The sky opened up above Jordan Westburg on Monday, and fans at Camden Yards went scuttling for shelter. Meanwhile, Brandon Williamson had put two strikes on the board.
But after standing waterlogged in the batter’s box for seven pitches, the 24-year-old Westburg wound up walking in his first big-league at-bat.
If nothing else in his pro baseball career, he’s learned that good things come to those who wait.
Compared to other top Orioles prospects that have come up in the last few years, Westburg had quite a spell in the Major League waiting lobby we know as Triple-A baseball. Adley Rutschman, an overachiever, had 238 Triple-A plate appearances before getting called up. Gunnar Henderson had 295.
Westburg had 714 plate appearances for the Norfolk Tides, batting .283 with an .899 OPS and 36 homers. What more did he have to do to make the leap?
It was hard to get the sense, however, that Westburg — a player so even-keeled that he barely cracked a smile as his Norfolk manager told him he was going the bigs on Sunday — felt the same sense of excruciation that some fans were feeling on his behalf, wondering when, if ever, he would make his Orioles debut.
“I trusted it was gonna come,” he said. “Maybe not on my time, but in due time.”
Westburg, as well as anyone, understands the new reality the Orioles stepped into this year: Making the big leagues on a winning team is supposed to be hard. And the franchise has shifted from putting prospects first to winning over everything.
Westburg’s promotion has less to do with bringing up the Next Great Infield Prospect and more to do with trying to beat the red-hot Reds. It has less to do with starting Westburg’s MLB tenure at the right time, and more to do with veterans needing a few more days off.
If it doesn’t sound glamorous, it isn’t. But the prospects aren’t the most exciting part of the Orioles anymore.
“We’re gonna bring guys up here if we feel like they help us win,” manager Brandon Hyde said. “So if we feel like Jordan can help us win and affect us positively, it’s not a development situation.”
That shift might feel jarring for the people who have stuck around through the misery of the late 2010s, watching 100-loss seasons and investing only in a bright, bright future. Orioles fans staked their hopes and dreams on Rutschman, on Henderson, on Grayson Rodriguez and on Colton Cowser. The Orioles’ ranking as the No. 1 farm system in baseball looks like stacks of uncashed chips — and now the fans are eager to see what all that investment has brought.
So yes, Westburg’s debut on Monday night was heralded: Even in the rain, fans under umbrellas and ponchos chanted, “WEST-Y! WEST-Y!” But as exciting as these premieres are, expect fewer of them.
In 2021, the Orioles had 16 players make their big-league debut. In 2022, 13 players were brought up for the first time. This season, Westburg is only the third. Despite rock-solid numbers at the plate and strong defensive performances, he still spent nearly half the season trying to prove he was ready for the show.
That’s now the way things are going to look, Hyde said, which should tell you a lot about when to expect other Triple-A studs such as Cowser, Heston Kjerstad or Connor Norby. With Westburg’s promotion, Joey Ortiz, another top-100 prospect, was optioned back down.
“This is what healthy organizations do,” Hyde said. “They have not just a talented major league team, but they have guys competing in the minor leagues also. Most good major league teams have good players in Triple A that it’s tough to break through because the big league team’s doing well.”
The other unspoken notion here is that this much talent probably can’t stay backed up forever. A number of these exciting prospects might have brighter futures or better opportunities in other organizations, and their best use to the Orioles might be as trade bait. As good as it feels to see a home-grown player make his MLB debut for the team that drafted him, don’t get too attached to each and every one.
But that should be exciting: The future the Orioles waited on has arrived. It’s not so much about developing each young guy as much as figuring out if each one can help the team win. The teaching happens more on the fly now, in team meetings ahead of series. And while there still is hope for every prospect who is called up, expect their contributions to come in key spots rather than as everyday contributors.
“Of course you want Jordan Westburg to develop,” Ryan O’Hearn told The Banner’s Andy Kostka. “But at the same time, it’s a bigger picture of where this team wants to go at the end of the year. But the beautiful thing about that is he’s got all the talent in the world and all the ability to help us get where we want to go.”
For minor leaguers, that means a longer wait for their big-league dreams. But for fans, the wait is over.