SARASOTA, Fla. — For the first time since the Orioles’ grueling rebuild began, the vibes entering a season were high.
That balloon — one that grew ever-larger with talk about the end of the rebuild and postseason aspirations — was significantly deflated Monday afternoon when the team announced that prized pitching prospect Grayson Rodriguez would not make the opening day roster.
The six weeks of spring training leading up to the controversial decision were drama-free, but the choice to start Rodriguez, a consensus top-10 prospect, in Triple-A ended that streak. It also reinvigorated the belief from a portion of the fan base that, despite the offseason declarations about the rebuild and playoffs, the Orioles are still more focused on the long-term future than they are on winning this year.
Making matters worse, two other major league teams — the New York Yankees and St. Louis Cardinals — had similar situations with their top prospects, and they both chose a path different from the Orioles’.
The Yankees are having shortstop Anthony Volpe, ranked the 14th-best overall prospect by Baseball America, open the year in the major leagues. The Cardinals are bringing up outfielder Jordan Walker, ranked two spots ahead of Rodriguez at No. 4. Volpe, 21, has fewer than 100 at-bats at Triple-A, while Walker, 20, hasn’t played above Double-A.
Why didn’t the Orioles make the same decision with Rodriguez as the Yankees did with Volpe and the Cardinals with Walker?
Well, for starters, Volpe and Walker performed well this spring; Rodriguez didn’t. That’s an important caveat to remember, although the sample sizes during spring training are unreliable. Volpe impressed with a 1.064 OPS, but that came in just 60 plate appearances. Walker had a .816 OPS in 65 plate appearances.
Rodriguez, meanwhile, posted a 7.04 ERA with 12 earned runs allowed in 15 1/3 spring innings, failing to record more than 12 outs in any of his last few starts. He struggled the second time through the order, had spurts with poor command and had one blowup inning in each of his final three starts.
For Mike Elias, the decision to send Rodriguez down was more about the way Rodriguez looked — not like his usual self, the club’s executive vice president and general manager noted — than his statistics. That’s why Tyler Wells got the nod over Rodriguez for the fifth rotation spot, joining Kyle Gibson, Dean Kremer, Cole Irvin and Kyle Bradish.
“We have a lot of stuff we look at, we have a lot of data, we have a lot of information,” Elias said. “Command and establishing pitches and getting through innings. The subjective part of it is big, too. I think with all of those things we prefer the five other starters to start the season.”
Still, Rodriguez’s spring wasn’t all bad. He had three terrible innings, but he also pitched 10 superb frames. In each of his starts, before he sank into quicksand in the third or fourth inning, he was dominant the first time through the order. His 19 strikeouts in 15 1/3 innings were more than any other Orioles starting pitcher had this spring.
After his penultimate spring start, in which Rodriguez gave up a two-run home run in the third and allowed three more runs in the fourth, catcher James McCann gushed about the 23-year-old’s “elite” stuff. Rodriguez has a mid-90s fastball, a drop-off-the-table changeup and a sharp breaking ball.
“It’s above my pay grade to tell you whether or not he’s ready to be in a rotation or not,” McCann said, “but stuff-wise, no doubt he’s ready.”
Comparing Rodriguez’s spring training performance with Volpe’s and Walker’s is worthwhile, but looking at their history in the minors might be more so. Volpe hit just .236 with 30 strikeouts in 22 Triple-A games last season, while Walker had never even proved himself at that level. Rodriguez, meanwhile, has already shown he can dominate Triple-A hitters. In 69 2/3 innings with Norfolk in 2022, Rodriguez posted a 2.20 ERA, a 0.93 WHIP and a staggering 4.62 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
Rodriguez had proved more in his minor league career than Volpe or Walker had, but the Orioles pitcher still entered camp with a high bar to cross to make the opening day roster, despite repeated offseason comments from Elias that he was “pulling for” the right-hander to break camp in the rotation.
Elias said this spring was “not representative” of who the 6-foot-5 flamethrower is as a pitcher. But instead of throwing out the small sample and trusting in Rodriguez’s big league-ready stuff — perhaps already the best on the team — the Orioles’ brass instead chose to send him back to a level he’s already mastered.
That’s what leads some to wonder whether Rodriguez — and, to a much lesser extent, No. 2 pitching prospect DL Hall — are actually falling victim to service-time manipulation by the Orioles.
When asked whether service time would be a factor in his decision-making with Rodriguez and Hall, Elias immediately said “no,” adding that he gets “frustrated with that topic” — one that is often cited by disgruntled fans across the sport when teams choose to keep prospects in the minors.
Whether that’s the truth or not, Elias has to answer that way, or otherwise face a grievance from the MLB Players Association.
But, how can it not play a factor when the benefits to the club — another year of team control of a potentially highly valuable player — are so high?
Elias believes his track record regarding calling up top prospects — Adley Rutschman in May and Gunnar Henderson in late August — proves that the Orioles aren’t engaging in service-time manipulation.
“Adley got hurt last year; that was unfortunate. As soon as he was healthy, we brought him up,” Elias said, referencing the tricep injury Rutschman sustained in spring training that delayed his start to the season.
“Gunnar Henderson, we brought him up. He’s obviously making the team,” Elias added, without noting, of course, that Henderson was kept in the minors long enough in 2022 to maintain his rookie status in 2023, giving the Orioles the chance to earn a first-round draft pick if the infielder wins the American League Rookie of the Year Award.
“When guys are ready and the job is theirs and there’s not better options, we bring them up to the major league team. We’re going to continue to do that.”
None of that changes the situation, though, that it’s possible the Orioles gain an extra year of team control over Rodriguez — a calculus the Yankees and Cardinals, the two franchises with the most World Series titles, chose to ignore with their star prospects.
If Rodriguez debuts on or before April 13 and stays in the majors for the remainder of the year, he would hit free agency after the 2028 season. But if the Orioles wait until after April 13 to call him up, Rodriguez would not become a free agent until after the 2029 campaign — unless he finishes first or second in AL Rookie of the Year voting.
Elias said he expects Rodriguez will be pitching at Camden Yards “ASAP.”
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“I know what he’s capable of. I think he’s going to show it again very quickly,” Elias said. “As soon as he does, we’re going to be all over it.”
It’s just likely, intentionally or not, that when Elias will be “all over it” will come after April 13.
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