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Setting expectations for Jordan Westburg’s rookie season

The young infielder comes to Baltimore with fans hoping he will be a significant upgrade to their middling infield offense.

Baltimore Orioles Photo Day Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

It took longer than it should have, but Jordan Westburg is finally getting his call-up to the big leagues. As reported by ESPN’s Jeff Passan and then confirmed by every other baseball reporter on Sunday evening, the Orioles are promoting the 24-year-old Westburg sometime Monday with corresponding moves to make room on both the 26- and 40-man rosters to be announced later.

There wasn’t much more for Westburg to prove down in Triple-A. Over the last two seasons he has played 158 games at that level, hitting .283/.366/.533 with 40 doubles, 36 home runs, 121 runs, and plenty of other impressive numbers. The 2020 draft pick was simply ready for another challenge.

And the upstart Orioles could use some help in the middle infield. The team’s second basemen have a paltry 78 wRC+ this season, and their shortstops have been even worse at 70 wRC+. Westburg has experience in both roles, plus third base and each of the corner outfield spots.

But as we know, the Orioles have (rightly!) not treated all of their position prospects as equals in recent seasons. Some, like Adley Rutschman or Gunnar Henderson, are inserted right into the starting lineup, and that’s where they remain every single day. Others, like Joey Ortiz or Kyle Stowers, find themselves closer to the fringes of the big league discussion, spending a decent amount of time on the Norfolk shuttle.

So, let’s talk through the Orioles’ current situation, Westburg’s abilities, and how it all comes together to form realistic expectations in his first big league shot.

Making room on the roster

Westburg was not Rule 5-eligible until December. That is the deadline by which the Orioles would have had to add him to the 40-man roster or risk losing him to another organization. That was never really on the table, but it did serve as a hard date to encourage his ascension to Baltimore sooner rather than later.

The Orioles did not wait that long, though. In fact, they didn’t even wait until the final month of the regular season, a common time for debuts, like Henderson’s last season. Instead, they made the call right in the middle of a campaign in which they are on pace for 100 wins as a team. This, by itself, is a big deal.

It means the Orioles need to open up a 40-man roster spot. Unless they are expecting to move one of their current injured players to the 60-day IL, that would require a DFA of someone. There are some straightforward candidates (Josh Lester, José Godoy) that would not seem to greatly impact this team. But we all know how Mike Elias likes to finesse the edges of his rosters. This isn’t something he takes lightly.

But the fact that the front office is willing to lose someone they have clung onto to this point means that Westburg is not coming up to sit the bench or bounce between Triple-A and the big leagues. He’s here to play, and he’s here to stay.

Know your role

What is less clear, however, is where on the field Westburg is going to play. The Orioles infield has been a complex game of musical chairs for much of the year. Adam Frazier is usually at second, Henderson at third, and Jorge Mateo at shortstop. But manager Brandon Hyde likes to involve Gold Glove winner Ramón Urías a few times a week, and Ortiz pops into a lineup every so often as well. It’s a good problem to have, but it’s still a problem.

Some of this will be remedied when the Orioles demote whomever is deemed surplus to requirements. Right now, Ortiz looks like the odd man out. The slick fielder has played in just four games and gotten six total at-bats since being recalled on May 14. It does not make sense to have him ride the pine in Baltimore when he could get everyday reps elsewhere.

From there, nailing down where Westburg will play everyday seems like a fool’s errand given how much movement there as been on the O’s infield this season. Odds are he will play in a few spots, most often second and third base, leaving shortstop to Mateo and Henderson.

The Orioles are facing a left-handed starter on Monday. Perhaps that provides a clue to the team’s thinking. Frazier’s numbers against southpaws this season are poor (.626 OPS), as are Urías’ (.562 OPS). Now, Westburg has not exactly crushed lefties down in Triple-A either (.243/.346/.329), but that on-base percentage is good, and it’s all a touch better than what his big league counterparts have managed. At the very least it seems like Westburg will be the second baseman against left-handers for the immediate future.

Things are far more ambiguous against right-handed pitching. Much of Mateo’s struggles have been with righties (.544 OPS), so that may be an opportunity for Henderson to slide over to shortstop and make Mateo into a super utility man those days.

That leaves second and third base to Hyde’s discretion. Urías was nails at the hot corner last year, but advanced metrics don’t like him there as much this season (-5 outs above average). His .810 OPS against righties should get into the lineup somewhere though. Frazier gets bad marks (-9 OAA) for his infield defense this season as well, and his .686 OPS against righties won’t win him many fans. These could be the days where Westburg fits at third and Urías takes over at second.

Nothing is etched in stone, of course. This whole calculation could be up-ended by an injury or struggles elsewhere on the roster, particularly from Aaron Hicks or Ryan O’Hearn. We can’t entirely rule out a Westburg start in right field before the season is out.

Production prediction

Hitting major league pitching is hard. Just ask Rutschman and Henderson. Both are former top overall prospects, and both have had early-career offensive struggles. Rutschman was hitting .137 after his first 13 MLB games, and Henderson had a sub-.700 OPS until late May this season. It would shock no one to see Westburg have a similar experience, and it should not be a concern if it does happen.

Westburg will strikeout at a noticeable clip. His 21.3% strikeout rate with Norfolk this year is consistent with what he has done as a professional. It would be normal to see that number increase a bit as a big league rookie, which could see him in the neighborhood of Ryan Mountcastle’s 24.5% strikeout rate with the Orioles this season, so prepare yourself.

He’s also got some serious power! As mentioned earlier, Westburg’s got 36 homers in roughly one full season at Triple-A, and that’s with Harbor Park as his home field. The Tides stadium is not terribly unfair to hitters, but it is considered a pitcher-friendly environment. Perhaps that experience will allow Westburg to conquer Walltimore in left field better than most right-handed hitters have to this point.

Prior to the season, FanGraphs’ (and friend of the blog) Dan Szymborski put together his ZiPS projections for the Orioles. That included a full season of Westburg hitting in the big leagues with a slash line of .233/.310/.392, a 93 OPS+ and .307 wOBA. The Steamer projection of Westburg (which you can also find on FanGraphs) was a bit kinder: .244/.317/.414, 103 wRC+, .319 wOBA.

Neither of these projections are particularly eye-popping, but they do paint Westburg as an acceptable offensive option. That would represent a significant step forward for an Orioles team that has endured subpar work at the plate from Frazier and Mateo most days. If he can pair that with adequate glovework somewhere on the infield then the Orioles would have to be thrilled with the rookie.

While the promotion would have been warranted weeks (or months!) ago, making the move now still give the O’s more than a month to evaluate what this team looks like with Westburg on the roster before the trade deadline arrives. That should be plenty of time for the front office to ascertain what moves could propel this squad towards a deep playoff run.