SAN DIEGO — As their teammates packed up their lockers after the Orioles’ regular-season-finale, Kyle Stowers yelled out to Terrin Vavra.
“T-Man, homer over the fence?” Stowers said excitedly.
“Over the real fence,” Vavra replied.
In the opening game of Baltimore’s season-ending doubleheader against the Toronto Blue Jays, Vavra slugged his first career home run, a game-winning three-run shot, and he and Stowers shared a laugh about it afterward. Both rookies were productive for Baltimore in limited opportunities, but there are questions about how extended those will become in 2023.
Although the Orioles have internal options in Vavra and Stowers, the club is in the market for left-handed hitters at their respective positions of second base and corner outfield, executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias said Monday at the winter meetings, and the club has already added several lefty bats as depth through waiver claims and minor league deals. Although there are free agents and potential trade candidates who might represent upgrades over either young player, both Stowers and Vavra ended 2022 believing they’ll be better prepared for whatever chances will come their way next season.
The Orioles’ third draft pick in 2019 behind eventual top overall prospects Adley Rutschman and Gunnar Henderson, Stowers shared organizational player of the year honors with Rutschman in 2021, starting his major league career slowly this summer before breaking out. Beginning with a game-tying home run off All-Star closer Liam Hendricks with the Orioles down to their final out Aug. 25, Stowers hit .294 with an .831 OPS over his final 74 plate appearances.
“A big thing for me is consistency,” Stowers said in October. “In my time up here, I’ve shown, in my opinion, spots where I’ve been really good, and then there’s been spots where I haven’t been good. So I think, what I did from Double-A to Triple-A last year to this year, how can I do that next year in the big leagues?
“I think I made a lot of improvements in the minor leagues from last year to this year and brought a level of consistency and a higher floor in my performances in Triple-A, and I think that’s the same thing I need to do here is just let not let things snowball and build off from what I’ve learned.”
Vavra likewise closed strong. Part of the package the Orioles received from the Colorado Rockies for reliever Mychal Givens at the 2020 trade deadline, the 25-year-old performed well with more regular playing time. After spending four straight early September games on the bench, Vavra hit .300/.378/.400 with as many walks as strikeouts across 45 plate appearances to end the season.
While Rutschman and Henderson were both promoted directly into starting roles, the other half of their quartet of close friends had to adjust after being in the lineup most games with Triple-A Norfolk.
“That’s a really challenging thing that I wasn’t necessarily used to, especially at this level,” Vavra said at the end of the season. “Not knowing if you’re gonna play three days from now, next inning, it can happen at any point. Just always be ready and take each at-bat, each moment, each opportunity for what it is and try to make the most of it. I think that’s something that a lot of us younger guys haven’t had the experience of doing in the minor leagues. We’ve kind of seen our name in the lineup every day, and that was something that was new to us. I think it was good for us to learn how to compete in that in that spot, and I think that’s something that will help us down the road.”
Although he deployed them in limited fashion, Orioles manager Brandon Hyde said both players made an impression on him. He praised Vavra’s strike-zone discipline — Rutschman and Henderson were the only Orioles with both a lower chase rate and higher walk rate than Vavra — at the end of the season. On Tuesday at the winter meetings, Hyde noted Stowers’ potential for “huge power” and said he will “have an opportunity to win a major league job” in spring training, but that assertion was based on Baltimore’s current roster, which figures to change over the next two months.
In explaining his usage of Vavra and Stowers during the season’s closing months, Hyde often cited his focus on winning games amid a playoff race, saying he was going to play those he believed gave the Orioles the best opportunity for that. He repeated that concept Tuesday in explaining how Baltimore might blend its waves of young talent with any potential veteran additions.
“It’s pretty much who can help us win,” Hyde said. “That’s the bottom line right now. We’re in to win right now. I think the attitude’s changed a little bit from the past of giving a lot of guys opportunities because we’re trying to see who can stick in the big leagues. Well, now, it’s about winning and about doing, honestly, what we did from June on, win a ton of series, beat some good clubs.
“You want to give young players opportunity, but at the same time, we’re not going to sacrifice our team’s wins and losses because of that.”
Elias echoed that stance, saying minor league signees such as Nomar Mazara and Franchy Cordero — both also left-handed hitters — will compete with Stowers, Vavra and other inexperienced players for jobs in spring training.
“I think that we want them to still have the opportunities,” Elias said. “We want them to have the competition. I think that we don’t want to put ourselves in a position of relying on players that spent most of the year in the minor leagues fully, and knowing that we might have some ups and downs from that group, we want to have some depth in the organization or some options in case they don’t make the team out of camp. But they’re going to get every opportunity to, but so will a guy like Nomar Mazara, Franchy Cordero. We just want as much competition as possible.”
Any offseason improvements Stowers and Vavra make to their game would also serve to boost their chances for playing time in 2023. Stowers was mum on specific mechanical and conditioning adjustments he would seek this offseason but said he learned this year that he plays his best when he trusts in his ability. Vavra entered 2022 seeking a healthy campaign and a reduction in strikeouts and ended the year generally pleased with his level of accomplishment. Now, he would like to tap into the power he displayed on the final day of the season more frequently.
“I know I’m capable of doing that, but I’d like to make that a priority, try to hit the ball harder and farther, set the guys up behind me in the order even better,” Vavra said. “I think it’s there.”
It’s unclear whether the same will be true of a role for him on the 2023 Orioles, but both he and Stowers are intent on earning them for a team expected to contend for a postseason spot after narrowly missing out last season.
“It’d be easy for us to assume, ‘OK, we were close to making the playoffs this year, so we’re going to make it next year,’” Stowers said. “I truly believe we have the talent, the camaraderie in the clubhouse and the group to do it. I think we just need to learn from what we have gone through this year. I know I need to make a lot of improvements myself, and hopefully, that leads us getting to the next step next year.”