Orioles prospect debuts in recent years have fallen into two categories: the immediate impacts of Adley Rutschman and Gunnar Henderson, or the limited playing time and growing pains of many others — Kyle Stowers, Terrin Vavra and Colton Cowser come to mind.
Jordan Westburg fell somewhere in between. As the Orioles plan for another season in which they’ll have to manage integrating prospects into the major leagues in hopes of getting players the experience they need to help a team with championship aspirations, Westburg’s path might be one his peers take note of.
Westburg didn’t end up with a sensational offensive season at the major league level, but he played in some capacity in 68 of the Orioles’ 85 games from his debut until the end of the season. He did so by providing steady defense, taking on a different role than he’d ever been used to in his life, and keeping his production steady enough at the plate to justify his role.
Of the Orioles’ non-first base, non-Henderson infielders, Westburg ended up with the most plate appearances from his June 26 debut on — 228 — and had a wins above replacement of 1.1, according to FanGraphs, higher than Jorge Mateo, Ramón Urías and Adam Frazier did all season. Urías slightly outperformed Westburg on offense, with a weighted runs created plus of 99 to Westburg’s 97, though Westburg’s defense ended up carrying him and justifying a spot in the lineup on most days.
Various measurements tell different versions of the same story. By defensive runs saved, Westburg was better at second base (3 DRS) than third (-1 DRS), though Statcast’s outs above average has that flipped with 3 OAA at third base and -1 at second. By UZR/150, which credits or debits a fielder for the expected run value of a batted ball in his area, he was well above average at both spots.
Although defensive value can get a player in the lineup with no offensive impact whatsoever, as was shown with Mateo for the last five months of the season, Westburg didn’t fall into that category. He was at his best in September, when he had a .753 OPS and eight extra-base hits. He rarely let his OPS dip below .700 during the season and avoided prolonged slumps.
All of that comes after a minor league career in which Westburg excelled at pretty much every level. After the pandemic impacted his draft season and eliminated minor league baseball in 2020, he played at three levels in 2021 and spent all of 2022 in the high minors, earning organizational player of the year honors.
By the time he was promoted to the majors this year, he’d accumulated 714 plate appearances at Triple-A, with an .899 OPS and 36 home runs. He spent his days with the Norfolk Tides sharpening his skills in preparation for the debut that eventually came, and he found that getting to the majors and staying in the majors require different skill sets.
“I think everything that I’ve gone through in the minors to develop me into the player I am now helped me get here,” Westburg said late in the season. “Now, I think I’m still using those skills, but things have changed a little bit. My role has changed. I wouldn’t necessarily consider myself a guy who is going to take a big swing and hit a three-run homer as often as I would in the minors, now.”
He cited his sole bunt attempt of the season — in September against the Rays with two on and nobody out. It was successful but not exactly pretty.
“That’s a skill I worked on going through the minors, I just never had to use it when I was down there,” Westburg said. “Now you’re asked to do a few different things and play a different role. All the things you do to develop help you to get up there, and then it kind of morphs, depending on what your role may be. I’m sure if you’re a guy who is in the lineup every day and you’re hitting three-hole like Gunnar, you probably let him swing away there because he can hit a ball 111 mph and put a three-spot on the board. It’s just a little bit different for everybody, and it depends on their role.”
By taking on those different roles, playing multiple defensive spots and eliminating long cold spells at the plate, Westburg avoided the pitfalls that some of his prospect peers have had in terms of a lack of playing time, which can lead to inconsistent production and eventually a demotion.
While not career-killers, those demotions and lack of opportunities put prospects in difficult positions in which, even if they have a clear development plan to get back to the majors, Triple-A ultimately isn’t challenging enough to help the player continue growing. In those cases, the only way for someone to take the next step is to be in the majors, and Westburg spent half the season in the majors, setting himself up to learn from this experience and be better for it next year.
What his role will be remains unclear. The Orioles could clear the path for a starting role for him at second base or third if either Urías or Mateo, both due raises through salary arbitration, isn’t on the roster, with former Tides teammates Connor Norby and Joey Ortiz also in the mix if that happens. There’s also Jackson Holliday on the infield horizon.
All of them can take a page from Westburg’s book of grinding out a rookie season in the majors and staving off a return to Triple-A.