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Know Your Orioles 40-man: Spenser Watkins

Spenser Watkins’s perseverance was rewarded last year, and even though he pitched poorly, he’s back again.

Milwaukee Brewers v Baltimore Orioles
Spenser Watkins is back with the Orioles this year.
Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

Over the offseason, Camden Chat published an article about each member of the Orioles 40-man roster. During the 2022 season, we will update on new arrivals after they make it to the roster.

When he arrived: Outrighted from 40-man 11/4/21, returned as minor league signing 11/11/21, contract selected 4/11/22

Who left: Isaac Mattson outrighted 4/8/22

There are few stories in baseball as pleasant as when a long-time minor league grinder finally gets his chance in the big leagues after persevering through adversity and maybe even almost walking away from the game entirely. When Spenser Watkins made it onto the 2021 Orioles, he was one of these guys. The former 30th round pick had never made it. He was on the verge of taking a job as a high school JV coach.

Then, the Orioles dropped in. Their rotation was terrible. Over seven years after he was drafted, Watkins finally got the call. At age 28, he got to make his debut. I always think about what it has to be like for these guys to have toiled in the minors with one goal that must feel so unlikely to a non-prospect. Watkins, according to Baseball Reference, was the 22,443rd major leaguer in history. He is in elite company for ever having made it.

The 2021 Orioles were minting new major leaguers like it was going out of style. There were one-and-dones like Jay Flaa and Mickey Jannis. Others like Dusten Knight had rough debuts (two runs in one inning) and never really recovered. Watkins at least had a few weeks of magic, tossing a scoreless inning in his July 2 debut, then going on to make three solid starts. After four appearances, he had a 1.65 ERA.

Reality set in. By season’s end, Watkins had an 8.07 ERA. He did not turn out to be a diamond in the rough. He was just part of the rough, and only a 110-loss team with a terrible revolving door pitching staff would have needed him. No one can take away from him that he’s a major leaguer, and he even got more than just a cup of coffee, but that’s about all he gets.

Except it’s not all he gets. Though the Orioles outrighted Watkins off of the 40-man roster following last season, they signed him to a minor league contract a week later to stash him as part of their depth for 2022.

Less than a week into the season, here he is again. Dean Kremer’s mid-warmup oblique injury and injured list trip injected some chaos into the pitching picture. Mike Elias, it seems, did not want to turn to a yet-to-debut, still-building-up-innings prospect like Kyle Bradish, nor second-chance prospect Alexander Wells. Zac Lowther started for Norfolk on Sunday, the same day Kremer was hurt, removing him as a choice for that Tuesday start. Grayson Rodriguez is only making an MLB debut this April in your dreams.

Nothing good is said about the Orioles roster construction plan in the offseason by their needing Watkins and his 8.07 ERA within days of the season beginning. Even considering the 99-day lockout, they had opportunities to make different, better minor league signings. The Orioles are, if nothing else, a great pick for any pitcher hoping to get a long-hoped-for big league chance. They proved this last year! Then when an April 10 injury rolled around, the guy filling the spot was... Watkins.

In fairness to the Orioles, perhaps they were intrigued by seeing a little bit different version of Watkins. He did offseason training with Driveline Baseball. The facility has been behind a number of player transformations in recent seasons with data-driven development training that has helped pitchers unlock more velocity, more movement, or both. Not every player’s transformation story starts there and not every Driveline story is a smashing success, but they’ve built a nice track record.

Did that magic work on Watkins? Keeping in mind we’re dealing with only the tiniest of sample sizes, three innings and 16 batters faced in one outing, Statcast data shows Watkins has added about 2mph to his fastball and may have added movement to his curveball and cutter. The result for one game was four runs allowed in three innings, though only one run was earned.

With Kremer remaining on the injured list and now John Means potentially having to join him there, things seem to be aligned for Watkins to get a few more chances to show whether the Driveline program was able to turn him into a somewhat acceptable MLB pitcher. If Watkins once again follows Bruce Zimmermann, he’ll next make a start on Monday in Oakland. The Orioles have only announced starting pitchers through this weekend’s Yankees series.

Watkins being able to stick in the big league rotation without being horrible would also be a pleasant story, especially for Orioles fans who’ve been having to watch terrible pitching staffs for several years running. I won’t be holding my breath, but I’ll be rooting for him anyway.

Still to come: Nobody! The next article in this series will come after a 40-man addition.