Later this week, big league rosters will expand ever so slightly from the regular 26 players up to 28 through the end of the season. While this current rendition of “September call-ups” doesn’t provide as much of an opportunity as it did back when every member of the 40-man roster could be promoted at the same time, it still gives both contenders and also-rans a chance to take a look at more members of their organizations and plan for the future.
For the Orioles, that future is right now. This is a team that is hoping to make a deep run into October. So while their goals for the final month of the season certainly include a division title rather than just a wild card berth, they are also trying to put themselves in the best position to succeed once the postseason arrives. That means keeping as many people healthy as possible, figuring out a playoff rotation, and praying that they can assemble a viable solution to close out games with Félix Bautista likely done for the year (and maybe longer).
As part of building for the playoffs, the Orioles will need to evaluate their 40-man roster right now and determine if there are any players missing from it that could help them five weeks from now. In order for a player to be eligible for a playoff roster, they must be on either the 40-man roster or the 60-day IL by 11:59 p.m. ET on August 31. That’s when Gunnar Henderson got the call last year, and the Orioles have some current youngsters absent from the 40-man that could make a case for inclusion this time around.
Another restriction to be aware of in September is that while rosters expand to 28, a team is still limited to 14 pitchers on the active roster. The Orioles have the current max of 13 arms on their roster. If they stayed that way through the end of the month, they could only add one more pitcher when the calendar flips.
Now that the parameters have been set, let’s look at a few players and think about who could be in the mix for a call up next month.
The existing 40-man roster and 60-day IL is the obvious starting point. Anyone already on these lists will immediately be eligible for the team’s playoff roster, so it makes sense to get a look at them late in the season if they are under serious consideration for a spot. There is a case to be made for just about every pitcher, but two stand out: John Means and Tyler Wells.
Means is working his way back from Tommy John surgery and already has four rehab starts under his belt. Most recently, he worked 4.1 innings and allowed just one run (a solo homer) for Triple-A Norfolk. The team has said he remains on track for a return to the big league squad in early September, indicating he will get at least one more outing down on the farm before getting activated.
The Orioles aren’t saying whether Means will come back in the rotation or the bullpen. But considering that his rehab outings are only getting longer (he threw 72 pitches in his most recent start), it seems safe to assume he will be joining the rotation and pushing one of the six current starters to the bullpen, or even Triple-A.
We know Wells is moving to the bullpen for the rest of the season. The big righty slowed down in the second half last year, and he started to show fatigue again this year prior to a demotion in late July. The O’s have slowly throttled him back, and he has now made two relief appears in Triple-A.
Wells was solid out of the ‘pen for the O’s in 2021 (109 ERA+ over 57 innings). With Bautista down, the team will have to reformat its relief set-up. Right this minute, it’s tough to see where Wells would fit best, but given the volatility of relievers that could become clear as September marches on.
But let’s not forget about the hitters already on the 40-man but not on the active roster. It’s only a handful, so let’s list them: Aaron Hicks (IL), Colton Cowser, Kyle Stowers, Terrin Vavra, and Joey Ortiz.
In all likelihood, Hicks will be activated as soon as he feels fit. He’s been good for the Orioles this season (121 OPS+), is capable of playing all three outfield spots, and his ability to switch hit is a match-up dream. If he is healthy along with Cedric Mullins, Anthony Santander, and Austin Hays, there simply isn’t room or a role for Cowser or Stowers.
Vavra has not played in a game since mid-June and his status is listed as “Injured 7-Day” so the odds of him getting back to Baltimore this season would appear to be zero. But also, much of his ability could be viewed as Adam Frazier-lite, so even a healthy Vavra would have a hard time cracking this roster.
Ortiz, however, has an interesting case. He has remained healthy, continues to be stellar on defense, and has more than held his own at the plate with a 124 wRC+, 11 home runs, and a .524 slugging percentage over 83 games at Norfolk. If the Orioles didn’t have Jorge Mateo in tow, Ortiz would have been on this team all season long. And even now, there is reason to think he could fight his way onto the postseason roster with a strong final month.
Of course, the Orioles do not have to stick to the current 40-man roster when it comes to September call-ups. They could dig further into their minor league system, identify any one of the intriguing young talents down on the farm, and determine they are ready for the bright lights of Charm City. There are plenty of candidates.
The Norfolk roster is littered with options, like Heston Kjerstad, Coby Mayo, or Connor Norby. They have guys that can chuck it too: Chayce McDermott, Cade Povich, and Justin Armbruester. And if the front office is really feeling gutsy they can raise some eyebrows by calling up the über prospect, 19-year-old Jackson Holliday, all the way from Double-A.
You could make a case for several of these guys, but the only one that really makes sense in the moment is Kjerstad.
The Orioles will need to add Kjerstad to the 40-man roster sometime between now and December anyway in order to protect him from the Rule 5 draft. So including him this week won’t do much to handcuff them in terms of winter movement because it’s something they would have factored in anyway. The same cannot be said for the others mentioned.
His skillset is also something that this Orioles team could use more of. The O’s are tied for 16th in home runs hit this season. Kjerstad has 19 round-trippers to his name this year across two levels. Although the translation is not 1-to-1, that would be third on the Orioles, behind Santander and Henderson, but in front of Ryan Mountcastle.
And there is some versatility to his defensive game. The Tides have used Kjerstad at first base 34 different times this season, his second-most frequent position behind right field (41 games). It’s a similar role to Ryan O’Hearn, but could be a benefit to manager Brandon Hyde when trying to mix-and-match late in games.
It is unlikely the Orioles do anything too eye-popping this week. The inevitable promotion of Means is likely to come later in the month, so we could see a return of a familiar reliever in the interim. And while calling up Kjerstad would be fun, it’s not clear that he would garner a starting role out of the gate.
For these Orioles, September call-ups simply aren’t worth all that much fanfare. October is the main event in 2023.