SARASOTA, Fla. — Grayson Rodriguez’s much-anticipated arrival to the major leagues will have to wait, as Orioles manager Brandon Hyde informed the top pitching prospect Monday morning that he would instead begin the season in Triple-A.
Rodriguez entered spring training competing for a spot in the rotation, with Orioles executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias repeatedly saying in the offseason that he wanted the 6-foot-5 right-hander to break camp in the major leagues.
But the Orioles instead chose to send Rodriguez, a consensus top-10 prospect in baseball, back to the minors after the 23-year-old struggled this spring.
“Any time you have those type of conversations, it’s not easy,” Hyde said. “I think, like all of our guys, he handled it like a pro, and we’ll move on from there.”
In 15 1/3 spring training innings, Rodriguez allowed 17 hits and 12 earned runs while walking seven and striking out 19. He still displayed the pitch arsenal — the hard fastball and devastating changeup — that has made him one of the top young arms in the sport, with veteran catcher James McCann saying earlier this month that his “elite” stuff is major league ready.
However, in each of his final three starts, Rodriguez got into trouble and unraveled when facing the lineup a second time, giving up a crooked number in an inning each time. He gave up four runs without getting an out in the fourth inning on March 12. He also surrendered five runs (two earned) while getting just two outs in the fourth of his next start and then allowed five runs in the third of his final spring start.
“He just didn’t have a good start this spring and didn’t get out of the fourth inning,” Elias said. “I thought he wasn’t able to establish his slider as well as we’ve seen him do in the past, command’s not as good as we’ve seen him do in the past. And these other guys stayed healthy and pitched better and they all have major league track records. They’ve earned these spots, too.”
One potential factor for the club is Rodriguez’s service time. If he debuts before April 14 and remains in the majors for the remainder of the year, Rodriguez would hit free agency after the 2028 season. But if the Orioles wait until April 14 or later to call him up, Rodriguez would not become a free agent until after the 2029 campaign — unless he finishes first or second in the American League Rookie of the Year voting.
The news of Rodriguez being sent down to Triple-A comes one day after the team did the same with DL Hall, who could also be impacted by service time depending on when he’s called up this season. The Orioles are committed to ramping up Hall, the club’s No. 2 pitching prospect who had a slow start to camp with a lower back injury, as a starter and decided that doing so in Triple-A would be easier than in the big league bullpen.
“No,” Elias said when asked if service time is a factor for the two pitching prospects. “I really get frustrated with that topic, too. We have five starting pitchers here, with all of them [having] established major league success as starting pitchers. They had good camps, better camps, than these guys [Hall and Rodriguez]. It really wasn’t tough to decide on that last rotation spot through the lens of: Who do we want to help us win these games?”
It looked likely last season that Rodriguez was going to receive his call-up to the majors in the second half of the year, as the organization did with outfielder Kyle Stowers and infielder Gunnar Henderson. But he suffered a lat muscle strain while pitching for Norfolk on June 1 and missed three months.
Rodriguez now heads back to Norfolk to pitch in Triple-A — a level he seemingly mastered last year with a 2.20 ERA and 97 strikeouts in 69 2/3 innings. In his minor league career, Rodriguez has averaged an eye-popping 12.9 strikeouts and just 5.5 hits per nine innings.
Elias said his goal for Rodriguez in Triple-A is to “get back on track.”
“I think he needs to look like himself and get some longer outings,” Elias said. “[He] was not ready to jump into a major league rotation, not getting past the fourth inning. We know what he’s capable of. I wasn’t expecting this. We were hoping that he would show up as a better version of himself than I think we got here. We just had five other guys that were more ready at this point in time. I know what he’s capable of, I think he’s going to show it again very quickly. As soon as he does, we’re going to be all over it.”
The decision means that Tyler Wells, who Elias confirmed beat out Rodriguez, will be in the rotation after spending the first half of 2022 as one of the Orioles’ best starters. The club’s other starting pitchers are opening day starter Kyle Gibson, No. 2 starter Dean Kremer, left-hander Cole Irvin and right-hander Kyle Bradish.
“I do not want to relegate [Rodriguez] to a bullpen role given the potential that he has and what we’re going to need from him in the near future as well as the long-term future,” Elias said. “This was the right move for the team in my estimation, but had any one of those five not surpassed him, I think he was the next guy in there.”
The Orioles also reassigned infield prospect Jordan Westburg, who starred throughout camp with an .878 OPS, to Triple-A.
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Others to be reassigned Monday afternoon include: first basemen Josh Lester and Ryan O’Hearn, relievers Eduard Bazardo and Reed Garrett, catcher Maverick Handley and outfielder Daz Cameron. First baseman Franchy Cordero, one of the Orioles’ best hitters this spring with a .413 batting average, and outfielder Nomar Mazara, who has seven years of big league experience, did not make the opening day roster and were granted their releases rather than report to Triple-A.
The Orioles also acquired left-handed relief pitcher Daniel Coulombe from the Minnesota Twins for cash considerations, the team announced Monday night. Coulombe, 33, has pitched in eight major league seasons with the Twins, Oakland Athletics and Los Angeles Dodgers with a 3.92 ERA in 192 innings. Coulombe, who has not yet reported to the team, adds another lefty to a bullpen mix already with Cionel Pérez and Keegan Akin.
After the cuts, the Orioles had 31 players on their roster, with Thursday’s noon deadline to cut down to 26 looming. Aside from Rodriguez, the way the Orioles’ brass trimmed the roster amid competitions for the starting rotation, the last few seats in the bullpen and a couple spots on the bench fell in line with expectations, although a few decisions still remain.
Two players on the roster — left-handed starting pitcher John Means and right-handed reliever Dillon Tate — will open the year on the injured list. Means is recovering from Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery and will be out until the summer, while Tate has a forearm strain and could return as early as mid-May, Hyde said Saturday.
Two other players — right-handed reliever Mychal Givens and catcher James McCann — will likely open the season on the IL. Givens hasn’t pitched since March 16 with a sore left knee, with his most recent live bullpen Sunday ending poorly, and Elias said he’s “hopeful” Givens’ stint on the IL will be short. McCann, meanwhile, hasn’t played since March 20 because of a sore left oblique.
Catcher Anthony Bemboom is still on the roster in case McCann can’t make the trip to Boston, and the last couple of bullpen spots — likely between Mike Baumann, Joey Krehbiel and Logan Gillaspie — are still up in the air.