The team isn’t clear to Grayson Rodriguez, but he knows that he’s going to pitch in games next month.
Might be with the Orioles. Might be a progression that returns him to Triple-A Norfolk, whose season runs through Sept. 28.
Rodriguez can feel it. Especially because he no longer feels anything in his right lat.
Baseball’s top pitching prospect, No. 2 overall with the Orioles, had his first bullpen session yesterday at the spring training complex in Sarasota. He worked off a half mound on Monday and threw 25 pitches yesterday on a full mound.
“I feel great,” he told MASNsports.com. “Obviously, the throwing program is going well, so there haven’t been any hiccups. Everything’s been going smooth. My arm feels great.”
Rodriguez had been throwing on flat ground and estimated that he reached 140-150 feet in distance. A major step since suffering a Grade 2 strain of the lat during a June 1 game with Norfolk.
“After it happened, I took off up until about two or three weeks ago from throwing completely,” he said. “Just doing rehab exercises, armchair-type stuff and lifting in the weight room. When I wasn’t throwing, I took the opportunity to get into kind of an offseason lift schedule, and then really start throwing about maybe three or four weeks ago.
“When it first happened, it was instant, it wasn’t anything that was lingering or that I could feel. I had never felt it before. I threw a changeup and felt it kind of tighten up. After that inning, went in the dugout and hit it with a soft tissue gun, loosened up, went back out, and obviously the velocity wasn’t there. Really, it just felt like it tightened up or it cramped. I didn’t think it was going to take this long, I guess you could say. It was kind of surprising.”
It was frightening to an organization that’s counting on Rodriguez, the 11th-overall selection in the 2018 draft out of Central Heights High School in Texas, to become the staff ace on a retooled team that’s ready to contend.
The Orioles appeared close to promoting Rodriguez. He had nothing else to prove after 11 starts, compiling a 2.09 ERA and 0.839 WHIP with 80 strikeouts in 56 innings and flashing stuff that sits comfortably atop a rotation.
His exit sent media scrambling for information, which the Orioles provided later that night.
Rodriguez has moved beyond the shutdown period, the long tossing, and will string together more bullpen sessions that don’t restrict him to only fastballs.
“We’re going to start integrating all my pitch types again – changeups, curveballs, sliders, cutters. And then here in the next two weeks, start seeing some hitters,” he said.
“I think we’ve been pretty fortunate throughout this process to really not run into any issues, so if anything, it’s ahead of schedule. Just been pretty fortunate that we haven’t had any hiccups.”
Which leads Rodriguez into believing that there’s baseball life for him in 2022 beyond those 56 innings.
He needs it.
“I think it’s really big,” he said. “This is something new to me. I’ve never been injured before, this is the first thing I’ve ever had to deal with. I guess you take for granted going out there every five days and pitching, but I really miss it, and I really look forward to getting back out there and throwing.
“I think if I were to miss the rest of the season, it would be pretty tough, but I’m really excited to know I’ll probably have that last month to go.”
Whether it’s with the playoff-chasing Orioles or in Norfolk isn’t an obsession. He just wants the ball again outside of a complex bullpen or back field.
“Really, something I’ve always said is that I just worry about going out and making my starts. Where that’s at is out of my hands,” he said.
“Right now, we’re going to focus on pitching, and if that’s in Baltimore, then great, and if it’s in Norfolk, that’s just fine. But the focus right now is just to get back out there and get on a mound and get some of the innings that we lost.”
Recovery from injury hasn’t prevented Rodriguez from tracking the Orioles and the friends who made it onto their roster.
“It’s a lot of fun,” he said. “Obviously, they’re playing a lot better than a lot of people thought, and that’s amazing. I think it puts us ahead of our rebuild.
“It’s really cool from a minor league standpoint, with Adley (Rutschman) up there and Terrin Vavra and some of those guys getting up there and getting their shots. Everybody feels a little bit closer now that it’s teammates that you’ve played with in the minor leagues that are there. It creates a good atmosphere.”
Rodriguez will report to camp next spring expected to be in the rotation, no matter what happens over the next few months. Left-hander DL Hall could make his debut in 2022. Kyle Bradish is back with the Orioles after a stint on the injured list. Dean Kremer has rebounded from a horrific 2021 season.
“It’s a lot of fun to think about,” Rodriguez said. “Obviously, me and DL being high school picks from the old regime, I feel like that we were picked for a reason. Being both high school kids, we have a pretty good, friendly competition going on. Kyle Bradish is another good friend of mine, and it’s a lot of fun just to have friendly competitions and compete. We love playing together, we love pitching together, so we look forward to it.”
Rutschman was baseball’s No. 1 prospect until losing his eligibility, and he’s been replaced by Norfolk shortstop Gunnar Henderson, drafted one round after him in 2019.
“That’s phenomenal,” Rodriguez said. “I actually texted him whenever it came out. You know, it speaks something about our organization. When Adley graduated or whatever, when he was No. 1, and now Gunnar being slotted, it really shows that, as an organization, we know what we’re doing.
“The hitters are obviously swinging the bat pretty well. And Gunnar’s a great kid. He’s fun to hang out with. It’s pretty special.”