It seemed that Birdland Caravan may have hit another gear on Saturday afternoon in downtown Baltimore. A packed crowd, some braving long lines in the frigid cold, greeted the Orioles at their happy hour event at Checkerspot Brewing Company.
It is not far from that spot, at Oriole Park at Camden Yards, that those fans hope some of those players will lead the Orioles back to the playoffs as the countdown is on for the 2023 season.
Adley Rutschman, fresh off his second-place finish for American League Rookie of the Year and 12th-place finish for AL MVP, appreciated the passion he saw from the fans.
“Absolutely, the players feel that," he said. “It’s just a buzz. You know, and energy that you feel coming to events like this. You see the people are excited, and when you feel that kind of encouragement and support, it only helps everyone come together and continue to try and do great things.”
After a season when he batted .254/.362/.445 with 35 doubles and 13 homers, Rutschman produced 5.3 Wins Above Replacement, according to FanGraphs.com. That led the Orioles and tied for ninth among all AL hitters. And Rutschman played just 113 big league games. But he spent his offseason still looking for ways to improve his play.
“I mean, without getting into too nitty-gritty specifics, because you know the level we are at things become so refined. The simplest thing, from moving your hands an inch back to dropping them a bit more, becomes so refined," Rutschman said. I’ll just say our hitting coaches do a great job with us and give us very good, specific things to work on in the offseason. It’s been nice having that help.”
Rutschman was asked how he feels the Orioles will handle increased expectations and maybe some pressure to win since the club finished the 2022 season with 83 victories, 31 more than it had in 2021.
“I think it’s more exciting than anything,” he said. “If you take the expectations and kind of reverse it to the perspective we have is on what we can do together and just trying to elevate each other, it takes expectations and makes it more exciting than anything. I think that’s the approach that we have, and you know we are really just focused on ourselves. And when you feel this fan support, it just adds on to that. I’m excited.”
He said new O’s catcher James McCann has already reached out to talk with him, and Rutschman is excited to work with his new teammate in spring training.
Rodriguez set for rotation bid: The Orioles' top pitching prospect, right-hander Grayson Rodriguez, spent a few minutes at Saturday’s event working with Rutschman behind a bar. Soon he will work with him on the diamond in trying to make the O’s rotation. The Orioles have said it is very possible that the kid makes the starting five. He believes it too, of course.
“Personally, yes, but we have to show up in Sarasota and make sure we take care of our business there," Rodriguez said. "You know, going out and throwing a lot of strikes.
“It’s been a long offseason. I’ve counted the days. So just really being ready for it, obviously getting to see the success they had last year. And some of those guys I’ve played with, now just being up there with them trying to win ballgames.”
Rodriguez went 6-2 with a 2.62 ERA last season. He had a six-start stretch, leading up to when he strained his right lat June 1, where his ERA was 0.79. He also started working a cut fastball into his repertoire more in 2022.
“We’ve seen some things there that we think we can get better," he said. "Added that to the arsenal and started throwing it a little bit more. It gives the hitters a little bit different look than a fastball. Late in games when guys start to sit fastball or velocity drops a little bit, the cutter gives them something else they have to worry about. Last year was a big step forward with the cutter for me, being able to throw it in any count, able to throw strikes with it and know where I am going with it in the zone."
Hall ready to take the ball: Lefty pitching prospect DL Hall is ready to chase a rotation spot along with his good friend Rodriguez. Hall will begin the season back in the rotation after ending 2022 in the Baltimore bullpen, where he gave up just one run his last 8 2/3 innings. He was asked about joining a host of O’s minor league players on all the recent top 100 lists that have come out.
“It’s super exciting,” said Hall, who got his highest ranking, at No. 75, from Baseball America. “To be around all these guys and to see all this talent, it’s unreal, really to be honest. It’s gonna be crazy and will be super exciting for fans as well.
“It’s been a whirlwind (the farm improvement in recent years). It’s made a 180, for the better. You see how the farm has bolstered an unbelievable amount of prospects that can all play at the big league level.”
Vespi shooting for opening day return: O’s lefty reliever Nick Vespi announced in December he would pitch for Team Italy in the World Baseball Classic in March. But early January hernia surgery will now keep him out of the WBC. However, earlier reports that indicated he could miss opening day, he did say yesterday, may not prove accurate.
“The surgery went great. I’m feeling well,” he said. “Cleared to throw, so I am starting to throw already and I’ll be ready for opening day.”
Vespi recorded a 4.10 ERA in 25 Orioles games with an ERA of 0.00 in 28 2/3 innings at the Triple-A level.
"It’s a little disappointing (to miss the WBC)," he said. "That would have been a really cool experience, but at the end of the day, I’m mostly focused on opening day and winning with the Orioles.”
O's executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias and manager Brandon Hyde also took part in Saturday's event, as did Heston Kjerstad, Terrin Vavra and Ramón Urías.
On a bitterly cold day, there was a long line of fans waiting to get in and some waited for an hour or more. But several fans also told me they appreciated that O's players came out in the frigid conditions to greet them in the line. The Orioles bought a beverage for many fans in that line. That was a nice gesture by the team toward its fans, who sure brought the passion on a cold day in winter in Baltimore.