A day after top prospect Adley Rutschman made his Orioles debut, Executive Vice President and general manager Mike Elias offered a reminder that more are coming as the organization continues to trend upward in the next stage of its rebuild.
“We’ve got blue skies ahead of us,” Elias said Sunday morning in the Orioles’ dugout at Camden Yards. “We’ve got a No. 1 farm system. We’ve got a young, talented major league team. We have payroll flexibility. We’re past the pandemic, and there’s gonna be more and more people coming into the ballpark. We’re gonna be renovating this place. There’s a lot to look forward to.”
Perhaps chief among those is the arrival of more prospects around Rutschman. The Orioles could’ve possibly had back-to-back debut days at Oriole Park, but No. 2 prospect Grayson Rodriguez instead started for Triple-A Norfolk on Sunday. He threw 87 pitches during his prior start — the same eighth-ranked prospect Kyle Bradish reached in his last Triple-A outing before being promoted — but Elias was clear the Orioles feel there remain steps to be taken for the game’s top pitching prospect.
Rodriguez, 22, posted a 2.65 ERA with a 38.5% strikeout rate in his first eight Triple-A starts, pitching beyond the fifth inning three times after doing so only once in 2021. The Orioles want to be able to let him loose in the majors, Elias said, while also building up his innings this year so that he can pitch without restrictions in 2023.
“When he comes up here, we want him to be able to go and pitch and help the team and not handcuff the team, and we’ve got to be super careful with the workload for this kid just because of who he is,” Elias said. “He’s getting close to a full build-up. We just want to see him keep going on the track that I feel like he’s been on. The last two or three outings have been markedly better in terms of stuff, location, delivery. I think his last outing was kind of vintage Grayson, which was exciting. And I’m watching each one of his starts very carefully, and I know we are as an organization.
“Grayson is one of the most important pitchers in baseball, and we want to make sure that we’re handling that responsibly.”
He did not offer specifics on what they feel Rodriguez must do to reach the majors, which has been standard. Only after Rutschman reached the majors did Elias say that the three straight games he caught for Norfolk from Tuesday to Thursday were what showed the organization he was ready after missing time with a strained strained tricep.
The timing allowed Rutschman to play his first game at home, where a raucous but modest crowd cheered his every move. Orioles manager Brandon Hyde compared the atmosphere to what he saw as a coach with the Chicago Cubs’ fan base when they first promoted eventual Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player Kris Bryant.
“Once that box was checked, we figured it was a live ball,” Elias said. “And then looking at the schedule, Yankee Stadium didn’t seem like a great option for a debut. And it just seemed he was ready, and this weekend made the most sense. And now, he will get the experience of going to play in Yankee Stadium and Fenway Park, which is cool for him because that’s life in the [American League] East and then come back for a nice homestand around Memorial Day, so I think the timing worked out as well as it could have given that we were constrained by his injury.”
The Orioles are also managing an injury comeback with No. 3 prospect DL Hall, a left-hander who is routinely showing upper-90s velocity in his return from a stress fracture in his pitching elbow. In three starts since joining Norfolk, Hall, 23, has a 6.52 ERA but has struck out more than 30% of the batters he’s faced.
“He’s got stuff that I think Triple-A is going to be speaking to him about, meaning the hitters there, and you saw the line last time, some walks,” Elias said. “His stuff is unbelievable. He’s been healthy. He looks great. He’s throwing harder than ever, but he’s doing it with ease and efficiency.
“He looks excellent. I think that the mixture of good and bad that we’ve seen in his performance so far in Norfolk is exactly what I would have expected, and I think that he’s ahead of sort of schedule and expectations in terms of where he came into the year, and this is all good stuff, healthy stuff that we’re seeing from him.”
Elias also provided updates on a trio of prospects all recovering with hamstring strains.
Outfielder Heston Kjerstad hasn’t played a professional game since the Orioles drafted him second overall in 2020. He was diagnosed with myocarditis (heart inflammation) shortly after he signed with Baltimore then suffered a left hamstring strain this spring as he finally appeared to be at full health.
Elias said Kjerstad, 23, will begin playing in extended spring training games “as soon as next week,” with the possibility he plays in Florida Complex League games when those begin next month.
“Our goal is to get him to [Low-A] Delmarva this summer,” Elias said. “I don’t know exactly when that’s gonna happen. But he’s doing well with the hamstring and the other stuff that he’s been through.
Last week, outfielder Yusniel Diaz suffered a recurrence of a right hamstring strain that cost about three weeks earlier this season. When on the field, he’s performed well for Norfolk, posting a .934 OPS. Once ranked the Orioles’ top prospect after coming to Baltimore in the Manny Machado trade with the Los Angeles Dodgers, Diaz, 25, has missed time with lower body injuries each of the past three minor league seasons.
“I don’t know what to say other than that it stinks,” Elias said. “It’s tough news. Once you have those, sometimes they get more susceptible to recurrence, and he’s a twitchy, explosive guy, and this stuff happens, but it’s really putting a hamper on his ability to get on a roll and make himself relevant for the major league team. I’m not ruling anything out, but this is a big setback timewise, and we’ll just keep working with him and get him back out there, and hopefully, maybe in the second half, he can get up here because his time’s overdue.”
Triple-A second baseman-outfielder Terrin Vavra, 25, is fully recovered from his right hamstring strain and is in a build-up period, Elias said. He’ll go to a lower affiliate for a rehab assignment before rejoining Norfolk.