Aaron Hicks injured his left hamstring on July 24 in Philadelphia while racing in for a fly ball from Johan Rojas in the third inning. Colton Cowser replaced him in center field.
Cowser batted in the ninth inning and lined a tie-breaking double to left field off Phillies closer Craig Kimbrel that scored rookie Gunnar Henderson.
Henderson will be in the Orioles’ Opening Day lineup in March. Kimbrel will sit in the bullpen as the new closer. Cowser could be in the lineup, on the bench or at minor league camp.
“We’re going to have a really competitive spring,” Cowser said at the Birdland Caravan. “I know that we have a lot of really good outfielders on this team and a lot of guys who can play multiple positions, but I’m looking forward to competing and having a good time out at spring.”
Cowser needed more of those fantastic Philly finishes. He collected two more hits in 22 at-bats. The RBI was his fourth and last.
The third produced a go-ahead sacrifice fly that scored Hicks in the 10th inning on July 20 at Tropicana Field. The pitcher was Robert Stephenson, who signed a three-year, $33 million deal with the Angels earlier this week.
There were a few clutch moments sprinkled into Cowser’s first major league season, but he went 7-for-61 and didn’t get into a game after Aug. 11. His call-up in September lasted two days because, yes, Hicks was activated from the injured list.
That guy again.
Frustration didn’t penetrate Cowser. He slapped away the term when someone in the media used it this week.
“I would say that, just because you struggle doesn’t necessarily mean it’s always frustrating,” he said. “I think there were some certain struggles that I couldn’t really control, and I think that’s all about the frame of mind that you’re in. And also whether you take it as a learning experience or just kind of sulk in your sorrows. So I choose to take it as a learning experience.
“I think having the experience being up this past year and experiencing some adversities is really beneficial, especially offensively, being out on defense, things like that. I think just learning from the experience as a whole is going to be really beneficial for me this year.”
Starting slow at a new level was on brand for Cowser, the fifth pick in the 2021 draft and the No. 19 overall prospect per MLB Pipeline. It happened on his climb up the organizational ladder, as if each rung was greased.
And then, he’d begin to dominate again. The power, the bat-to-ball skills, the pitch recognition. Hitting to all fields. Hitting right-handers and lefties.
“I think it could definitely happen here,” he said. “I don’t necessarily know why it happens. It’s kind of happened everywhere. But hopefully it does happen here, yes.
“It kind of clicks in your head that, it’s the same game, I’m just going to go out there and play, play hard, have fun. And you might think like, ‘Why don’t you do that right away?’ You try to, but I think once you settle down a little bit, it makes it a lot easier.”
Cowser ended 2023 with a bang, his 455-foot grand slam off a left-hander in the Triple-A championship game giving Norfolk a 7-6 victory over Oklahoma City. He’s lifting weights four or five times a week, running two or three – agility drills, sprints, speed treadmill – and resting on weekends. He visited teammate and friend Adley Rutschman in Portland. And he kept believing in himself.
“I think having a couple of those cool moments, big moments, it definitely puts the mind at ease a little bit,” Cowser said, “and it allows you to go out there and make you realize, ‘Yeah, I can do this,’ and have the confidence moving forward.”
* Two new additions to the Orioles aren’t at the Caravan – pitching coach Drew French and assistant pitching coach Mitch Plassmeyer. French was the Braves bullpen coach and Plassmeyer worked as the Orioles minor league pitching coordinator.
“Drew comes so highly respected from the people who have worked with him as well as the players in the Atlanta and Houston days. And the coaching staff in Atlanta, some of those guys are good friends of mine and speak unbelievably highly of what he did there the last few years,” said manager Brandon Hyde.
“And adding Mitch, also, as his assistant. He’s kind of been a behind-the-radar type of guy here in the organization, but everybody knows what kind of job he does and the kind of relationships that he’s built, so we’re excited about adding both of those guys.”
“I’ve talked to French on the phone a few times,” said reliever Danny Coulombe. “He seems awesome. Everybody I’ve talked to just sings his praises. I’m really excited to get to work with him.
“I’ve never met Mitch. I’ve heard he’s awesome, too, so I’m excited to get to meet him and talk with him a little more. I’m really excited for this year. I think it’s going to mesh well.”
* Jordan Westburg has made 156 starts at shortstop in the minors but none last year during his rookie season. Not a single appearance.
Would he like to get a chance in 2024?
“Sure, if it comes up,” he said yesterday. “I don’t really care where I play. I want to be ready to play all nine positions if I have to be. Wherever the cards fall, I’m going to make sure I’m ready to play at that position.”
Westburg isn’t assuming that he’s on the club for Opening Day. He has to win a job.
“I do, yeah. One hundred percent,” he said.
“I don’t think I solidified anything in my role. I’d love to win a job, I’d love to be the starting second baseman, third baseman, whatever. I don’t really care where play. But I realize that this team’s dynamic is one of versatility and where we have a lot of athletic guys who can do a lot of different things, so I’m going to show up to spring and just try to win a job, fight really hard and try to do the whole iron sharpens iron thing.”
Westburg batted .260/.311/.404 with 17 doubles, two triples, three home runs and 23 RBIs in 68 games and 228 plate appearances, and he committed only one error. He’s raising the bar on himself.
“I think defensively at third base I need some work, so I’d like to clean up some of my actions over there,” he said. “In the box, I felt like at times I was just really inconsistent as to, like, my game. I felt like I kept my head above water when I was up here and I never felt like I was lost, but I did think that I accomplished some things in Triple-A that I didn’t really replicate here in the big leagues. Now, being hard on myself with that, but I do want to clean it up, I do want to be the best baseball player that I can be.
“I liked the experiences, I liked playing on a winning ballclub and getting to make a playoff push and get some playoff experience. I think that being in the clubhouse with some vet guys and some young guys alike was awesome. I learned a ton and I’m looking forward to learning again this year.”
Westburg hit 18 home runs in 91 games with Norfolk in 2022 and 18 more last year in 67. The same pop was lacking in the majors.
“I know I have power, I know I can hit for power,” he said. “It didn’t show itself last year. There were times when I was worried about it, there were times when I wasn’t worried about it. This is a big ballpark for a right-handed hitter, so I understand that power numbers to the left part of the field probably are going to be skewed a little bit. But I’m just going to continue to work on my approach. I think the power will come as my approach continues to evolve and as I get more comfortable in the box here in the big leagues. I trust that it will come. Maybe not replicate what I did in Triple-A, but we’ll see what I can do.”
* Former Orioles closer Zack Britton is no longer able to attend the Birdland Caravan today. Coby Mayo and Cade Povich will be staying for the events and participating in Topgolf at Germantown, the fan rally at South Hagerstown High School and Happy Hour at UNION Craft Brewing in Baltimore.
“Very sorry to have to cancel,” Britton said. “I had an injury that needs to get taken care of. I look forward to being back in Baltimore this year to see the fans and cheer on the Orioles.”
Outfielder Austin Hays also was a late scratch from the Caravan.