Ryan Fuller saw the progress more distinctly in the batting cages tucked within the bowels of Major League Baseball stadiums across the country, away from the cameras and the eyes and the expectations with which Colton Cowser found himself grappling.

He was a 23-year-old rookie. He arrived with the Orioles in July, in the middle of a race toward an AL East title, and Baltimore needed Cowser to produce immediately.

Yet, at just about every level Cowser has ever played, there has been an adjustment period. Fuller, the co-hitting coach for the Orioles, knew it. So, too, did the front office. But the pressure during a postseason push gives a midseason call-up less of a soft landing than his promotions to different levels of the minors — and as such, the leash was shorter.

After a month, Cowser was back in the minors.

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It wasn’t an unmitigated success. But to Fuller, those batting practice sessions out of view showed him how quickly Cowser could adapt, if given the playing time. He was fed a steady diet of off-speed pitches below the zone and fastballs above the zone — the classic pitfalls for young players to chase. Fuller drove home the importance of a strong lower half, using the legs to plant, twist and drive the baseball.

And even when Cowser was optioned in August and subsequently left off the Orioles’ postseason roster, Fuller went into the offseason with an unshakeable belief in what Cowser could deliver in Baltimore. Just give him some time, Fuller thought, and Cowser would reach the heights he did everywhere else — at Cypress Ranch High School in Texas, at Sam Houston State, and each level of the Orioles’ farm system.

If given the chance, Cowser believes he can find that success in the majors, too.

“I think it can definitely happen here,” Cowser said. “I don’t know necessarily why it happens. It kind of has happened everywhere. Hopefully it does happen.”

Colton Cowser (76) poses for a portrait during Photo Day at Ed Smith Stadium in Sarasota on 2/23/23. The Baltimore Orioles’ spring training session runs from mid-February through the end of March. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Banner)

That makes this spring training even more pivotal for Cowser, who is battling for what could be the fourth spot in a crowded outfield group that already features three veteran everyday starters in Cedric Mullins, Austin Hays and Anthony Santander. Cowser’s ability to play all three outfield positions helps his case over slugging prospect Heston Kjerstad, for instance, but Ryan McKenna and Sam Hilliard are also vying for that role.

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In that sense, there’s no guarantee for Cowser to be on the opening day roster. But there is a suspicion, built off Cowser’s rise through the minors, that a troublesome 26-game span to begin his major league career can give way to a cloudburst of offensive production.

“We had a hunch that if this guy gets to continue to play, he’s going to make adjustments and figure it out,” Fuller said. “We’re looking forward to him doing that, and he’s attacked the offseason incredibly well this year.”

When the 2021 first-round pick arrived at High-A Aberdeen in 2022, he hit .222 with 45 strikeouts in his first 29 games. Double-A Bowie was an exception, sprinting through that level with a .341 average in 49 games, but his arrival in Triple-A coincided with another cooldown: a .219 average with 38 strikeouts in 27 games.

Cowser — lauded for his decision making at the plate, his power and his bucket loads of potential — recorded seven hits in his first 26 games as a major leaguer. He finished that spell with a .115 average and 22 strikeouts. He hasn’t shied away from that stat line, however.

“It’s all about the frame of mind that you’re in,” Cowser said, “whether you take it as a learning experience or you kind of sulk in your sorrows. So, I choose to take it as a learning experience.”

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Cowser is still Baltimore’s fourth-ranked prospect, according to Baseball America, and his slow start to his time in the majors hasn’t quenched the trade discussions around him when the Orioles make calls for available starting pitchers.

Teams around the league would welcome a talent such as Cowser into their outfield. Still, Cowser could have an equally bright future at Camden Yards.

He finished his time in High-A Aberdeen by hitting .289 in his next 33 games. For Norfolk in 2023, Cowser hit .300 — including a grand slam in the Triple-A national championship that the Tides won. At a certain point, it all clicks for Cowser. He settles in, convinces himself the game is still the same one he’s played all his life, and the positive results soon follow.

“You might think, ‘Well, why don’t you do that right away?’” Cowser said. “You try to. But once you settle down a little bit, it makes it a lot easier.”

The easy answer is confidence, Fuller said. He took notice of the movement patterns of Cowser during those first 26 games in the majors, the rigidness in his swing that alters his bat path. That stiffness was never there in Triple-A last year, and in the batting cage during Cowser’s time in the majors, Fuller saw it melt away almost immediately.

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It will take some time before Cowser digs into the batter’s box in a major league ballpark and is as easy, fluid and free as he is for the Tides, where he posted a .937 on-base-plus-slugging percentage in 2023. Now that those 26 games of scuffling are out of the way, though, Cowser could enter the spring ahead of the curve, ready and able to turn the page.

“The confidence, the movement patterns, they all go together,” Fuller said. “When he is playing free, it’s a thunderous bat. And we’re really looking forward to him doing that for us up here.”

Andy Kostka is an Orioles beat writer for The Baltimore Banner. He previously covered the Orioles for The Baltimore Sun. Kostka graduated from the University of Maryland and grew up in Rockville. 

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