Colton Cowser saw a lot of winning in his first taste of Major League Baseball. The Orioles went a remarkable 19-7 in games in which the outfielder played.
The hits, however, were harder to come by.
Cowser, who hit just .115 in his first 26 big-league games, was optioned to Triple-A Norfolk on Monday to make room for veteran Aaron Hicks, who returns from a three-week stint on the 10-day injured list.
“It’s not always a terrible thing to have a guy come up here and experience what big league pitching is like and what major league life is like and understand how to go through adjustments,” manager Brandon Hyde said. “We saw Grayson (Rodriguez) do that earlier this year and he came back a different guy.”
Cowser, 23, had a .443 on-base plus slugging (OPS) with just two extra-base hits and no homers. The former No. 5 overall pick ranks 12th in Baseball America’s Top 100 prospects list and 14th in MLB Pipeline’s.
Hicks, meanwhile, has recovered from a left hamstring strain and returns to the Orioles after two rehab games in Norfolk. A rare impactful midseason free-agent acquisition, Hicks was hitting .252 with a .784 OPS with the O’s prior to the injury.
On July 4, a reeling Orioles team that had lost six of its last seven games called on Cowser to add a spark. It would be disingenuous to say Cowser propelled the O’s to the eight-game win streak that followed, as he hit just .143 during the streak.
“At the big league level, it just comes down to being aggressive,” Hicks said. “For him, it just seemed like he was starting to lose his confidence. Once you lost that as a young player in the big leagues, it’s tough to get it back.”
The Orioles are on better footing than they were six weeks ago, having just taken two of three from the red-hot Seattle Mariners. When Cowser got the call, Baltimore was six games behind a Tampa Bay team that appeared unbeatable. Today, as the outfielder returns to Norfolk, the big-league club has a three-game cushion atop the American League East, boasting more wins (73) than any other AL team.
Though Cowser’s offensive numbers with the club left much to be desired, he helped fill the void left by Hicks, playing all three outfield positions. Now, he rejoins the Tides, where he dominated Triple-A competition this season, hitting .330 with a .996 OPS in 56 games.
The goal for Cowser in Norfolk, Hyde said, is to relax in the batters box and re-gain some confidence.
“Colton is going to be a really good major league player,” Hyde said. “He got off to a pretty good start and he just got caught in between in his at-bats. I just want him to go down there and free his mind up.”
A year or two ago, a roster move such as this would be met with protest from Baltimore fans. Swapping a highly rated prospect for a 33-year-old on an expiring contract would make little sense during a losing season. But the O’s have completed that chapter of their multiyear rebuild, and prospect development, while still important, now comes secondary to winning games.
We’ve already seen the Orioles implement this approach several times this season. The club has kept promising but unpolished youngsters Kyle Stowers, DL Hall and Joey Ortiz marinating in Norfolk, instead relying on more experienced players, such as Ryan McKenna, Cole Irvin and Jorge Mateo.
Cowser’s rookie frustrations should not be cause for alarm. In close to the same sample size, catcher Adley Rutschman hit just .183 to start his major league career in 2022 before turning himself into a finalist for AL Rookie of the Year. Outfielder Cedric Mullins was sent down to Double-A Bowie in a disastrous 2019 season, then earned his first All-Star nod just two years later.
Cowser himself has struggled at times adjusting to higher levels of competition, before ultimately figuring things out. He had a .243 batting average in his first two months with High-A Aberdeen in 2022, then he flipped a switch in June and earned two promotions before the end of the season. If he picks up where he left off with the Tides, Cowser could be back in Baltimore when rosters expand from 26 to 28 players in September.
Despite boasting one of the best young cores in baseball, the Orioles will also need contributions from veterans to get them to October for the first time since 2016. Hicks, having played in 30 postseasons in his career, knows what it’ll take to get there.
Danielle Allentuck contributed reporting from San Diego