When Friday evening rolls around, Grayson Rodriguez will take the mound. He’ll be doing so in Norfolk instead of Boston, however, continuing his development with the Triple-A Tides rather than receiving a promotion to the Orioles — a jump that appears on the horizon, likely the next prospect in line for an awaited debut .
Baltimore brought catcher Adley Rutschman to the big leagues on Saturday, introducing baseball’s top prospect to the majors. When Rodriguez — the top pitching prospect — will join him is more uncertain.
Executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias spoke in generalities Sunday when discussing the right-hander’s path to Baltimore, saying he was close to a “full build-up.” But Elias has maintained his hesitation to ramp Rodriguez up fully, hoping to avoid an innings-limit shutdown by the end of the season.
That has led to an indefinite timeframe for Rodriguez and those close to the 22-year-old, wondering when his pitch count will be loosened. For the last four starts, Rodriguez crossed the 80-pitch threshold, with a high of 87 in a standout display that included a season-high 11 strikeouts. Rodriguez faced an 85-pitch limit for those starts, and the Orioles wanted to keep him there for a month before building him further, according to an industry source with knowledge of the organization’s thinking.
When Rodriguez is on the mound Friday against the Gwinnett Stripers, that limit will increase to 95 pitches — his highest this season — the source said. Reaching that mark, however, will depend on how his outing his unfolds. The Orioles would like Rodriguez to reach 100 pitches before a call-up, the source said.
Whether the Orioles expect Rodriguez to maintain that 95-pitch limit for another month in the minors remains to be seen, although it goes in line with the cautious approach they’ve taken with Rodriguez thus far, hoping to minimize the chances of an injury. But it boils down to Rodriguez remaining in the minor leagues while the Orioles’ rotation has a need in Boston that he could fill — now and far into the future.
“We want him to be able to not get shut down after he gets called up, assuming we call him up,” Elias said. “We want him to be able to help the team. There’s a lot of pitchers on this team that we’re having to manage the innings because we have an eye on the future, because they’re young. … We’re prioritizing things beyond the 2022 season, for very good reason.”
The output from Rodriguez at the Triple-A level this season seems to suggest he’s prepared for the rise in competition. Rodriguez has a fastball that compares favorably with New York Yankees ace Gerrit Cole’s, and the Nacogdoches, Texas, native’s changeup is similar to Milwaukee Brewers right-hander Devin Williams, the 2020 National League Reliever of the Year. Rodriguez would rank near the top of the league in velocity and movement on each respective pitch.
In the International League this season, no pitcher has averaged more strikeouts per nine innings (13.71). Rodriguez’s 30.4% difference between his strikeout rate and walk rate is the best in the league. He’s allowed the fewest home runs per nine innings (0.21) and has the lowest FIP (1.76), a metric that focuses only on events a pitcher has control over, taking defensive miscues or deficiencies out of the equation.
“I’m ready,” Rodriguez said in early May. “I feel like I can go out and give them whatever they ask from me. Obviously, if it was up to me, I’m throwing 100, 110 pitches every week. But obviously, that’s not the case. The organization has a throwing program I have to follow.”
Except for right-hander Jordan Lyles, few Orioles pitchers have surpassed the 85-pitch limit Rodriguez operated at over the last month. Lyles has done it eight times, including a 117-pitch effort Monday. Beyond him, though, right-hander Kyle Bradish and left-hander Bruce Zimmermann are the only other starters to reach 85 pitches or more, with each doing so twice, through 44 games.
The average for the rotation is 74.3 pitches per start. And while Lyles has been a workhorse, right-hander Tyler Wells’ pitch limit has brought him to a maximum of 79 pitches this year.
Rodriguez’s pitch count could operate for the Orioles with ease. And with five games in four days against the Red Sox — as well as an injury to right-hander Spenser Watkins that required a trip to the injured list — Hyde said one of Baltimore’s starters this weekend will be from Triple-A. But it isn’t expected to be Rodriguez.
A potential reason for the Orioles to hold off on calling Rodriguez up would be to wait for the Super Two cutoff to pass, which is expected to occur in mid-June. Waiting until after the deadline ensures Baltimore avoids an early arbitration hearing for Rodriguez — if a player is in the top 22% of MLB service time among players between two and three years, they can have a salary arbitration hearing after two years.
So for now, despite the analytics and statistics that back up a promotion for Rodriguez, the wait goes on, leaving Rodriguez to start Friday night in Norfolk rather than Boston.