SARASOTA, Fla. — On a team of second-chancers whose individual steps forward collectively fueled the Orioles’ winning record in 2022, Spenser Watkins’ contributions often went overlooked.
That was the case again in Thursday’s spring training game against the Detroit Tigers. After prized prospect Grayson Rodriguez dazzled in a two-inning start in Lakeland, Florida, Watkins outpitched him, retiring all six batters he faced in an outing against his former organization. Both right-handers are among the dozen pitchers Baltimore is considering for its rotation, and Watkins has often been left outside of forecasts to make the final five. But the 30-year-old showed Thursday the value he can bring to the Orioles’ pitching staff.
“I’ve been talking with a lot of people how cool it’s been,” Watkins said earlier in the spring of the competition. “This is my third camp with the O’s, and the transition from the first year where it was like, ‘OK, everybody’s just fighting to get a spot,’ to now, there’s some guys that have spots and there’s spots for taking, and there’s a ton of competition. We have a great group of guys here, and we feed off each other really well.”
He seemed to do exactly that following Rodriguez on Thursday. After the 23-year-old approached 99 mph with his fastball and erased the only base runner he allowed with a double play, Watkins used a pitch mix built around a low-90s fastball and upper-80s cutter for two perfect innings. In the latter, he struck out the first two batters before breaking Javier Báez’s bat on a soft lineout to left.
Watkins was Detroit’s 30th-round draftee in 2014, having never reached the majors when he was released in July 2020 amid the coronavirus pandemic. Months passed without contact from another organization, prompting thoughts of “nobody else wants me.” When the Orioles, at last, offered him a minor league deal in early 2021, Watkins was preparing to coach the freshman team at a Phoenix-area high school.
His own freshman year in the majors did not go well. Watkins opened his career with a scoreless relief outing before three straight starts in which he allowed exactly one run, then gave up at least four in each of his next eight outings. He ended his rookie season with an 8.07 ERA.
He re-signed with Baltimore as a minor league free agent in the offseason, and although he didn’t officially make the Orioles’ opening day roster, he started their fifth game of the year, pitching out of that spot until a line drive to the forearm sent him to the injured list with a 6.00 ERA. After rejoining the rotation a month later, he rattled off a 2.47 ERA in his next nine starts, dropping his mark for the season below 4.00. He credited an improved mental approach, using the mantra of “one pitch, one inning” to keep games from speeding up on him.
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“That first year, I just learned so much after the failure, the ups and downs, things like that,” Watkins said. “Just learning how to pitch in the big leagues, really, whatever that entails. It’s not necessarily that you’re gonna have an 100 mile-an-hour fastball, you’re gonna have the best [stuff] that day, but it’s more so like, ‘OK, how can you compete that day with what you do have?’”
He ended the season with a 4.70 ERA, often the odd man out in Baltimore’s rotation as the season ended. When the Orioles called up DL Hall, their top pitching prospect behind Rodriguez, to make his major league debut, they started him on Watkins’ turn, having him pitch in relief. After Tyler Wells recovered from an oblique strain, Watkins was optioned to create space in the rotation. But he remained on the Orioles’ 40-man roster all offseason, only a couple of years removed from being released by the only organization he had known.
“It still is surreal to me, but it kind of gave me a little more [motivation] this offseason,” Watkins said. “Like a, ‘Wow, OK, all those years that I’ve grinded and I dealt with being moved around a bunch [between levels], finally to this point, I’m getting some recognition and my value is starting to show.’ For someone like the O’s to take notice in that and think enough of me to keep me on the roster has been fantastic. Wherever the direction goes, it goes, but I’m extremely thankful for this organization.”
He again trained this offseason with Driveline, a renowned pitching and hitting lab, at its Phoenix facility. He focused on being more consistent with his mechanics by getting his legs more involved while making a third attempt at adding a changeup to his repertoire. This version, unlike the others, “feels good in my hand,” Watkins said, with slow-motion video showing his middle finger needs to be on the inside part of the ball to create proper spin. In combination with his work with Orioles pitching coaches Chris Holt and Darren Holmes, Watkins said he didn’t “even recognize myself when I looked at my old mechanics” from before he joined the organization.
“Just maximizing who I am as a pitcher and allowing me … to really grow and understand who I am and how I can succeed,” Watkins said.
Executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias has said he would like to see Rodriguez in the Orioles’ season-opening rotation and that offseason acquisitions Kyle Gibson and Cole Irvin likely have secured spots, as well. That leaves two openings for Watkins and a group of four other pitchers — Wells, Dean Kremer, Kyle Bradish and Austin Voth — who also made between 17 and 23 starts for the 2022 team. Others are also in the mix, though manager Brandon Hyde told reporters Hall will have trouble building up enough to make the rotation out of camp after a back injury late in the offseason.
That could create another opportunity for Watkins, who has already taken advantage of those he’s gotten in Baltimore. Maybe this time he won’t be overlooked.