LAKELAND, Fla. — Grayson Rodriguez stepped onto the mound, dug in his back foot, lifted his left knee and whirled his right arm. The ball that flew out, the Orioles right-hander’s first offering of the afternoon, fired in at nearly 97 mph.
The next, a curveball, caught the bottom edge of the zone. His third, another four-seam fastball, missed high at 98.9 mph. And then before Tigers outfielder Akil Baddoo could lift his bat off his shoulder once during the entire at-bat, a sinker flew in at 98.4 mph, catching enough of the zone for a four-pitch strikeout.
In Rodriguez’s first appearance of the spring, the 23-year-old dispatched Baddoo in short order, then needed just 17 more pitches to record the next five outs of his two-inning appearance.
Before the outing, manager Brandon Hyde said he looked forward to seeing how Rodriguez fared against major league-level opposition. In his quest for an opening day roster spot, this spring will offer a sneak peek at how Rodriguez’s dominance in the minors would translate to the highest level.
That made these first two innings of the spring especially interesting. The top five in Detroit’s lineup were all Tigers regulars, including Miguel Cabrera. Rodriguez, one of the top pitching prospects in baseball, rolled through them early in the 10-3 loss to Detroit at Joker Marchant Stadium.
“Right now,” Rodriguez said, “my stuff is better than it was last year.”
The stuff, as baseball minds like to call it, can be described as filthy.
Hyde, though, emphasized how he wanted “to see him just throw a bunch of strikes.” And if there was one critique of his outing, Rodriguez said he wished he threw more first-pitch strikes (he managed three).
Rodriguez walked one, gifting Austin Meadows a four-pitch free pass. But he threw 12 of his 21 pitches for strikes, and he rebounded from the walk to force Cabrera into a double play on a 98.7 mph fastball.
“I love the confidence, and I think he’s always had great stuff,” catcher Adley Rutschman said. “If he says he has better stuff, then I’m really excited.”
This was Rodriguez at — or near — his best. And this was only the beginning. He was efficient, mixing all five of his pitches. In fact, he was too efficient, needing to throw additional pitches in the bullpen to reach his 40-pitch target.
Baltimore has difficult decisions ahead. After Rodriguez, right-hander Spenser Watkins entered and retired all six batters with two strikeouts in a pair of innings. Right-handers Kyle Gibson and Dean Kremer throw Friday, and right-hander Tyler Wells throws Saturday.
But if Rodriguez continues to throw like this, one decision, at least, will be easy.
“He has major league starter stuff,” Hyde said. “And now it’s just about command and seeing more major league hitters, and we’re encouraged by his first start.”
An even split
During Rutschman’s offseason training regimen, his hitting partner Zak Taylor noticed Rutschman’s swing looked “the best” it has since they’ve known each other — from both sides of the plate.
That was the one sticking point to an otherwise stellar rookie season. The switch-hitting Rutschman hit .174 against left-handed pitchers and .280 against right-handers. One simple explanation is that Rutschman had 202 more at-bats against righties than lefties, giving him more opportunities to slug 12 homers and find comfort. He hit one homer off a lefty.
“Last year was kind of the year that I’ve had splits opposite of right-handed [pitching] being worse than my left-handed,” Rutschman said. “It was kind of an interesting year in that sense.”
Rutschman still entered the offseason looking to straighten out those splits and “hoping to come into this year strong.”
It’s one game, and in early March no less, but Rutschman cranked a right-handed homer as part of a strong day at the plate. He took left-hander Matthew Boyd to deep left field, then returned to lash a single and work a walk from the left side of the plate.
A cloudy outlook
Left-hander DL Hall has a stated goal that he’d like to break camp as a member of the Orioles, and in particular a member of the starting rotation. But the second of those goals is in doubt — if not the first — despite Hall’s progression from a back injury.
Hall threw another bullpen Thursday, a positive sign after the beginning of his camp was delayed to lumbar discomfort.
But Hyde cooled expectations that Hall — one of the starting rotation candidates — will be prepared to head north as a starting pitcher.
“We’re definitely going to see where he is and how he’s built up to make a decision on it,” Hyde said. “Hopefully there’s no setbacks going forward. He won’t be, because he’s starting right now, he won’t be built-up like a starter will be. We’re going to build him up as much as possible and then decide then what to do with him, but really unsure right now.”