Last Saturday finally gave Birdland a moment that Orioles fans have been waiting for all season: the debut of DL Hall. It was a joyous, exciting moment filled with hope that further proved—as these Orioles have shown us all season—the future is truly now. Then the game started. After seeing the often-overpowering lefty be overpowered himself, that optimism quickly turned to frustration and disappointment.
It’s worth starting the greater discussion around the latest promotion of an elite prospect with a caveat. DL’s debut did not come at the best time for the player. Hall’s last five minor league starts prior to his promotion were one of the worst stretches of his minor league career. Over 14.2 innings, Hall was roughed up to the tune of an 11.65 ERA, with five HRs allowed and 11 walks. That the Orioles decided to move him up at this point was puzzling in its own right, though perhaps the front office felt like it could jump-start him by putting him against better competition.
It is also fair to say that Brandon Hyde and his staff did not put MLB’s 61st best prospect in the best possible decision to succeed. Having his debut come on the road was not ideal. Additionally, having his debut with Robinson Chirinos behind the plate, and not Adley Rutschman, certainly started him off at a slight disadvantage. After all, Rutschman is the fifth-best catcher in all of baseball in terms of strike rate, while Chirinos is dead last. Then there’s the question of whether the rookie would have been better off with someone other than Anthony Santander in LF—and he certainly didn’t help his pitcher out on this double that ignited a three-run inning for the Rays.
The larger context here is that, as much as so many Orioles fans clamor for the call-ups of GUNNAR HENDERSON, Jordan Westburg, Kyle Stowers and others, perhaps throwing prospects into the middle of a postseason race is not best for their long-term development.
The disastrous debut of DL Hall provided Birdland with a dose of reality when it comes to the promotion of these prospects. Not every member of baseball’s best minor league system is going to make the instant impact of an Adley Rutschman.
Let’s consider the circumstances surrounding the debuts of the Orioles rookies that have succeeded. Now-closer Felix Bautista started the season as just another arrow in the quiver of an ever-evolving Orioles bullpen. This role provided him with an opportunity relatively free of pressure and allowed Bautista to sharpen himself into the weapon he is now.
Adley arrived in Baltimore to a team eight games below .500, seemingly going nowhere. In this environment, the face of the Orioles’ present and future was allowed to struggle at first, with no fear that he’d be benched or demoted. That allowed Rutschman to find his footing and reach the point where he’s hitting .292 with a .905 OPS over his last 30 games.
Even recent promotion Terrin Vavra has been eased into his role with the Orioles and thus remained free of too much pressure. Since being called up on July 29, Vavra has started 10 of 16 games, featuring in another five off the bench. In this part-time role, the Orioles’ current #14 prospect has shone, hitting .294 with a .381 OBP, while providing the O’s with a consistent bat against right-handed pitching.
It’s hard to imagine that HENDERSON, Westburg, Stowers or any other new promotions would enjoy the same pressure-free environment upon arriving in Baltimore. They would be seen as mercenaries of sorts, brought in for the sole purpose of strengthening a team that was weakened at the trade deadline—to be that missing piece(s) that propels the O’s into October.
It’s also worth questioning whether these prospects—particularly HENDERSON and Westburg—would actually provide the Birds with a boost over the players currently in the lineup. Shortstop Jorge Mateo is hitting .333 with a .975 OPS since the All-Star break and is proving to be a player who needs to be in the lineup every day. Despite a bit of a dip in his August numbers, the memory of the scorching hot July Ramon Urias put together means it is hard to see Brandon Hyde & Co. benching him in favor of a rookie—even one as talented as HENDERSON or Westburg.
That leaves the infielders’ most obvious potential path to playing time as a competition with Vavra and Rougned Odor for time at second. Even the most staunch proponents of calling up Norfolk’s star infielders would surely question whether the pressure of a playoff push and inconsistent at-bats is the best formula for their long-term success.
Stowers perhaps has the most compelling argument for an opportunity at the major league level during the last month and a half of 2022. Since the All-Star break, the powerful lefty is hitting .333 and slugging .600 for the Tides. Despite his offensive upside, Stowers is clearly a level or two behind Austin Hays, Ryan McKenna and Brett Phillips as a defender. The Stanford product has defied conventional wisdom in hitting .333 against lefties this season at AAA. However, after going 1-7 in his previous big league stint, the question remains as to whether he would be able to carry his recent minor league form into the majors while playing in high-pressure games every night.
The promotion of DL Hall was, one could argue, a move made out of necessity. As much as the likes of Austin Voth, Spenser Watkins, Kyle Bradish and Dean Kremer have flashed throughout the year, it still feels like starting pitching is far and away the weakest link in the chain that tethers these Orioles to any hope of a playoff appearance. Had Hall succeeded in his debut, that link would have been meaningfully strengthened—but he didn’t succeed.
No other move, whether for HENDERSON, Stowers, Westburg or anyone else, would be made because of such a necessity. The players already on the roster are good enough to keep the Orioles in playoff contention to the very end. Any move to double down on the potential of this season can possibly solidify that contender status. It also can put a dent in the development of the players that will form the backbone of this franchise for the next decade. All of Birdland wants to see these young studs become true MLB stars. However, rushing their arrival to the big leagues—as the Birds did with DL Hall—seems more likely to delay that stardom rather than further it.