All winter long, the Orioles made it clear they were putting Grayson Rodriguez’s chances of making their rotation out of camp in Rodriguez’s Texas-big right hand. Executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias said the top prospect was on the inside track, and that he planned for Rodriguez to be part of the team from the start.
What he didn’t do, naturally, was give the best pitching prospect in the game any assurances, because Rodriguez would still have to pitch his way onto the team. If he cruised through spring, his making the team would have been a formality, just as the Orioles planned. If not, they could say he wasn’t ready to pitch in a big league rotation, which it turns out is what Elias actually said Monday after Rodriguez was sent down.
Rodriguez’s chance to make the majors was always on him.
Now that he hasn’t, the Orioles can’t blame anyone but themselves for the rest: they’ve controlled the circumstances that led to this and they deserve the blowback.
The 23-year-old Rodriguez was already widely regarded as the game’s best pitching prospect when he got to Triple-A last year, and was largely dominant while there. Any objective measurement of his stuff put it near an elite level, and as May progressed the goal posts started to move; suddenly, Rodriguez needed to prove he could pitch deeper into games.
Then, he got hurt. That’s no one’s fault, but the fact is, he was making a sixth May start in the minors — where he’d allowed three runs with a .802 WHIP and 43 strikeouts in 28 ⅔ innings over five May starts and probably couldn’t have done anything more to deserve a call-up when he strained his lat.
When Elias said he knows what Rodriguez is capable of, this is probably what he meant. Rodriguez has been nothing short of dominant since his first affiliated start in Delmarva in 2019. It also begs the question of why, other than simple recency bias, this spring outweighs all that.
Rodriguez will probably improve in Triple-A because he is relentless on that front, and because he and pitching coach Justin Ramsey work tremendously well together. But he would also improve in the big leagues, and might even be better for it after two years of innings limits and restrictions in the minors kept him from having a chance to fully finish his development.
Elias on Monday touted the team’s development decisions and how they believe they have a strong track record of bringing players up when they’re ready to be in the majors for good. Fair play.
If we give them that — and I do — then I’ll also note that the Orioles’ recent track record, to say nothing of Elias and the top executives’ previous stop in Houston, certainly doesn’t show a track record of simply calling up players when they’re good and ready.
His frustration with the topic of major league service time, which dictates how quickly players reach the stage in their career when they can make above the league minimum salary and eventually reach free agency, is to be expected. But those questions are warranted. This topic comes up as often as it does because so many of the Orioles’ roster decisions seem motivated by it. This Orioles front office inherited Anthony Santander with parts of two major league seasons under his belt, then waited until June of 2019 to bring him up for good. By doing so at that point, he was 12 days short of achieving a full season of major league service time that year, thus ensuring club control for a full extra season down the line.
The 2020 Orioles were going nowhere, yet none of Keegan Akin, Ryan Mountcastle, or Dean Kremer were up in the majors that summer until after the cutoff that would have allowed them to be eligible for salary arbitration a year earlier than usual, a floating date known as the Super Two cutoff (which gives a percentage of players who have not yet reached three years of service time a chance to make above the league minimum through salary arbitration a year early; they also get four arbitration-eligible seasons instead of three.)
Adley Rutschman was up in 2022 as soon as could reasonably be expected after his spring training injury, but even Gunnar Henderson’s ahead-of-schedule debut came at a time when he wouldn’t be able to reach the at-bat threshold to disqualify him from Rookie of the Year eligibility this season — because he remains eligible this year, he would net the Orioles a draft pick if he wins.
Too much is known about this front office’s belief system and what it values — controllable and thus inexpensive talent — to think this isn’t part of the equation. That’s a large part of the frustration with Monday’s decision: It sure appears like Elias could be more concerned about building long-term value over what others, right or wrong, believe puts the best possible Orioles team on the field. Pretty much every gripe there’s been with this front office — the slow-played prospects, the lack of spending and the trading of players as they get expensive — has been rooted in this.
The last part is what strikes me here. The Orioles decided that another year of control for Rodriguez was more valuable than him being on the roster for opening day, which would have given them the potential to gain an extra draft pick if he wins Rookie of the Year.
That extra year of control won’t be for the Orioles’ benefit, though. Not the way they’ve operated. Assuming Rodriguez ends up being what he is expected to be with minimal hiccups along the way, he’ll be in the Super Two arbitration class for the 2026 season.
For comparison’s sake, Brewers pitcher Corbin Burnes is among the game’s best starters and will make a shade over $10 million in 2023, which is his second year of salary arbitration. He wasn’t a Super Two player, but if Rodriguez makes, say $3 million in his first year of eligibility and $6-$7 million the next year, that could put him around a similar spot.
This would still leave two seasons of higher salaries for Rodriguez after that $10 million season, and while again, the expectation is he’ll be quite good, if the Orioles’ decision-making framework is the same as it is now — favoring low-cost players and longer periods of club control — there’s simply no way he’s pitching for the Orioles in his last couple seasons before free agency. The events of the last year, with his debut being delayed last summer before his injury and now again, make it pretty unlikely he’d want to do the team any favors on a long-term extension, so as free agency looms, the Orioles will probably look to trade him.
That cycle is one that many hoped would end once the team started winning. It still might. But until the Orioles act differently than they have in the past on these issues — of when players debut, of whether to sign or move on from expensive players — there’s less and less reason to believe they ever will.
For years, fans were promised these Orioles prospects were the future, and they were going to be great. That’s still the promise, honestly. But any frustration anyone feels about Rodriguez not being on this team has nothing to do with the reason given, which was that he isn’t good enough right now.
It has everything to do with how the Orioles under Mike Elias have operated. They’re supposedly moving on from a rebuild and trying to compete for a playoff spot, but not much evidence supports the idea this front office is ever going to change how it operates.