce back in 2023, but among the No. 1 starters for teams eyeing the playoffs, the Orioles have one of the weakest.
The roster isn’t much different from what was expected
Aside from Rodriguez’s absence and the unforeseen injuries to Givens and McCann, the roster, which hasn’t officially been set, is expected to look quite similar to the offseason projections, especially on the position player side.
Ryan McKenna kept his job as the right-handed-hitting backup outfielder, defensive replacement and pinch runner. Kyle Stowers kept his job as the left-handed-hitting backup outfielder and designated hitter candidate. Terrin Vavra, who spent time playing first, second and third base as well as left and right field this spring, kept his job as the utility man.
One of the most followed camp battles was among Franchy Cordero, Josh Lester, Lewin Díaz and Ryan O’Hearn for the backup first baseman/left-handed-hitting bench bat job.
Despite all those players hitting well this spring — headlined by Cordero’s .413 batting average — the Orioles chose to stick with McKenna, Vavra and Stowers.
Adley Rutschman might be on a superstar trajectory
Wasn’t he already?
Rutschman was already a great player, but he might have shown the start of something this spring — albeit in a minuscule sample size — that could take his game to the next level.
The hallmark of an elite player in the majors is his ability to attack his biggest flaw in the offseason and correct it in one season’s time. In his rookie campaign, Rutschman, a switch-hitter, struggled mightily while hitting right-handed against left-handed pitchers in 2022, posting a .552 OPS in 115 plate appearances.
In an even smaller sample this spring, Rutschman appeared much more comfortable at the plate against lefties, walking four times in 16 plate appearances and hitting two home runs — more than the one homer he hit from the right side in 2022.
Rutschman, who was the American League Rookie of the Year runner-up, has the ninth-best odds on BetMGM Sportsbook to win the AL Most Valuable Player Award this season. Reaching that mountaintop isn’t out of the question for him in Year 2.
Orioles at Red Sox
Thursday, 2:10 p.m.
Radio: 97.9 FM, 101.5 FM, 1090 AM