Spenser Watkins started the fifth and 162nd games for the Orioles in 2022. In between were impressive stretches, an injury, a demotion and a return.
What’s next for Watkins?
When you find out, please let him know.
Watkins signed another minor league deal with the Orioles in November after they outrighted him, and his contract was selected on April 11. He could stay on the 40-man or again become a casualty. He could be at spring training again as a starter or relief option or be pitching for a different team.
“Those thoughts definitely creep in, but just trying to focus on the fact that what I’ve done this year is great for an opportunity with this club, with another club, whatever it is,” he said.
“I’d love to stay here. Trust me. I’d absolutely love to be here and be a part of this organization for years to come, but we don’t know what that looks like in the future. My mind is open to that aspect, but I’m confident in the fact that I have an opportunity here, I have an opportunity with another team, as well, if this organization is not presented to me. So, it’s been an overall incredible year to know that I’ve done my job from the aspect of having an opportunity hopefully somewhere else if not here coming next year.”
The Orioles didn’t commit to a No. 5 starter after breaking camp, but Watkins appeared to emerge as the favorite. The buzz on him grew louder if you listened. He was a tightly held secret.
Watkins’ eighth start on May 22 ended in the first inning after Ji-Man Choi’s comebacker nailed him in the elbow. He was reinstated from the injured list and optioned to Triple-A Norfolk, didn’t pitch for the Orioles again until June 22, and allowed one run in four of his next five starts.
The ERA was whittled to 3.96 after Watkins held the White Sox to two runs over six innings on Aug. 24, but the Orioles gave him two more starts and optioned him.
Unsure whether he’d come back, especially with the possibility of top pitching prospect Grayson Rodriguez getting a late promotion, Watkins received the call on Sept. 23 while the Orioles placed Tyler Wells on the 15-day injured list with right shoulder inflammation.
Manager Brandon Hyde used Watkins for a three-inning relief appearance at Yankee Stadium on Oct. 1, grateful that the right-hander saved the bullpen in an 8-0 loss, and chose him to start the back end of the doubleheader against the Blue Jays. Jordan Lyles was shut down.
“There’s so many positives that I can take from this season – personally, as a team, just in my physical growth, my mental growth,” Watkins said. “I’m 30 years old and I feel like I’m 22 again, starting over, and still have that rookie aspect. I’ve learned so much this year from guys like Jordan and (Robinson) Chirinos, the veterans. I’ve learned so much more in this one year than I have probably in my entire career, so it’s been an incredible, incredible year.”
Asked to elaborate on that growth, Watkins replied, “Just to start off, the glaring ones are pitch development, stuff like that, and a lot of mental stuff that we worked on with Jess (Mohler), our skills coach. Just how to approach the game, and especially at this level, and how to handle certain failures and certain failures in real time and things like that. And on top of that, just learning really how to be a professional.
“We work on everything coming up through the minor leagues, and once you get to the big leagues there’s another step of becoming a true professional. I can’t tell you how great Jordan Lyles has been to our pitching staff and how to be a professional and how to take the ball every fifth day or take the ball when you’re called and go about your business the right way. So, those things have been the big ones.”
Time has enabled Watkins to better deal with the highs and lows of his profession. The promotions and demotions. The shifting between feeling good about his career and preparing to end it and get into coaching.
Watkins didn’t make his major league debut until July 2, 2021, seven years after the Tigers drafted him in the 30th round out of Western Oregon University. They released him six years later.
“I’ve done it my whole career basically, kind of the back and forth aspect of my style, I guess you could say,” Watkins said.
“This year was tough. Those years that I’ve dealt with the up and down stuff in my past definitely suited me better this year to understand, ‘OK, it’s just part of the business, it’s not personal. Partly because I’m not pitching well.’ That aspect of my career has contributed to so many things in my life when it comes to how to handle adversity, how to handle pressure, how to handle all those types of things. That’s been a big piece for sure.”
Though Watkins is ready to walk away from the Orioles if given another shove, his first preference is to stay with the team that rescued him.
They signed Watkins to that first minor league deal and finally introduced him to the majors, where he became an overnight success while approaching his 29th birthday by holding opponents to one run in each of his first three starts.
“I can’t thank the Angelos’, Mike Elias, the whole staff, everybody, for giving me the opportunity that they’ve given me to establish myself as a big leaguer,” he said. “It’s been a life-changing experience for me and my family, and there’s definitely a bond with the Orioles for me. A vast appreciation for this organization.”
Note: Right-hander Anthony Castro has elected free agency after the Orioles outrighted him this week, according to the minor league transactions.