BOWIE - A few years before he became a first-round draft pick with a big signing bonus and later a marked man in professional baseball, right-handed pitcher Grayson Rodriguez was just another teenager in Nacogdoches, Texas, rooting for the big league team closest to home.
But the team he rooted for lost a lot. They were rebuilding.
The teenage Grayson would get to see that team go from worst to first and win the World Series. Now as an Orioles minor league pitcher with Double-A Bowie, he is one of the key players on the O’s farm that Orioles fans hope can help do the same thing for their team in Baltimore.
“I grew up an Astros fan when I was younger, so I was able to see that rebuild firsthand,” Rodriguez told me in a recent interview at Prince George’s Stadium. “And, to see their bad years, the 100-loss years, where there were not many fans at the games, and to see them flip it over. It was like a flip of the switch and they’ve been in the playoffs ever since, World Series, everything like that. I think kind of seeing that firsthand, it makes things easier on me. Just to kind of know that that is going to happen for us.”
Not only is Rodriguez, the No. 11 overall pick in 2018, confident this can happen in Baltimore and that he can be a big part of it, but some of the same staff from that Houston rebuild is trying to pull it off here too. The Astros lost 100 or more games from 2011 through 2013, then won 70, 86 and 84 over the next three years, and a year later they won the World Series.
Rodriguez saw it happen from a distance as a fan just over two hours from Houston. Now he is a player right in the middle of this O’s rebuild, ranked as baseball’s best pitching prospect and the overall No. 8 prospect by MLBPipeline.com and No. 9 on the Baseball America top 100.
“You know, experiencing the rough down years and seeing it turn around (you know it can happen),” he said. “They were in the World Series the year before I got drafted in 2018. Seeing the whole process kind of develop and what they were able to do. And knowing that Mike Elias and Sig (Mejdal) and those guys were a part of that, and Chris Holt, obviously they know what they’re doing. But from a fan’s perspective, now being a player, it’s kind of cool to think about.”
When O’s fans think about a potentially better future, they think about players like Rodriguez, Adley Rutschman, Gunnar Henderson, Jordan Westburg, Colton Cowser and several others currently on the farm. I asked Rodriguez if that puts pressure on the prospects. He said he doesn’t see it that way.
“I think it’s a blast,” he said. “We’ve been able to see it some games here in Bowie. You know, fans come out. When Adley was here it was a lot of fun. Kyle (Stowers) is absolutely mashing the ball right now. It’s fun to see and visualize your teammates could be teammates potentially for the rest of your career. To know that we’re going to be good. It’s a lot of fun to think about.”
When he interacts with fans, Rodriguez said they tell him they think he and his peers can be part of a big turnaround in Baltimore.
“Yeah, we do hear that a lot,” he said. “And that’s not taking anything from anybody in the big leagues. We’ve got a lot of good guys up there, and guys that are going to play for us for a long time. But, it’s kind of nice to see that. The fans are ready for guys that are in A-ball, Triple-A, whatever it may be. It’s nice.”
Rodriguez has had a very strong year on the O’s farm.
After pitching to a 1.54 ERA in five starts to begin 2021 for high Single-A Aberdeen, he moved up to Double-A. For Bowie over 15 starts, he is 5-1 with a 2.97 ERA. Over 66 2/3 innings he has allowed 42 hits and eight homers with 19 walks, 104 strikeouts, an 0.92 WHIP and batting average against of .174.
Is Rodriguez giving the Orioles brass just what they wanted him to produce out of this season?
“First things first, they wanted me to have a full, healthy season,” he said. “You know, so far, so good with that. And just kind of learn. Learn how to pitch and not just throw. You know, really, the goals kind of differ start to start, month to month. There was not one specific thing set at the beginning of the year to work on. I think it is just a combination of all things. Learning how to be a pro, stuff like that. How to pitch over a full season. Just to be able to go out each start and dominate.”
Among O’s minor league pitchers with 60 or more innings, Rodriguez is No. 1 in ERA and FIP, and is also No. 1 in strikeouts per nine (14.40), strikeout percentage (40.9), WHIP and swinging strike percentage (19.4), according to Fangraphs.com.
While many major league pitchers throw in the neighborhood of 50 percent fastballs and 50 percent secondary pitches many games, Rodriguez said he has not taken the mound this year with those percentages in mind.
“Not really. There were some starts where I only threw, like, 35 to 40 percent fastballs and the rest off-speed. And then other starts where I’ve thrown 65 to 70 percent fastballs and 30 percent off-speed.
“I think, really, it is kind of about disrupting the other team’s scouting report more than anything, and you know, also, it’s a feel thing. Whether you have a heater that night or you have a curve, slider or changeup, whatever is working the best. I’d say just being able to pitch both ways. It’s easy to pitch with a fastball and it’s harder to pitch with off-speed when you get behind in the counts. Being able to throw a 3-0 curveball for a strike, for instance, is something we worked on, and it will help me out in the long run.”
But with a fastball that now touches 100 mph, Rodriguez has both the quality pitches and strong stats and results worthy of being the No. 1 pitching prospect in baseball.
“It’s an honor,” he noted. “I’ve been on both sides of the rankings. Coming up in high school and then in pro ball. In high school, early on I was regarded as a top prospect and I broke my hamate bone in my hand hitting and then kind of fell off (before his senior season). I guess people didn’t think I would get drafted high or anything like that. Seeing that stuff and then the Orioles picking me in the first round. Getting into the pros and then again not being a top prospect or anything like that. I mean, I’ve seen both sides of it. It’s nice. It’s nice to be honored and recognized, but really, it’s just an opinion and it doesn’t have an effect on your career.”
Rather than his personal ranking, Rodriguez seems prouder that the Orioles farm system was recently ranked No. 2 by Baseball America and No. 1 by MLBPipeline.com.
“Honestly, that’s greater than any kind of personal achievement,” he said. “To see that everything we’re putting in place from an organizational standpoint is working. And actually, it kind of happened quicker than we thought it would. But it’s a huge confidence-booster for everybody. No matter who you are. It’s nice to see you’re in an organization like this. Good for the fans to see what we’ve got in the minor leagues, and actually, how good our minor leaguers are.”