ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — One was on the mound making his major league debut, and the other was in the stands at Tropicana Field, soaking in the atmosphere from a scene he hopes to experience soon.
It was a short-lived debut for Orioles left-hander DL Hall, who was pulled after 3 2/3 innings and learned he was headed back to Triple-A Norfolk. Once there, he will begin a transition to the bullpen, hoping to rejoin a postseason contender in September as a reliever.
Right-hander Grayson Rodriguez, watching Hall pitch between his own rehabilitation work in Florida, is a less certain option. Baseball’s top pitching prospect could return this season and potentially even reach the majors. The role Rodriguez takes, though, is uncertain for so many reasons, mainly how he recovers from a Grade 2 lat muscle strain and what Baltimore needs down the stretch.
They’re perhaps the two most intriguing examples, but the Orioles’ stacked farm system has other prospects who find themselves in no man’s land. For executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias, the organizational philosophy is for players to graduate from Triple-A, reach the majors and not return to the minors.
But with the Orioles (59-54) finding themselves in a race for an American League wild-card spot, trailing the Tampa Bay Rays by half a game after Saturday’s 8-2 loss, it’s more difficult to balance the rebuild and a sudden opportunity to win now.
That led to Saturday’s brief cameo for Hall, who allowed five runs but flashed his electric stuff by striking out the side in the second inning. There will be more difficult balancing acts ahead once Rodriguez returns or shortstop Gunnar Henderson — the top prospect in baseball — forces his way to the majors.
“We’re trying to win every game, every series,” manager Brandon Hyde said. “We are in a different position than we have been in the last few years here, where we’re in the middle of August and we’re in a pennant race. Those things come, you try to put your best team out there on the field, and along with that, you understand you have 50 games to play, so rest is important. But you’re navigating this last month and a half a bit differently than normal.”
After Saturday’s game, Hyde explained the decision to call up Hall for one appearance as best he could. It was a chance to get the club’s No. 4 prospect acclimated to the major leagues, Hyde said. The Orioles see Hall making more of an instant impact as a reliever, the manager added.
Adding Hall — a flame-throwing left-hander — to the bullpen in a playoff race could bolster a group that’s already among the best in the majors. And while Hall has been adamant before that he views himself as a starter, he said Saturday “they have a plan, and I trust in it.”
“I’m going to go down and work on what I need to work on, and hopefully come back and prove that I belong to be here,” Hall said. “I’m just going to attack it the same way. The big thing for me is I’m just going to attack guys and I’m just gonna continue to do that in a relief role.”
That’s one way to get a prospect involved.
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“Stuff-wise, he’s capable of any role,” said utilityman Terrin Vavra, who was called up from Triple-A last month. “His arm is pretty electric and it’s fun to play defense behind and fun to see. I think it’s something that if he embraces, he could be really impactful for this team moving forward.”
When Vavra joined the Orioles on July 26 after hitting .324 for Norfolk, Hyde found it difficult to find a place for him. Vavra waited three games before receiving his first start, and he has since featured as a designated hitter and corner outfielder instead of his usual position of second base while hitting .333.
When Hall arrived Saturday, it momentarily bumped right-hander Spenser Watkins to the bullpen. Each promotion comes with a reshuffle; top prospects aren’t called up to sit on the bench.
“At the end of the day, guys are going to step up and do whatever they need to do to help our team win, like Spenser going to the bullpen,” veteran right-hander Jordan Lyles said. “We’re going to be asked to do certain things, and some guys are going to be skipped here in a little bit, rotation-wise, since we have so many guys.”
Should Henderson receive a call-up, there will be the added headache of fitting him into an infield that is well ensconced for Hyde. The same goes for Rodriguez in the starting rotation, should he become available.
It’s all part of the unique balance in Baltimore. In past seasons, when 100 losses would pile up, introducing a prospect was a more seamless exercise. Now, with a playoff spot on the line, there are greater risks involved, such as altering a winning lineup or changing a prospect’s traditional role.
The Orioles will take that chance with Hall. Whether they do the same with other prospects before the season is finished remains to be seen.