Will the injuries to John Means and Grayson Rodriguez – and the innings limits that are sure to come – push back the timeline of the O’s rebuild and make 2023 another lost season?
It was never going to be as simple as a cramp.
Even though that was the initial word coming from Norfolk after top-rated Orioles’ pitching prospect Grayson Rodriguez left last Wednesday’s game in the sixth inning.
So when the update came from Mike Elias on Sunday that Rodriguez has a Grade 2 lat strain – and that his season could be over – it was frustrating but not surprising.
Now that we’re over the initial shock and disappointment…let’s look at the real potential cost of this injury.
Just how much does it set Rodriguez – and the Orioles – back in terms of their timeline?
No question about it: Rodriguez is a critical building block of this rebuild.
Although he wasn’t drafted by the current regime, he has developed into a prospect so dominant at every minor league level that multiple outlets have named him the game’s #1 pitching prospect.
And with the quantity of upper-level pitching prospects thin at best in the Orioles’ organization, there’s no question that the team’s plan for getting back to contention involved having Rodriguez at the top of the rotation.
Quick sidebar: As for the pitching pipeline being “thin at best,” here’s what I mean: Of the top 25 Orioles prospects according to MLB Pipeline, just six are pitchers: Rodriguez, DL Hall, Kyle Bradish, Mike Baumann, Drew Rom and Kevin Smith.
Bradish, of course, has already arrived in Baltimore and has shown flashes of strong potential while posting a 6.82 ERA so far.
Baumann has also pitched in Baltimore in both 2021 and 2022 has a major league ERA of 7.29 in ten appearances.
Smith was removed from the 40-man roster in April of this year and has a 1.56 WHIP at AAA Norfolk so far this season.
That leaves Hall, who has electric stuff and high expectations…and Rom, who is still at AA Bowie (who has allowed opposing hitters to post a .292 average against this season.)
Obviously it’s too soon to give up on any of those pitchers. And there could be new faces populating the top of the prospect lists at some point later this season.
But the overall point is…there doesn’t seem to be a ton of highly-rated pitching prospects on the horizon.
So that makes the loss of significant time for Grayson Rodriguez even more troubling.
Now…you might argue that since the team isn’t really trying to contend in 2022 not having Rodriguez on a major league mound isn’t really that much of an issue.
And to an extent, you’d be right. Having Rodriguez here would not substantially change the fortunes of the 2022 Orioles.
They’ll finish in last place without him — and they’d have finished in last place with him. (Though the season would have been a lot more fun if he’d been starting every fifth day in Baltimore.)
But having Rodriguez’s season end after throwing just 56 innings in 2022 could pose a big problem moving forward.
That’s because such a low innings total in 2022 would likely result in a pretty strict innings limit in 2023.
How strict? And how would that impact Rodriguez’s workload in Baltimore next season?
There’s no set-in-stone rule when it comes to limiting innings for starting pitchers returning from injury.
But most organizations have guidelines that they try to follow. Typically, you don’t see massive spikes in innings pitched year-over-year for highly touted prospects.
In fact, the Orioles are doing this very thing with former Rule 5 selection Tyler Wells this season as he transitions into becoming a Major League starting pitcher.
Wells, of course, saw his 2018 season come to an end in August…and eventually had Tommy John surgery in 2019.
With the pandemic shutting down Minor League Baseball in 2020, that meant Wells had not pitched professionally in more than two years when he made the Orioles’ Opening Day roster as a Rule 5 pick in 2021.
Wells was used in a bullpen role in 2021 and ultimately pitched 57 innings. So to avoid having him skyrocket from 57 innings to potentially more than triple that number as a starting pitcher in 2022, the Orioles are “managing” Wells’ workload.
They are doing this by having Wells grab as many extra rest days as possible whenever the schedule permits and limiting his innings pitched per start. To date, Wells has made 11 starts and pitched six innings just twice and is averaging just 4 1/3 innings per start.
The guess is that Wells will be capped at between 100 and 120 innings in 2022 – and the team is trying to manage that workload to avoid shutting him down completely before the end of the season.
In the case of Rodriguez, we’re not talking about a scenario quite as drastic. Like Wells, Rodriguez also did not pitch professionally in 2020 thanks to the pandemic. But he did pitch in 2019, when he threw 94 innings at low-A Delmarva.
In 2021, Rodriguez threw 103 innings over 23 starts – with the team managing those innings in much the same way they’ve done with Wells: shorter starts (only one start of more than five innings in 23 total appearances) and pitching once every sixth day.
So with 103 innings pitched in 2021…and 56 innings pitched in 2022, what will a healthy season look like for Rodriguez in 2023?
With such a talented prospect, it’s hard to imagine the Orioles allowing Rodriguez to triple his innings pitched year-over-year. So a 150-inning season seems highly unlikely.
I would image we’re talking about something similar to the Tyler Wells plan, with a cap of maybe 120 innings or so.
And how do you get there?
You limit him to shorter appearances and get extra rest when possible. So we should expect a season of five-inning starts for Rodriguez with a few six-inning appearances mixed in along the way.
Now…if the focus for the 2023 Orioles isn’t on winning, then a strict innings limit for Rodriguez isn’t a big deal, right?
But what if the Rodriguez injury – and the subsequent innings limit – is the catalyst for the front office pumping the brakes a bit…and pushing back the “return to winning” focus until 2024 at the earliest?
After all, you’ll have John Means returning at some point next year from his Tommy John surgery – and you know there will be a strict limit for Means as well.
I could easily imagine a scenario where the front office explains that the goal for 2023 is to build up Means and Rodriguez – while prepping DL Hall – to lead a rotation designed to push for a postseason berth in 2024.
(And I could also imagine a scenario where the front office keeps Rodriguez in AAA next spring just long enough to get that extra year of service time. But that’s a topic for another day…)
I don’t write any of this to put blame on Grayson Rodriguez. Injuries are part of the game and he certainly didn’t intend to suffer a lat strain.
But most of Birdland is ready to transition into the next phase of this rebuild. We were hoping that the second half of 2022 would mean seeing Rodriguez, Hall, Adley Rutschman and maybe Kyle Stowers get their feet wet with significant time in Baltimore.
Now – with potentially 40% of the 2023 rotation returning from seasons that were cut severely short by injury in 2022 – it just feels like that transition may not be as near as we once hoped.