SARASOTA, Fla. — As Jordan Westburg walked to the plate for a live batting practice session against a teammate, the look in the eyes of his opposition almost gave him pause. It was spring training. It was before spring training games had even begun. It was a steamy morning in Florida, and yet those eyes stared him down as if it was October, as if a postseason series rode on this very plate appearance.
Those eyes were meant to intimidate.
Those eyes belonged to Grayson Rodriguez, the towering hurler upon whose right arm so much of the Orioles’ future depends.
Besides a smattering of teammates in the dugout and manager Brandon Hyde and general manager Mike Elias in the stands, Ed Smith Stadium was empty for this at-bat. Each pop of the glove and crack of the bat carried through the February heat, around the ballpark and back again.
So did each grunt.
One such grunt belonged to Rodriguez, released as the ball left his grasp and sailed at near-triple-digit velocity toward the plate and Westburg. This fastball was meant as a challenge after Rodriguez had fallen behind 1-0 in the count. With that grunt, Rodriguez told Westburg to come and get it. Take his best shot.
Westburg swung and missed.
Westburg knew that might’ve been his one chance. He worked the count full against Rodriguez anyway, then racked his brain for what offering might come next. Rodriguez has five pitches in his arsenal he can use to get batters out. Westburg opted to sit on the fastball, the one that can fire in at 99 mph.
But instead, Rodriguez threw a changeup. Westburg froze. It snapped into Adley Rutschman’s glove on the lower inside corner of the zone and Westburg began to trudge back to the dugout, the high-intensity February at-bat having tipped in Rodriguez’s favor.
Westburg hasn’t been in the major leagues yet, but when he imagines what it’ll be like, he pictures Rodriguez and the pitcher’s dogged determination to reach strike three, even during a practice setting against his own teammate.
“Every pitch to him is a game pitch. Every pitch is game speed. Every pitch is game-like,” Westburg said. “This early in camp, he’s out there to put up numbers, even if it’s during a live AB at whatever time in the morning. He’s out there to throw strikes, he’s out there to compete, he’s out there to challenge hitters and get guys out. He knows that’s what he’s got to do when the lights come on.”
When the lights come on, they will be pointed at Rodriguez.
He doesn’t seek them out; he can be a quiet character in the clubhouse, and beyond his grunts of effort on the mound and the resounding pop of a catcher’s mitt, there’s not much noise that escapes Rodriguez when he’s in the zone.
But as Baltimore prepares for a season of increased expectations, Rodriguez is a central figure, one of the top pitching prospects in baseball who appears set to make his major league debut this season.
And when he does, the resolve he’ll show on the mound at Camden Yards will mirror what he showed in February at Ed Smith Stadium, and it’ll mirror what he showed throughout the offseason at APEC in Tyler, Texas, the training facility to which he drove three hours roundtrip each day to prepare for that debut.
Rodriguez doesn’t change. And it’s for good reason.
“As soon as he gets on a mound, he’s a different animal,” said Ryan Sullins, Rodriguez’s pitching instructor at APEC. “When you watch him perform, you know he’s got the stuff.”
An unexpected delay
Early in Rodriguez’s time at APEC, in his first session with Sullins and the other professional ballplayers shortly after he was drafted in 2018, the pitching instructor led him through a series of proprietary testing. The goal was to establish benchmarks for Rodriguez’s potential velocity and other physical capacities.
Rodriguez had been lighthearted moments earlier, with a goofy and witty personality. And then he stepped on the mound and completely changed. The smile vanished, his eyes focused and each ball during the bullpen sessions came out of his hand with an intensity beyond what Sullins expected for a light offseason workout session.
There was another thing Sullins noticed: Rodriguez wouldn’t stop.
“He was constantly trying to outdo his numbers,” Sullins said. “He thought he could do better at everything he did.”
That’s because he usually could. Rodriguez would see the pitch velocity, or the projection on what they expected the newly turned professional to be able to produce in a few years, and he’d get back on the mound and do it again.
In that case, the radar gun was his opponent. In other situations, outside opinions can drive him. Gilbert Rodriguez, his father, once taped the criticism of a former coach to the mirror in Grayson Rodriguez’s bathroom — to look at it each morning was a jumpstart all by itself.
Any doubts — and there have been few, considering he was chosen 11th overall in the 2018 draft — push him forward. They encouraged him to drive to Tyler for training twice a week in high school and five times a week since the draft, despite the possibility of an inopportune freight train delaying his progress through rural Southeast Texas.
Those drives carried him through the offseason, and then brought him to the breach of a major league debut last season. Rodriguez rolled through Triple-A over the course of the first two months, sticking to a strict pitch limit that got him into the high 80s for three straight dominating outings.
And then he threw a fastball, and it hit just 89 mph on the radar gun.
It was June 1, and Rodriguez could practically taste his major league debut. He was supposed to make one more clean appearance for the Norfolk Tides, then hop on a plane and join the Orioles. Instead, the trainer walked to the mound in Norfolk, and what felt like only a back cramp turned out to be a lat strain.
Rather than flying to Baltimore, Rodriguez returned home to Nacogdoches, Texas, a figurative freight train impeding his progress to his childhood dream.
“I’m lost,” Rodriguez told his parents when he returned home. “I don’t know where I’m at. I don’t know what to do.”
“Let this work out,” Gilbert Rodriguez replied.
“God had a plan for him,” Gilbert said later. “But he was just confused. He had never been in that position.”
After a week at home, Grayson Rodriguez flew to Florida to begin his rehab process. He was back at square one, unable to fully throw, but he had a new target to chase. A few days earlier, Elias had met with members of the media at Camden Yards. He emphasized the long-term picture, a methodical recovery process rather than rushing back. Maybe, Elias said, Rodriguez would return to a mound by September.
There were no maybes in Rodriguez’s mind.
“I know there were some thoughts I wouldn’t be able to throw again that season, so that kind of fueled me in the training room and during my rehab to get back to it,” Rodriguez said. “That was definitely a big driving factor.”
Later in the summer, Rodriguez’s brother, Garner, played in a baseball tournament for elite prospects in Fort Myers, Florida. Rodriguez would get his work done in Sarasota early, then drive the hour south to sit with his dad and watch his brother.
By that point, Rodriguez was closing in on a return to affiliate ball. It wasn’t the major leagues. But by Sept. 1 — three months after his injury — Rodriguez threw 31 pitches for High-A Aberdeen, the first step in a comeback that would lead him back to Triple-A before the season finished.
Sitting watching the youth baseball tournament, a week or two before his return, Gilbert Rodriguez could tell any doubts had left his son.
“He was happy, he was motivated,” Gilbert Rodriguez said. “He was ready.”
Earning an A
Grayson Rodriguez hung the curveball.
It might’ve been his second bullpen session of the offseason, but Josh Tomlin wouldn’t let the up-and-coming star off so easy.
“That’s why it’s an E,” Tomlin called out.
It has been a long-running gag ever since Rodriguez told Tomlin, a 38-year-old veteran of 12 MLB seasons who trains in Tyler with Rodriguez, that Grayson is, in fact, spelled with an ‘A,’ not an ‘E.’ Tomlin, who last pitched in 2021 with the Atlanta Braves, played it off as if his text-message misspellings had been planned the whole time.
You haven’t earned the A yet, Tomlin would say. You can’t lift like me yet, you haven’t thrown like me yet.
“Just giving him a hard time because he has way better stuff than I have,” Tomlin admits now. “He’s way stronger than I am, he jumps way higher than I do, he’s 20 years younger than me.”
Pretty soon, Rodriguez will earn that A. At the beginning of the bit, Tomlin told Rodriguez that upon his major league debut, he would start spelling Grayson correctly.
If a breakthrough seemed only a matter of time last year — before the ill-timed lat strain halted his progress — Rodriguez has entered spring training with all eyes on an opening day roster spot.
And a chip on his shoulder. If not for that injury, he might already have major league innings under his belt. Rodriguez has always taken his training seriously, yet at APEC this offseason, physical trainer Connor Green could tell there was an even higher level.
“There’s urgency this offseason, in a good way,” Green said. “There’s been a good buzz around it. He knows the job that needs to be done.”
That led Rodriguez through the offseason and into camp at Sarasota. It led him to that at-bat against Westburg, with the filthy changeup that “should be a crime” to throw in February, Westburg said.
And it will lead him to the major leagues, where he’ll finally earn his A.