I think we can all agree that the 2022 Orioles season was a pretty wonderful success, right? The O’s defied preseason expectations by posting a winning season, debuted two mega-hyped prospects, and finished just three games out of the third wild card spot.
Considering the club’s gloomy outlook prior to the year, what unfolded in 2022 was more than even the most optimistic Orioles fan could have dreamed of. It’s hard to ask for anything else.
And yet...there’s an alternate universe in which things could have gone even better for the Birds. Instead of debuting two mega-hyped prospects, they could have debuted three. Instead of coming up short of the playoffs, they could have claimed that third wild card spot — and perhaps taken it all the way to the World Series, the way the Phillies did in the NL.
Some or all of that could have happened, if not for one horribly timed injury to Grayson Rodriguez.
The fateful night was June 1 in Norfolk, Rodriguez ‘s 11th start for the Orioles’ Triple-A affiliate. For five innings, Rodriguez was his usual dominant self against the Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp. He worked past a leadoff double by mowing down the next 11 batters of the game, four on strikeouts. He began the sixth with a pair of weak pop flies. And then...disaster. Rodriguez, whose fastball velocity normally sits in the mid-90s, threw a couple that clocked in around 89 mph, swiftly bringing an alarmed Tides coaching staff and trainers to the mound. Rodriguez departed the game to undergo further tests, with optimists hoping it was a minor case of dehydration on a hot evening at Harbor Park.
Those hopes were soon dashed when the diagnosis came in a day later. Rodriguez had a Grade 2 lat strain, an injury that would sideline him for months. On the doorstep of the major leagues, Rodriguez’s arrival was put on hold indefinitely. “The timing stinks,” noted O’s general manager Mike Elias. You can say that again.
There’s every reason to believe that Rodriguez had been on the brink of a big league call-up. The O’s decision makers had been steadily ramping up Rodriguez’s workload as the season progressed after capping him around the 75-pitch mark for the first month of the year. On May 17, he threw a season-high 87 pitches and racked up 11 strikeouts in 5.1 scoreless innings. In his next outing, he worked six full innings for the first time, adding nine more Ks to his ledger. May 27 brought his most sensational outing yet: seven shutout innings, 10 strikeouts, no walks, and just two hits.
Through 10 starts, the 22-year-old right-hander was more than living up to the buzz that made him MLB Pipeline’s top pitching prospect in baseball. Rodriguez had a 2.32 ERA, and opponents were batting just .175 with a .503 OPS against him. Oh yes — and he was averaging a ridiculous 13.6 strikeouts per nine innings, all of this in a league in which he was five years younger than the average player.
Meanwhile, in Baltimore, the Orioles’ rotation was in flux. John Means was lost for the season. Spenser Watkins had filled in, not particularly effectively, before landing on the injured list. Bruce Zimmermann was starting to fall apart. The O’s needed help, and as the calendar flipped to June, Rodriguez was making a stellar case to join the Orioles, less than two weeks after his former battery mate Adley Rutschman had made his ballyhooed debut.
Which brings us back to June 1, in what should have been just a tune-up outing for Grayson. Had he made it through the evening without incident, we very well may have seen him in Baltimore for his next start. Instead, the lat strain ruined his — and the Orioles’ — best laid plans.
After what seemed like an interminable three months of rest, Rodriguez finally returned to affiliated action exactly three months after his injury, beginning a rehab stint Sept. 1 that saw him work his way through High-A Aberdeen (one start) and Double-A Bowie (two starts) before rejoining the Norfolk rotation for three more outings. Shaking off the rust, Rodriguez pitched decently but not brilliantly. His command was spotty in his return, as he tied his season high with three walks apiece in his final two starts. The O’s opted not to bring him to the majors after the minor league season ended, probably figuring there was no reason to push him.
But to quote former O’s manager Buck Showalter — who was in his final season as Birds skipper when the club selected Rodriguez with the 11th overall pick in the 2018 draft — “just because something is delayed doesn’t mean it’s denied.” Rodriguez’s debut didn’t happen this year but, barring disaster, is certain to come in 2023, maybe even in the season’s first week. Elias indicated that the Orioles will give Rodriguez every chance to crack the Opening Day rotation. Assuming he’s back at full health, there’s no reason not to plug him into the pitching staff from day one for what’s expected to be a contending O’s club.
Rodriguez has all the makings of a future ace, following a minor league career in which he’s posted a 2.71 ERA and averaged fewer than one baserunner per inning (0.949 WHIP), striking out more than four batters for every walk. Former general manager Dan Duquette left his successor, Elias, a heck of a prize in Rodriguez, the final first-round pick of his seven-year O’s tenure. The 6-foot-5 righty out of Central Heights HS in Texas has dominated since the very beginning of his pro career, but took a few more strides forward under the new administration, tightening up his secondary offerings to refine “a legitimate four-pitch mix,” per Pipeline. Rodriguez’s bread and butter is a breakneck heater that has touched triple digits, but he can tie hitters into knots with a changeup, slider, or curveball at any time.
Rodriguez’s MLB debut, whenever it happens, will be a must-watch event for Orioles fans, in much the same way Rutschman’s and Gunnar Henderson’s were. And not just his debut. Every Grayson Rodriguez start has the potential to be a magical one, if he can live up to his near-limitless talent and his elite professional performance to date — and if he can avoid a recurrence of that pesky lat strain.
Soon enough, we’ll get to enjoy the Grayson Rodriguez Experience every five days in Baltimore, and there’s little doubt it will have been worth the wait.
Previously: Fallen prospect roundup, Jean Pinto, Darell Hernaiz, Drew Rom, international prospect roundup, César Prieto, Mike Baumann, Hudson Haskin, John Rhodes and Reed Trimble, Cade Povich and Chayce McDermott, Joey Ortiz, Terrin Vavra, injured pitcher roundup, Coby Mayo, Kyle Stowers, Heston Kjerstad, Jordan Westburg, 2022 draftee roundup, Connor Norby, DL Hall, Colton Cowser
Tomorrow: Gunnar Henderson