In his first sit-down with members of Baltimore’s press corps since the Orioles embarked on one of the best starts to a season in franchise history, executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias touched on a variety of topics ranging from prospect promotion timelines to major league roster construction and a (non)update on potential long-term contract extensions for the team’s stars.
The Orioles, who play the second game against the Tampa Bay Rays at Camden Yards on Tuesday, are on a three-game losing streak but have shown encouraging signs. They’re competing with some of the best teams in baseball, first in the weekend’s series against the Atlanta Braves and now against the Rays, who hold the best record in the majors.
Baltimore orchestrated a line shift of sorts Tuesday by calling up left-hander Drew Rom, first baseman Ryan O’Hearn and utilityman Terrin Vavra to replace infielder Ramón Urías (who’s headed to the 10-day injured list for a hamstring strain), left-hander Keegan Akin and catcher Luis Torrens. Part of the intrigue was surrounding who didn’t receive a call-up, particularly with an open 40-man roster spot.
After the wide-ranging discussion, here are the four key takeaways from what Elias said.
Jordan Westburg is a ‘topic of conversation’
The Orioles have a glut of infield prospects to choose from. For the moment, Jordan Westburg will remain at Triple-A Norfolk, despite hitting .333 to open this season. By designating Torrens for an assignment, the Orioles opened a place on their 40-man roster spot, although for the moment that will go unused.
Westburg, who can play multiple positions, was a possibility. While infielders Vavra and Joey Ortiz are already on the 40-man, Westburg will need to be added in order to reach the major leagues. Elias said the roster moves initiated late last night were made “pretty quickly,” which lent itself to choosing the more established Vavra.
But Westburg, the fourth-ranked Orioles prospect per MLB Pipeline, has backed up his lofty ranking with high-level performances that have caught the eye of Elias and the Orioles. The Mississippi State product, selected in the first round of the 2020 draft, reached Norfolk last year and hit .274. He’s risen that production to include eight home runs in 26 games.
“He’s been a great performer in Triple-A, an active topic of conversation, dating back even into last year,” Elias said. “But certainly, he’s somebody that we’re still monitoring and discussing and paying very close attention to on a nightly basis. And I think, right now, with the opponents we’ve got here coming up, we’re going with this group, but we’ll keep an eye on all those guys, him included.”
Under Elias, the Orioles have taken a methodical approach with calling up highly ranked prospects. For much of the time, Baltimore has valued everyday playing time in the minors as pivotal for the development of their players.
Right-hander Grayson Rodriguez, for instance, was slow played in Triple-A and then suffered an injury setback when it appeared he was on the verge of a breakthrough. Infielder Gunnar Henderson raked in Norfolk but didn’t arrive in Baltimore until late August last year. In 2019, Akin and first baseman Ryan Mountcastle spent the whole year with the Tides.
But with more of a win-now mentality, the Orioles could be more comfortable calling up a prospect who could make an immediate impact in the majors. Sooner rather than later, it could be Westburg.
Gunnar Henderson’s slow start is nothing to worry about
With Urías set to miss what Elias said could be “a good bit of time,” the presence of Henderson is magnified. Manager Brandon Hyde said Henderson will play a considerable amount of third base during Urías’ absence, leaving Henderson to work out of his slump in the lineup nearly each day.
Henderson burst onto the scene last year with a debut homer in Cleveland, and he flamed Rookie of the Year conversations for this season by finishing his 34-game stint in 2022 by hitting .259 with a .788 on-base-plus-slugging percentage. The season is young, and so is Henderson.
The 21-year-old is hitting .174 in 30 games thus far. He has still flashed his power potential with three homers, but his 36 strikeouts are a worrying sign, even as he walks at a high rate.
“There’s been some encouraging stuff,” Elias said. “The walk totals. He’s hit for power in spots. The defense has been really good. It’s really early. We’ve seen what he did in the minors. We saw what he did last September. You look at what other people around the league are doing through April. It’s very early. He’s putting the work in. He’s grinding out at-bats. I think he’s gonna snap out of this pretty soon, and with Ramón going on the IL, I think we need him.”
The Orioles definitely will, although Vavra, another left-handed bat, can play at third base as well. Henderson is set for a concentrated amount of playing time, and perhaps grinding through it will help turn his early season struggles into successes.
No, Elias didn’t comment on an Adley contract extension
As teams around the league lock up young stars on long-term deals, the Orioles haven’t joined in — at least not yet, or in a public manner. Elias reiterated his stance that discussing contract extensions publicly doesn’t behoove the organization from a negotiation standpoint. He also said he doesn’t want agents to expect news may leak through Elias.
So the general manager remained mum on whether catcher Adley Rutschman, whom he said “should be in the conversation” as the best catcher in baseball in the near future, would be approached regarding a long-term contract extension. The same goes for any other rising Orioles star.
“I would just say that we’ve got a lot of people in our front office with a lot of business experience, experience with major league contracts, economics, and they’re all working on ways to keep our organization healthy all the time,” Elias said. “And that absolutely includes looking at augmenting the contracts of young players that we have, but in terms of, like, what’s happening right now, I’m just not gonna get into it.”
While Rutschman is hitless in his last 18 at-bats, the 25-year-old has already established himself as a high-level player. He’s hitting .271 with a league-high 28 walks. Rutschman has clubbed four homers and has improved from the right side of the plate, evening his switch-hitting splits compared to his first season.
“I don’t think there’s any way to look around the league right now and see what he’s done over the past calendar year and make the argument that he’s not a top-five catcher or so in baseball right now,” Elias said.
It’s not as though Rutschman is an impending free agent. Rutschman will become arbitration eligible in 2026 and is eligible for free agency in 2029. But this organization hasn’t extended a major player ahead of free agency since shortstop J.J. Hardy in October 2014. Since then, they’ve traded away Manny Machado and Trey Mancini. And even when Baltimore re-signed Mark Trumbo and Chris Davis, those two sluggers were signed during the offseason once they had reached free agency.
More aggressive roster moves
The Orioles have proven this already, when they opted to send left-hander Cole Irvin down to Triple-A Norfolk after three inauspicious starts. Baltimore finds itself in win-now mode, compared to the rebuild that began in earnest in 2018. And now here, Elias has proven more willing to make short-term roster shuffles that can help the team in a specific matchup.
When the Orioles faced three left-handers in Detroit, they called up Ortiz for his debut because of his right-handed bat. Outfielder Kyle Stowers, another prospect, has featured at the major league level for parts of this year. Rom and left-hander DL Hall also fall into that category, viewed long-term as starting pitchers but brought up as relievers to help Baltimore in the present.
“We’re still wanting to develop these guys as everyday players and make sure they have everyday playing time or a lot of playing time, but we’re bringing them up in spots to help out off the bench or in short spurts,” Elias said. “So I think it requires a little bit more of a balancing act between developing their careers and then maybe getting them some part-time play up here, taste of the major leagues, a little more sporadic playing time in the major leagues. But they’re brought up to help our team win in spots, so I think that part is relatively new for us kind of in the last calendar year, where that balance is more to forefront. I’m very happy that that’s the situation because it means we’re winning.”
Perhaps that is the best reinforcement for Westburg, or outfielder Colton Cowser, to reach the major leagues sooner than they might’ve in previous seasons, even if those promotions aren’t permanent. Cowser, a first-round pick in 2021, is hitting .304 to begin his time in Triple-A this season. Elias, however, pointed out Cowser “hasn’t spent that much time in Triple-A,” and therefore isn’t as close to graduating that level as some of Baltimore’s more seasoned prospects.