With the Orioles entering their series against the Atlanta Braves on a 15-game losing streak, there hasn’t been much good news around the organization of late. But executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias provided some Friday.
Heston Kjerstad, the second overall pick in the 2020 draft, has started working out at the team’s complex in Sarasota, Florida, the latest step in his progression back from myocarditis (heart inflammation). Kjerstad, Baltimore’s No. 6 prospect according to Baseball America, hasn’t participated in many team activities since the Orioles selected him; his previous stint in Sarasota was cut short because of a recurrence of his heart issue, which developed after he was drafted.
“He’s back to work, physically, at our complex, which is great news,” Elias said. “And he’s kind of progressing back into a rehab status of getting back towards baseball activities hopefully soon. That said, as I’ve said all along, this was a very tricky condition and something that, being cardiac-related, we’re exceedingly cautious about and continue to have a cautious mindset towards, so I think we’re just going to take things as they come.”
Elias noted that the proximity of the offseason will allow the Orioles to be as careful with Kjerstad’s progression as they want to be.
“Fingers crossed, [we’ll] hopefully have him for spring training, but we’ll see where this goes,” Elias said. “It’s been a very tough situation for him. He’s doing a great job. Our medical staff has done a great job with him, and it’s obviously been a tough situation for us, so we’ll just keep taking it in stride, but he’s back to work in Florida.”
Elias said he doesn’t expect left-hander DL Hall, the Orioles’ third-ranked prospect behind Adley Rutschman and Grayson Rodriguez, to pitch again this season as he rests and recovers from a stress reaction in his pitching elbow. Hall is among the prospects who need to be added to Baltimore’s 40-man roster this offseason to be protected in the Rule 5 draft.
“Hopefully this is totally behind him by Day One of spring training,” Elias said.
Left-hander Bruce Zimmermann was nearing his return to the Orioles’ rotation when he suffered a right/left ankle sprain while working out with Triple-A Norfolk. Elias said “it’s TBD whether he’s able to come back and pitch again this season. It’s going to be close.”
2021 ninth-round pick Ryan Higgins suffered a dislocated shoulder in Florida Coast League play and will undergo season-ending surgery.
Right-hander Hunter Harvey (right lat strain) will have another rehab outing with Norfolk on Saturday before the Orioles decide whether to activate him, while left-hander Zac Lowther (left shoulder strain) will make rehab starts with High-A Aberdeen and Double-A Bowie before rejoining Norfolk. Right-hander Isaac Mattson was placed on the seven-day injured list with Norfolk for right shoulder soreness.
Orioles ‘planning’ September call-ups
Zimmermann, Harvey, Lowther and Mattson are all on the Orioles’ 40-man roster and thus are candidates to provide some September reinforcements for manager Brandon Hyde if healthy.
Elias said the Orioles are in the early stages of “planning” who their September call-ups could be, with the caveat that rosters expand by only two spots to 28 instead of the previous 40.
“We’ve got players on the 40-man that I think we want to see and that can help us or deserve extended auditions or extended major league experience throughout September,” Elias said.
Pitchers Dean Kremer, Alexander Wells and Dusten Knight have all pitched with Baltimore previously this season, with Mike Baumann — the Orioles’ top pitching prospect behind Rodriguez and Hall — and recent waiver claims Zack Burdi and Chris Ellis not yet getting the chance. On the position player side, Kelvin Gutiérrez and Ryan McKenna could return to Baltimore, while Jahmai Jones, Yusniel Diaz and Rylan Bannon will look to make their Orioles debut.
Bannon in particular has made a strong case of late, entering Friday with eight home runs in his past seven games to turn around what had been a dismal season.
“Rylan Bannon is soaring,” Elias said. “I think he’s had a lot of bad luck this season. We have batted ball data that can paint a picture with that and the stats should be better than what you’ve seen, and now he’s starting to get the results this past week, and that’s something that’s kind of way more on the radar screen than it was a month ago.”
Diaz, who was considered the centerpiece of the trade that sent Manny Machado to the Los Angeles Dodgers that also brought Bannon and Kremer, has largely struggled around injuries, batting .188 with a .556 OPS.
“Well, the injuries certainly haven’t helped, but honestly, it hasn’t really gotten off the ground, even going back to spring training and the [alternate] site,” Elias said. “It just hasn’t been characteristic of what we’ve seen from the past, so it’s been really hard to work with him to get him going offensively because of the injuries, so I think that’s compounded it, and you just can’t really get the momentum going and the work that we’re trying to do with him on the hitting side there, so it hasn’t happen in the success side of the ledger in 2021 so far. And he still has a ton of talent. I’ve always been a fan of his talent, as I’ve said, and we’ve got to keep pushing with him.”
Potential call-ups from off the 40-man roster include top 15 prospects Kyle Bradish and Kevin Smith — pitchers Elias acquired in the respective trades of Dylan Bundy and Miguel Castro — and hard-throwing reliever Felix Bautista.
Davis’ retirement brings ‘resolution’
Throughout his tenure, Elias has frequently spoken about his hope to get some productivity out of Chris Davis and thus some value out of the latter portion of his seven-year, $161 million contract. Davis’ retirement last week assured neither will occur, but Elias said the circumstances are best for all involved.
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“I think that having a resolution to the situation is good,” Elias said. “It’s good for him. It’s good for us. He had a significant injury, on top of the struggles that he’s had since being on this most recent contract, and it hasn’t gone well, and it’s been something that has weighed on everybody and hung over the roster, and I’m glad that we came to a conclusion that made sense for everybody and allows us to move forward, keep building for the future, and allows him to not have to address a very difficult rehab in the situation that he was at and kind of be able to retire on his terms, so I think it’s a very positive thing for this organization that that is resolved.”