Spenser Watkins didn’t have a pre-arranged agreement to stay with the Orioles after they outrighted him to Triple-A Norfolk earlier this month. He was a free agent with the right to join any team that offered him a contract.
He never wanted to leave, and the Orioles made certain that he stayed in the organization.
Watkins agreed to a minor league deal on Thursday that includes an invitation to spring training, where he’ll attempt to again crack the 40-man roster.
“Before this happened, there wasn’t any kind of discussion,” said Watkins, who’s working out at his home in Scottsdale, Ariz. “I think we had an idea, at least we were hoping, that they liked me and from the experience that it was going to be an option, to get an opportunity to come back.”
Executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias called Watkins, 29, to inform him of the decision to waive and outright him, but also noted the team’s interest in continuing their relationship.
“He gave me a good, kind of, ‘Hey, we like what we saw, we’re going to stay in touch the next couple days, looking to bring you back,’ ” Watkins recalled. “So, had an idea once I was taken off the 40-man that that was kind of going to be the route we were looking at. And then it was up to how things played out.”
Watkins automatically became a free agent after the deadline hit following his outright. He wasn’t able to just accept the assignment. He needed a new contract and got it.
With a team that remains in rebuild mode and certainly can’t promise a spirited run at the playoffs.
“I really, really, really enjoyed my time with the organization last year, from top to bottom, how everything’s run, from the front office to the coaching staff,” said Watkins, the former 30th-round draft pick of the Tigers who signed his first minor league deal on Jan. 29. “The teammates we had, it’s a great group of guys, so there’s a comfort aspect, for sure. I just really enjoy the atmosphere, and the direction that Birdland is going, it’s something really fun to be a part of.
“You know my story and my history. I think that’s where I flourish. It’s almost a challenge to be part of something like that, to be that group that maybe is the one to turn it around. For me, it’s like a fun piece to add to already what we’re trying to accomplish.”
Watkins made 10 starts and six relief appearances in his first exposure to the majors, which came after he decided to retire and began coaching the freshman team at Paradise Valley High in Phoenix. Practices already started.
The Orioles gave him a chance, and more are coming. The rotation is far from set. The bullpen has room for a long man.
“Everybody wants to get themselves into the best possible opportunity for themselves,” Watkins said. “That’s what we were looking at. There’s a great opportunity here for me to come and contribute at the big league level and continuing to get my feet wet and establishing myself, so we thought this was the best fit for me and a great place for me to contribute.”
Watkins certainly did that early upon his arrival, retiring all three batters faced in his July 2 debut in Anaheim and allowing just one run in each of his first three starts. He joined Dean Kremer as the only Orioles to surrender one earned run or fewer in each of their first three career starts.
The momentum wasn’t sustained, with Watkins losing his next seven starts while posting a 10.57 ERA, being optioned to Norfolk and landing in the bullpen after his return in September.
“I think I reflect the most on the beginning. Obviously, I was having a lot of great success and I was learning a ton, but also I reflect a lot on the growing pains and how to be a true professional going through the ups and downs at the highest level,” Watkins said.
“It’s really easy to kind of get swayed one way or the other, so I feel like this year I’m reflecting on how much I was able to really grow as a professional.”
He’s also devising a plan to counter the adjustments made by hitters who became more forceful against him as the summer progressed.
Watkins believes that he fell into a trap of trying to make larger adjustments than necessary, which only compounded his problems. Go smaller rather than overhauling a particular pitch. Simplify his approach and work from there.
One notable change is Watkins’ decision to train at Driveline Baseball, which focuses on data-driven player development.
“I went up to Seattle and did the whole motion capture and everything, got a biomechanical analysis, and then put together a good program with them,” he said. “Really hammering the training on that aspect.”
The Orioles didn’t suggest it. Watkins said the idea arose during conversations with agent Matthew Gaeta.
“This year has opened so many doors for me in my career and we thought at this stage, let’s put the investment into, how can we maximize this right now?” Watkins said. “We have a great opportunity to continue to have success and get opportunities in this game. We’re thinking, let’s maximize, let’s do whatever we can to put us in that position.”
Watkins will report with pitchers and catchers by Feb. 15 and try to secure a role, whether as a starter or reliever. He just wants to pitch in the majors and delay the complete transition into coaching, which he does now only between seasons.
“I think with my history, I’ve been a very versatile ... I almost call myself a utility pitcher at this point,” he said. “I think that’s something that is of value in my game, so for me, I’m looking to win a spot at any position that they deem me necessary on the staff. I’m coming in open-minded, just ready to compete.”