Notes on prospects still raking, pitcher disengagements and Rodriguez's home start

SARASOTA, Fla. – When Connor Norby slammed an RBI single to left at 94.1 mph and later Heston Kjerstad smoked an RBI double to center at 105 mph Saturday in Dunedin, those were the two most recent examples of the young kids continuing to swing the bat well and impress at O’s spring camp.

Some of these prospects won’t make the Opening Day roster this time around but they are nonetheless making an impact and starting to make a mark on this team and its future. Yes it’s just spring and a small sample, but some of the OPS figures for this group of talented young players are strong: 

1.447 – Heston Kjerstad
.884 – Jackson Holliday
.857 – Joey Ortiz
.809 – Connor Norby
.793 – Colton Cowser

Norby hit the ball hard twice Saturday, going 2-for-2. He is 7-for-21 this spring with three doubles and two RBIs. He led the O’s minors last year with 29 homers and produced an .886 OPS between High-A Aberdeen, Double-A Bowie and Triple-A Norfolk.

“He has swung the bat extremely well (this camp),” manager Brandon Hyde said after the Orioles lost 8-6 in Saturday’s matchup with Toronto. “He’s making strides defensively, but we like the bat a lot. Had a really good minor league year last year at the upper levels and he’s going to have a chance to hit.”

Kjerstad is now 9-for-19 (.474) with six runs, a double, a triple, two homers and four RBIs. His OPS tops all O’s hitters this spring and he’s tied for the club homer lead with Austin Hays.

Ortiz could miss a few days as Hyde informed reporters pregame Saturday that he is in concussion protocol after taking a grounder to his head a few days ago. He has not yet been cleared to return to the field. 

About those disengagements: With the new rules in place in 2023, pitchers are allowed just two disengagements per plate appearance this year. That is, the pitcher may twice throw over to first base, step off the pitching rubber or do one of each action. If a runner advances a base, the disengagement count resets. A pitcher can try for a pickoff a third time, but if he fails to get the runner out, a balk is called and the runner advances 90 feet.

So I asked Hyde if he feels teams will try to conserve those pickoff tries this year so as to not run out.

“It’s definitely a feel-out process right now with holding runners,” he said.  "It’s hard to tell in spring training games. We haven’t run very much. That’s been on purpose with a few of our guys. We want them to get their legs under them early on. Other teams are doing that also. But we’ll run more as we go along in camp.

“That is definitely going to be different with the limited number of pickoffs. I think we were at the top of pickoffs as a pitching staff last year in the big leagues, so we’re going to have to make some adjustments there. With that being said, we are one of the best at holding runners too. It’s something we have talked about. But these (spring) games, it hasn’t shown its true colors yet."  

Rodriguez today: After making starts this spring for the Orioles in Lakeland and Fort Myers, today right-hander Grayson Rodriguez takes the mound in an Orioles home game. The No. 6 prospect in the sport per Baseball America and No. 7 via will pitch against a Boston Red Sox split squad at Ed Smith Stadium.

“Everything has been good. Had a healthy offseason. Came here ready to pitch,” Rodriguez told me earlier in camp, before he had thrown in his first spring game.

On March 2 on the road against Detroit he pitched two scoreless innings on 21 pitches with a walk and a strikeout. His fastball averaged 97.9 mph, per Statcast, and topped at 98.9 that afternoon. On March 7 against the Twins, he allowed three hits and one run over 2 2/3 innings on 55 pitches. The fastball averaged 97.5 mph and again topped at 98.9.

I asked Rodriguez if he feels he has pretty much checked every box he needed to in his 68 career minor league starts. Is he now big league ready?

“I’m just going to go out and pitch," he said. "That is all I can do. It’s up to the front office and the coaching staff to make the decision when it’s my time. But throwing the ball well right now." 

Rodriguez said the O’s clubhouse has proven to be a strong mix of up-and-comers from the farm and some veterans.

“It’s cool to see a lot of these new faces and some familiar faces from the minor league side,” he said.

Today he gets to see an American League East opponent for the first time in spring, and throw in front of his home fans for the first time as well.  

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