LAKELAND, Fla. — In many ways, the Orioles and Detroit Tigers are charting similar paths. They alternated the Major League Baseball Draft’s first overall pick from 2018 to 2020. They are the only organizations with two players both ranked among baseball’s top 10 prospects.
But while Detroit seems ready to contend, the Orioles remain at least a year away. The Tigers seemed willing to carry both of their top prospects on the Opening Day roster until announcing before Saturday’s rain-shortened 2-0 loss to Baltimore that outfielder Riley Greene suffered a broken right football we have foul ball. But they lightened that blow to the fan base by confirming first baseman Spencer Torkelson will break camp with the club.
Torkelson, 22, was the first overall pick in the 2020 draft, in some ways binding him to a pair of Orioles draftees. Within the draft, Torkelson preceded outfielder Heston Kjerstad, who Baltimore reached to take second. In that spot, he followed 2019′s top selection, catcher Adley Rutschman, who has since become the Orioles’ and one of baseball’s top prospects; right-hander Grayson Rodriguez, the sport’s top pitching prospect, is the Orioles’ other minor leaguer ranked in the top 10.
Friday, Torkelson will likely be in Detroit’s Opening Day lineup. In all likelihood, none of Rutschman, Rodriguez or Kjerstad will be with the Orioles when they go from Sarasota to St. Petersburg when they face the Tampa Bay Rays.
Rodriguez and Kjerstad are certainties in that regard. In his first major league camp, Rodriguez, 22, made one appearance for the Orioles this spring before being reassigned to minor league camp; he’ll open the season with Triple-A Norfolk. Kjerstad, 23, has yet to make his professional debut, missing all of the 2021 season after being diagnosed with heart inflammation. He was thrilled to return to playing this spring, but March 11, he suffered a significant left hamstring strain chasing a Rutschman line drive in a minor league instrasquad game, an injury expected to cost him at least two months.
Rutschman, 24, woke up the next morning with soreness in his right elbow, eventually identified as a tricep strain. As Greene and Torkelson did with the Tigers, Rutschman came into Orioles camp with the opportunity to earn a roster spot after an impressive 2021 season between Double-A and Triple-A. Although he remains on Baltimore’s spring roster, the lost at-bats and needed build-up time once healthy make an Opening Day debut doubtful. He’s done some receiving work but has yet to appear in a Grapefruit League game; the Orioles’ spring finale Wednesday, also in Lakeland, marks the three-week point since manager Brandon Hyde announced Rutschman’s exact injury and said he would be shut down for about that long.
There’s no guarantee a healthy Rutschman would have made the roster, anyway; unless he finishes in the top two of Rookie of the Year voting, Rutschman spending about two weeks in the minors would allow Orioles to retain all six seasons of team control before he becomes a free agent. The Tigers are eschewing those concerned by calling up Torkelson, and the Kansas City Royals might eventually do the same by putting Bobby Witt Jr., selected second overall behind Rutschman in 2019, on their Opening Day roster.
But the entire possibility of Rutschman being the Orioles’ Opening Day catcher getting eliminated before major league camp even truly started becomes even more of a letdown on a day what could’ve been is front and center.
With rain in the forecast and clouds hanging over the afternoon in Lakeland, Hyde was worried about the impact it would have on not only Saturday’s pitching plans but also those in the following days, with limited games and innings still available this spring.
The skies at least waited to open up until John Means got his innings in for his final start before Friday’s season opener against the Rays at Tropicana Field. Means got his pitch count up to 71 in 4 2/3 scoreless innings. In final two spring outings, Means allowed one earned run in 7 2/3 innings with no walks against five strikeouts.
“I think we got the best-case scenario of getting our starter stretched out,” Hyde said.
Means used his full pitch mix throughout Saturday’s outing, with four of the six swing-and-misses he recorded coming on his changeup. His workload likely pushes him within the realm of throwing 90 pitches Opening Day, though he acknowledged he would be stretched out more in a typical spring training.
“I’m ready to go,” Means said.
Paul Fry closed Means’ line by stranding two runners in the fifth. But the other pitchers the Orioles had scheduled to get work Saturday — Mike Baumann, Dillon Tate and Félix Bautista — will have to fit elsewhere on Baltimore’s remaining schedule.
At least Means’ next start will come in a dome.
The last official at-bat of Saturday’s game was an RBI single from Ramón Urías, adding an offensive highlight to what had been a nice game for him defensively at shortstop.
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To open the third, he charged in on a soft groundball from Detroit leadoff man Robbie Grossman and threw him out. When Means ran into some trouble in the fifth, Urías kept a run off the board by throwing a runner out a home. Urías is competing to be Baltimore’s starting shortstop with Jorge Mateo, who homered Friday, and Chris Owing, who Hyde praised for his versatility pregame.
Kelvin Gutierrez also did his best to remain in the infield mix. The third baseman went the other way for his home run of spring.
An outside candidate to make the roster, Richie Martin continued a strong spring. Two hits and a stolen base as the Orioles’ designated hitter made him 8-for-15 at the plate with a 1.611 OPS. The Orioles drafted Martin with the first overall pick in the 2018 Rule 5 draft, and although he completed a full season in the majors in 2019 to stick in the organization, he was overmatched offensively and spent much of the past two seasons dealing with injuries.
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