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The Orioles were unsentimental with a number of Opening Day roster decisions

One possible front office slogan: “No more Mister Nice Birds”

MLB: MAR 07 Spring Training - Orioles at Twins
We’ll see Grayson Rodriguez soon, but the team has given him homework.
Photo by Brian Spurlock/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

It’s no joke putting together an MLB roster—especially a competitive one. Over the last two weeks running up to Opening Day, the Orioles made two rounds of cuts to get the roster down to 26 men. Several of these cuts were painful. Heston Kjerstad and his 1.219 OPS? Talk to us again in the fall. Rule 5 pickup Andrew Politi? Nice curveball, buh-bye. Franchy Cordero (.426 OBP, 1.099 OPS)? It’s been fun, but your services won’t be necessary. MLB’s No. 2 pitching prospect Grayson Rodriguez? Keeping working on the command, bud, we’ll call you sometime.

Rodriguez’s being left off the roster was particularly stinging for Birdland. A phenomenal pitching talent who’d have already joined the big-league club mid-season in 2022 but for an ill-timed lat injury, Rodriguez felt like a shoo-in this spring. And then he wasn’t. Apparently Orioles bigwigs were spooked by 15 runs allowed in 15.1 innings across five games. Plenty of fans felt this was unworthy gamesmanship by the front office; others felt he’d simply sucked.

Orioles GM Mike Elias, who is notoriously hard to pin down in press conferences, was uncharacteristically blunt about Rodriguez’s shortcomings this spring. “[He] was not ready to jump right into a major league rotation, getting not past the fourth inning. … [W]e were hoping that he would show up as a better version of himself and I think we got here, and we just had five more guys that were more deserving at this point in time.”

Sure, Elias must have known he’d have to give reasons to an army of disgruntled fans to explain this decision. But his comments suggest something more: this year’s Orioles were not willing to give Rodriguez room to “figure stuff out” under the bright lights. If the team is not in “Win Now” mode, it’s at least “Win Soon.”

Which is a little surprising to realize because during the offseason Baltimore … well, what is the opposite of “made a splash”? While Camden Chat writers fantasized about the Orioles landing a big fish like Jacob DeGrom or Carlos Rodón, what the team was actually doing over the offseason was: dousing the Angelos family’s legal wildfires; continuing to squabble with the Nationals over MASN broadcast revenues; failing to renew their Oriole Park lease with the Maryland Stadium Authority, and signing one-year deals with unheralded workhorse throwers like Kyle Gibson.

None of this boded well for the Orioles’ impending “liftoff,” a phrase I bet Mike Elias now deeply regrets using. Then again, our standards are so much higher than they were two seasons ago, and the rebuild is obviously in a different stage. Consider it the “Assess our assets; fork out money accordingly” stage. If the young core gels into a playoff-ready unit, expect bigger acquisitions by midseason. For now, it’s “Wait and see” but also, “We’re not giving a roster spot to any borderline candidates.”

Consider their approach to Rule 5 players. In the Dan Duquette days, the Orioles did lots of shopping in baseball’s equivalent of the clearance section, picking up eventual valued contributors like Ryan Flaherty and Anthony Santander. Because the Rule 5 requires that a team who selects a player keep him on the 26-man roster for the whole season or else return him back to his old team, any team that carries a Rule 5 pick is by definition taking a flier on an untested young player. That means tolerating growing pains and limitations and mistakes, all of which happened with Flaherty and Santander in their Orioles tenure. This is something the 2023 Orioles now seem unwilling to do.

They did not take a flier on Andrew Politi after 8.2 spring innings in which he gave up six runs on nine hits, but also struck out eight. True, Politi is just one case, but it feels illustrative, especially after preseason injuries to Mychal Givens and Dillon Tate temporarily opened up spots in the bullpen. And now that the team has acquired what seems to be a stopgap lefty in Danny Coulombe.

Consider, too, how optioning Grayson Rodriguez and DL Hall, two guys in that “wild but intriguing” mold, signals that the Orioles are not giving such youngsters the same leeway that they used to with say, Tanner Scott, Dillon Tate, even a wild Zack Britton-the-starter.

Rodriguez and Hall weren’t the only Orioles who came close but didn’t make the cut. Of the Orioles pitchers who threw five or more innings for Baltimore last season, the following were invited to spring training but are not currently on the roster: Nick Vespi (26.1 IP last season), Joey Krehbiel (57.2 IP), Bruce Zimmermann (73.2 IP), and Spenser Watkins (105.1 IP).

Of course, these guys are likely to show up in Baltimore again sooner or later. Just one game into 2023, we saw the offense firing on all cylinders but the bullpen looking super shaky. Keegan Akin and Bryan Baker could become DL Hall and Joey Krehbiel with relative ease, and I wouldn’t assume we’ve seen the last of Vespi and Watkins (two of my favorite Orioles—maybe it’s the tats), either.

But if so, they’ll have to earn it.