For the first time in the Mike Elias era, the 2023 Baltimore Orioles entered the season with clear expectations of making the playoffs.
So far, they’ve been living up to those expectations with a 28-16 record that’s the second-best figure in baseball.
While virtually everything from this season has been going well so far, there is a rather tricky situation that’s been happening on the roster: their two most-hyped rookies haven’t exactly hit the ground running.
Gunnar Henderson and Grayson Rodriguez have each shown signs of their potential this year, but neither of them have instantly become stars in their first full season in the majors.
Let’s explore the good and the bad from Henderson and Rodriguez before looking at the big picture of trying to be a playoff team while developing your top prospects.
The story with Henderson is the same story as it was from my article a month ago: his walk rate and strikeout rate are both incredibly high.
Among 171 qualified hitters, Henderson is in the top ten for both walk rate and strikeout rate. He walks 17.4 percent of the time but also strikes out in 31.5 percent of his plate appearances. This unique combo of walks and strikeouts has provided him with an OPS of .711 and a 99 OPS+ that is almost perfectly league-average.
Henderson being in the top ten for walk rate would be encouraging during any season, but it’s especially notable as a rookie. According to FanGraphs, the league-average walk rate for rookies this year is 8.8 percent and Henderson is nearly doubling that.
Meanwhile, striking out frequently isn’t a big deal if you’re successfully selling out for power, but that hasn’t quite been the case for Henderson. His isolated power sits at .172, an above-average figure that’s still underwhelming for someone who isn’t putting the ball in play that often.
There are 15 players with a strikeout rate above 30 percent this year and Henderson ranks 12th in isolated power among them.
Henderson walking 17.4 percent of the time is wonderful, now he just needs the other 82.6 percent of his plate appearances to start going better.
As for Rodriguez, the pros and cons through his first eight starts can be summarized with one word: inconsistency.
The four best starts from Rodriguez this year have seen him provide 20.2 innings with four earned runs, an ERA of 1.74. Meanwhile, his four worst starts have combined for 16.1 innings and 23 earned runs, a noticeably higher ERA of 12.67.
Every pitcher on the planet will have a better ERA if you add together his best starts and compare them to his worst starts, but it still illustrates that Rodriguez’s starts have offered an especially high ceiling and a low floor this year.
While Rodriguez’s game-to-game ERA might as well be a coin flip, his K/9 is already a very solid 10.7. That leads the Orioles rotation and ranks 16th among 109 starters with at least 35 innings this year.
The ability to get a strikeout in a big spot has unsurprisingly helped during his good starts, such as when took care of Randy Arozarena with runners on first and third and two outs in the fifth inning against the Tampa Bay Rays.
The fact that the Orioles are in playoff contention despite their two main rookies still figuring things out can be used as an argument both for and against being patient with Henderson and Rodriguez.
On one hand, why worry about the rookies if the team is still winning without them being fully developed?
They’ve survived so far with Henderson being a league-average hitter who strikes out too much and Rodriguez being inconsistent, so they might as well give their elite prospects the benefit of the doubt to get better between now and the end of the year.
Henderson doesn’t need to be an elite slugger if players like Adley Rutschman are hitting well and Rodriguez just needs to have an ERA that makes him a respectable #5 starter if someone like Tyler Wells can maintain an ERA under 3.00.
On the other hand, the fact that the Orioles are contending means there’s a greater sense of urgency than prior seasons to have the best roster possible in the short term.
If Rodriguez puts together a rough outing on Saturday against the Toronto Blue Jays, it would be fair to wonder if returning Cole Irvin to the rotation could provide the roster with greater stability. Meanwhile, if Henderson doesn’t improve his offense by July, it could be worth exploring a deadline rental to boost the offense at third base.
While this is a reasonable thought process in the short term, there’s one major problem with it in the long term: when exactly will these rookies have a chance to develop without the pressure of trying to contend going forward?
If the Orioles waited until later to promote someone like Rodriguez, he likely would’ve still had some rookie issues to figure out. The same would be true if they demoted him and brought him back to the majors later this year.
It’s better to let Rodriguez work through his inconsistency now with the hope he’ll be better by July than to have a less experienced version of Rodriguez on the team in July pitching in important games.
The Orioles building a contender without major contributions from any top prospects besides Rutschman is an encouraging development. However, it also means that every prospect after Rutschman won’t get the chance to debut in a low-pressure setting like he did.
Regardless of what happens with Henderson and Rodriguez, it serves as a reminder that this is just the tip of the iceberg for figuring out what to do with top prospects while trying to contend.
At some point this year we should expect Colton Cowser and Jordan Westburg to be promoted to the majors based on both having an OPS above 1.000 in AAA. Meanwhile, Heston Kjerstad is doing well in AA and the same is true for Jackson Holliday in High-A.
12th home run of the season for Jordan Westburg
109.9 mph/371 feet pic.twitter.com/FW8aKNNLWI
— The Verge- An Orioles MiLB Podcast (@BSLOnTheVerge) May 18, 2023
It’d be wonderful if all four debuted with no major concerns, but that’s hardly a guarantee. If one or more of them struggles to start their major league career, the Orioles could end up being faced with the same problem they might have to deal with for Henderson and/or Rodriguez.
The low-stakes environment for players to develop from 2019 to 2021 is now a thing of the past. Now, the Orioles must figure out the best way to develop talent for the long term while trying to win in the short term for 2023 and beyond.
Rose Katz is a recent graduate of the University of Maryland’s journalism school, where she worked for The Diamondback as the online managing editor and a sports blogger. As a student, she spent almost all of her time on campus in The Diamondback’s newsroom or at Xfinity Center, Ludwig Field and Maryland Stadium. Rose gained intern experience with the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network (MASN).