As fulfilling as it must be for the Orioles to have rookie John Means become their first homegrown starting pitcher to make the All-Star Game in a generation, the true measures of their rebuild’s progress will be seen Sunday at Progressive Field, as former top picks Grayson Rodriguez and DL Hall will represent the team in the All-Star Futures Game.
For an organization whose pitching development has been maligned for years, the progress their 2017 and 2018 first-round draft picks have made — especially in the new program installed by first-year executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias under hand-picked minor league pitching coordinator Chris Holt — is an early sign that this might be the wave of young pitching that reaches Camden Yards with its promise still intact.
"They both worked very hard, they both are very smart workers and athletic guys,” Holt said. “What a nice experience for them to go have and have the challenge of pitching in that game against the game's top talent. What an experience. I'm just really happy for them to get this opportunity and rub elbows with some of the other top guys in the game.
"The work that they've put in and the talent level that they have, that is something we're very proud of, but above all else, we really keep a bigger 1,000-foot view of where they're at developmentally. This is just another step along the way of them getting to the big leagues and being able to stay there and effectively be top guys in the big leagues. The Futures Game is great, and the organization is proud, but the work continues."
For Rodriguez, who was selected 11th overall last year as a pop-up Texas prep pitcher, the work has impressed Holt most. But he was selected for the Futures Game mostly because of his 2.18 ERA with 84 strikeouts and a 0.89 WHIP in 62 innings at Low-A Delmarva.
Rodriguez, 19, crafted himself into a first-round pick in the summer before his senior year of high school by adding 25 pounds of good muscle as well as remaking his delivery and pitch arsenal entering his draft year. The results made him one of the best young pitchers in the country, and a quick study in a hotbed of pitching development with the Shorebirds.
"He brings a lot of tools to the table on his own, so when we work on something, whether we're using information to help with pitch development or delivery or anything, he already knows how to do some things for himself, so he's a lot closer to bridging the gap for himself already," Holt said.
Earlier this season, Shorebirds pitching coach Justin Ramsey noted how just a few work days when Rodriguez skipped a start helped his changeup immensely. The Orioles even saw a difference from his performance in the Gulf Coast League last summer to spring training, meaning the pitcher the new coaches and staff watched on video wasn't the one who showed up in Sarasota, Fla.
"When we saw him early in spring training, it was a nice surprise to see that we have this kid who's a hard worker, who's mature, who goes about his business very professionally at a very young age, with the ability level and the skill level that he has at such a young age," Holt said.
Hall, 20, essentially checked all those same boxes last year at Delmarva, when he had a 2.10 ERA and got better as his first full season went along. However, he's battled his command this year at High-A Frederick. His 42 walks in 53 2/3 innings entering the Futures Game are the same amount he had in 94 1/3 innings all of last season. But his strikeouts are way up — he's already fanned 80 after striking out 100 in 2018 — and his opponents’ batting average is nearly identical at .210 compared with .203 in 2018. The walks explain most of the long innings and short outings that account for his 3.86 ERA.
"He's been working all year on very simple things, and I think at times perhaps things get a little too complicated for him in terms of what he's trying to do," Holt said. "So, the whole point of his work is to simplify the in-game goals and to really work to go after guys on four or less pitches, period. For him, I feel like he wastes a lot of his pitches trying to do too much at times, whereas he has the stuff to just flat-out go after guys, especially at this level. Nobody hits him when he's in the zone, but I wouldn't mind if he gave up a few more hits just attacking through the zone and forcing swings.
"He's worked on all of these things, and developmentally, he's done a lot of really solid work this year. The ERA notwithstanding, it's been very solid on his part."
Naturally, Holt's view of the players' successes and trials comes with an eye toward getting them to the majors in a position to stick there. These two are far from the first Orioles pitchers to have success at the lower levels, and many of them made trips to recent Futures Games.
Since 2012, Dylan Bundy, Eduardo Rodríguez, Hunter Harvey, Zach Davies, Tanner Scott and Alex Wells have represented the Orioles in the Futures Game. Only Bundy and Scott have pitched for them in the majors. Eduardo Rodríguez and Davies were both dealt before reaching the majors and are enjoying successful big league careers elsewhere. Harvey and Wells are on the upswing in the high minors, the former after years of injury troubles.
But Hall views the selections of himself and Grayson Rodriguez this year as a sign of the Orioles' pitching program taking hold.
"It's always exciting to see an organization moving forward, especially the one that you're a part of," Hall said. "We're trying to get back to winning baseball, and seeing all the talent that our farm system has, pitching and position players, is definitely exciting when you're thinking about the future.
“Being able to see that another guy can come in behind me — as far as 2018, last year getting Grayson — and seeing the success he's having, it's definitely exciting to see the future starting to build."