Baseball's top pitching prospect could be out until '23
Orioles drop series to Guardians after getting news of Rodriguez's status
BALTIMORE -- Grayson Rodriguez was “at the point of checking every box you could think of,” coming closer to his much-anticipated Major League debut. But now the hope is simply that the top pitching prospect in baseball (and No. 3 overall, per MLB Pipeline) can return to any mound before the end of the 2022 season, let alone do so in the Majors.
The news came just before the Orioles dropped the rubber game of their set vs. the Guardians, 3-2. For the most part, the game was a quiet one: All five runs came on two swings -- Andrés Giménez's three-run homer in the first inning and Ryan Mountcastle's eighth long ball of the year, a 437-foot shot to center, in the fourth.
Both offenses were quiet after that. Four Baltimore relievers held the Guardians scoreless after starter Dean Kremer departed in the fifth, while the O's couldn't muster anything beyond Mountcastle's homer against Zach Plesac and the Cleveland bullpen. Guardians pitchers held the Orioles to two runs on four hits while striking out 10.
As frustrating as the 3-2 loss was for the O's, though, the news of Rodriguez's injury lent the day a deeper sense of misfortune. Vice president and general manager Mike Elias shared the prognosis before the game, announcing that Rodriguez has been diagnosed with a Grade 2 right lat strain that will shut the right-hander down from throwing for weeks before he is dealt a more concrete timeline for a return.
Elias wouldn’t rule out any possibilities, but said there is the chance the Orioles elect to keep him off a mound for the remainder of 2022, with a focus on him being part of the Opening Day rotation in ’23.
“I mean, the timing of this really stinks, is all I can say,” Elias said. “He was basically at the point of checking every box you could think of in terms of his Minor League work. I think that he's shown that if he's healthy and himself, we want him to be in a position to help this team next year out of Spring Training.”
Next for Rodriguez, just 22, is a trip to the club’s complexes in Sarasota, Fla., where he will start his rehab program in around a week. Rodriguez is “feeling really good right now,” Elias said, adding that he could very well beat the rough forecast set out for him, which would return him to the mound in September -- if at all -- this season.
“There's probably a lot of variability to the exact amount of weeks that this takes for him to get back out to competition,” Elias said. “It just kind of depends how it goes."
Rodriguez left his last outing on Wednesday after just 5 2/3 innings with right lat discomfort. He was sent for second opinions after initial MRIs revealed the strain, and those evaluations confirmed the Grade 2 degree of the strain, Elias said.
It was in the promise in that start and those prior that Rodriguez hammered his foot on the pedal of a possible Major League callup. Across his last six outings, Rodriguez compiled a 0.79 ERA and struck out 47, nearly 40 percent of the batters he faced. On the season, he has compiled a 2.09 ERA, with 80 strikeouts across 11 starts.
But now he faces a reset. Breathing confidence into the Orioles is the fact that the second opinion Rodriguez received confirmed their belief that the issue was solely pinpointed in his lat muscle, with no structural damage to his shoulder or throwing arm.
"The good news is this is an injury that we have a very, very high degree of confidence is going to heal, and he'll be back to himself in no time," Elias said, "and at the very least, [he'll] put himself in position to join our rotation right out of Spring Training. I think that's our hope.”
Lat issues can be common for pitchers, especially those who throw as hard as Rodriguez does with his upper-90s fastball. Fellow prospect DL Hall made only 19 appearances (17 starts) in 2019 as he battled a similar issue.
But the Orioles hope that catching this issue as early as they did will allow them to avoid any compounding issues for Rodriguez and keep it from following him through his career. There’s no indication that anything in Rodriguez’s mechanics led to this injury. Elias tabbed it on Thursday, when Rodriguez’s injury was spoken about at length, as a “precipitous feeling that he had” as part of the injury.
“I think that there is a potential for it to reoccur, that we're going to do our best to avoid by being as careful as possible,” Elias said. “I think if you come back too quick, it can definitely reoccur, but if you handle this properly and carefully, the odds of that are greatly reduced. So that's obviously what we're going to do, but there's no guarantees that it doesn't.”
Rodriguez’s injury harbors unfortunate parallels to that of Adley Rutschman in March, when the O’s top prospect endured a right triceps strain at the outset of a Spring Training in which he had a shot at the Opening Day roster.
For a battery that the club hopes will endure in Baltimore for years to come, and for a rebuild that has been a slow burn across five seasons, patience will be exercised -- as it long has been.
“To have it happen like this a couple times in the same season to two of our top guys, baseball's tough,” Elias said. “That's all I can say. It's tough. It's hard in our sport to have everything clicking at the same time, but we'll just keep grinding away.”