Throughout the offseason and for most of spring training, one of the most exciting ideas there was for me as an Orioles fan was that pitching prospect Grayson Rodriguez was going to be unleashed in the big league rotation to begin the season. Reality has turned out to be less fun. The Baltimore Banner’s Andy Kostka reported late Monday morning that the team does not plan to have Rodriguez on the roster to begin the season. Manager Brandon Hyde confirmed it after the final spring training game on Monday afternoon.
This is a bummer. That’s all there is to it. There’s still plenty to be happy about with the Orioles heading into Opening Day on Thursday, but the delay in getting to see Rodriguez definitely puts a damper on that at least a little bit. Combine this with Sunday’s decision to option DL Hall to the minors and it turns out that the Orioles will have neither one of their top pitching prospects on the big league roster to begin the season. Six weeks ago, it was not all that wild to imagine both in Boston in three days.
Reflexive cynics may have already jumped to the conclusion that this is a classic case of an MLB team choosing to not place a prospect on its Opening Day roster for the sole purpose of squeezing out the loophole seventh year of service time before the player becomes a free agent. Unlike a lot of situations where that occurs, there’s at least some plausible justification in Rodriguez’s case for starting him out in the minors.
Teams have been incentivized to behave differently with the possible draft pick bonuses and they seem to be mostly following that incentive to including young top prospects on their Opening Day rosters. Just within the last couple of days, there was news that 20-year-old Cardinals prospect Jordan Walker would jump to MLB, as well as 21-year-old Yankees shortstop prospect Anthony Volpe. The Orioles are not following that incentive with Rodriguez.
In addition to that, there’s also the disincentive in keeping prospects down, because a player can still potentially get a full year of service time if he finishes high enough in Rookie of the Year voting. This happened to the Orioles last year with Adley Rutschman finishing as the runner-up in ROY voting. Rutschman’s spring training injury led him to debut late enough to fit in the seventh year loophole, except his ROY finish gave him the full year. No team in MLB is more acquainted right now with this downside than the Orioles.
The easiest answer might just be that the team’s plan for building up Rodriguez’s innings to have him pitching the whole year involves starting him out at Norfolk, where they can more easily control the length of his outings without worrying about how much that’s going to impact the big league bullpen.
It would be tough, if the team’s plan involved four inning starts for the first few weeks of the season, to have the bullpen guaranteed to pick up five innings of slack at least once every turn through the rotation. That’s not a fun explanation, but it is one that makes some sense. After all, the rebuild days have been declared to be over, so the team actually has less room for that sort of MLB-level experimentation. They need to do what can best help them win.
Of course, if this is the justification, then that would be apparent from the length of Rodriguez’s April outings in the Norfolk Tides rotation. If it ends up that the Orioles have him down there chucking six innings every time out, the fact that they didn’t decide to use those innings at the MLB level will give a lot more support to the position of the cynics. The same will also be true, I think, if Rodriguez is regularly striking out 10+ guys per game.
Perhaps the Orioles will also be hiding behind the fact that Rodriguez did not get great results in his spring training outings. Kostka reports that this is the case, writing that “a source with direct knowledge said the internal feeling was that Rodriguez had Rodriguez allowed 15 runs in 15.1 innings across five games.
The Orioles have not tended to place spring training prospect performance as part of their decisionmaking before this, so that makes it a tough sell for me to accept this justification in case of Rodriguez here. I think his Triple-A results from last season show that whatever else there is to learn, he’s going to have to learn it at the MLB level and delaying that isn’t helping anybody with anything.
This would seem to suggest that Tyler Wells is going to begin the season as the #5 starter for the Orioles. I hope he can put together a better full season than he was able to do last year. I also hope that Rodriguez will be along to displace the most jabroni-like of the season-opening Orioles rotation before too long, because seriously, the O’s plan to have sustained MLB success is sure going to be a lot easier to pull off if their top pitching prospect turns into a great MLB pitcher.