SARASOTA, FLA. — Left-hander Jayson Aquino hopes to put a fitting capstone on his breakout spring training Sunday with his first Grapefruit League start, one he hopes will earn him a spot in the Orioles rotation during the season's first month.
"I feel good, excited for this opportunity," Aquino said through club translator Ramon Alarcon. "Thank God for this opportunity. I just want to go out there and continue to do what I've been doing. I've been thankful that I've had, so far, a successful spring. Obviously, I'm looking forward to that starting opportunity, too."
For the 24-year-old Dominican lefty, it's a long way from the end of last spring, when the St. Louis Cardinals designated him for assignment and traded him to the Orioles a week later.
The Orioles were Aquino's sixth team in 15 months, but he found a home in the organization and now hopes all that he has worked on since arriving last year earns him a surprise turn in the rotation come April.
It wasn't always smooth sailing with the Orioles, though. He had a 4.91 ERA after seven starts at Double-A Bowie last season and was briefly shuffled out of the rotation, though he made just one relief appearance before ultimately replacing fellow young starter Chris Lee in the rotation when Lee suffered a lat strain.
His first start back was eight scoreless innings, and his 3.48 Double-A ERA the rest of the way earned him a bump to Triple-A Norfolk. There, he worked in relief and allowed three runs in 13 innings before getting a brief stint with the Orioles in September.
All through that process, Aquino was working on a breaking ball to complement what's already a developed changeup to keep people off a fastball that doesn't blow people away. With the help of Bowie pitching coach Alan Mills, now the Orioles bullpen coach, and a little offseason seasoning, that pitch has become a weapon for Aquino.
"I would say the biggest difference is when this season was over, I was able to pitch in the Dominican Winter League and work on my off-speed, my breaking pitches and things have turned out pretty good for me," Aquino said. "I'm confident with where the breaking ball is, and continue to work on it."
The results this spring have been impressive. He has allowed just one run on seven hits in 11 innings, all in relief, with 10 strikeouts and just one walk. That has come against decent competition, too, with his opponent quality a shade above Triple-A-level players, according to Baseball-Reference.com.
But that's part of why the Orioles are getting him this opportunity in Dunedin against what's expected to be a full-strength Toronto Blue Jays lineup — at the park he toiled at for three months in 2015 when he was property of Toronto and assigned to their Florida State League club at Dunedin.
Manager Buck Showalter said this week that teams fielding their strong lineups with all their World Baseball Classic stars and veterans during these last few weeks would give them a better indication of whether pitchers were where they needed to be to replace Chris Tillman in April.
"We kind of lined up Mike [Wright] and [Gabriel] Ynoa and Aquino to give them one more good start here," Showalter said.