'Camden is pretty close': Healthy G-Rod still eyeing '22 debut

August 31st, 2022

ABERDEEN, Md. -- In Grayson Rodriguez’s mind, he was on the cusp of promotion when injury struck in early June, given the dominant first half at Triple-A Norfolk the righty remembers as “hands down the best I’ve ever thrown the baseball in my life.” Instead, he was rewarded for that success with adversity. Then slog.

Now a summer removed from his last competitive pitch, baseball’s top pitching prospect per MLB Pipeline is relishing his return to the mound. And his sights are still set squarely on the Warehouse.

“To me, it was any minute,” Rodriguez said Tuesday at Ripken Stadium, where he’ll make his highly anticipated return from injury in a rehab start Thursday against High-A Hickory. “Where we are now, the goal hasn’t changed. Camden is pretty close.”

When Rodriguez toes the rubber for the IronBirds, it’ll be three months since he removed himself from his June 1 start for Norfolk, alarmed by what he initially thought was a cramp behind his right shoulder. Subsequent imaging revealed something more sinister: a Grade 2 lat strain that wouldn’t require surgery, but could've ended Rodriguez’s season all the same. At the very least, the diagnosis brought Rodriguez’s ascent to a standstill, at a time where he’d already racked up 80 strikeouts in 56 innings with a 2.09 ERA for the Tides. It pushed his imminent debut deeper into an unknown future.

Now that Rodriguez is healthy again, the question becomes whether that debut will come in the midst of a playoff run for the upstart O’s.

"At the beginning, there was a question of whether or not I would get to pitch again this year,” Rodriguez said. “That was kind of tough, having that hanging over your head. Being back and knowing I’m probably going to get the last month, it’s huge.”

The Orioles were cautious with Rodriguez’s rehab, which he said did “not have any road bumps” or setbacks. But it was grueling. Six weeks of rest. Then a month of bullpen sessions, Rodriguez stationed at the club’s training facility in Sarasota, Fla., “watching a lot of Orioles games in my hotel room,” he said. He also characterized it as a period of reflection, where Rodriguez was able to “really take into account what I was doing, how I was pitching to hitters, how I was utilizing certain pitches in different counts. Really being able to sit there, sit on it and game plan for about two to three months.”

He progressed to facing live hitters earlier in August, and completed a 40-pitch sim game without issue last weekend before arriving in Aberdeen.

“It was pretty challenging to go down at that time, but we battled, we got through it and now we’re here,” Rodriguez said. “I saw it as a pretty big challenge. I was going to attack it the best I could. I wasn’t going to cheat anything in the process. It was always in the back of my mind -- I knew that I was coming back. I just didn’t know how soon.”

Rodriguez said he plans “to toss it until somebody takes it away from me” Thursday, but he’ll almost certainly be on an undisclosed pitch count (his season high is 88). He said he’s unaware of the plan for him going forward; in that vein, the O's haven’t said how many rehab starts Rodriguez will need before returning to Norfolk, probably because his health and performance will largely dictate it.

Rodriguez did say he expects to pitch every fifth day through the end of the season. Assuming a conservative progression, that would get him fully built back up after two or three starts. It would also put him in line for as many as five more starts before the Minor League schedule concludes. Baltimore's schedule would allow for one extra -- or six more.

“The last simulated game I threw in Florida was as close to 100 percent that I can get,” Rodriguez said. “It’s nothing compared to being under the lights or seeing different jerseys, but I’m as prepared as I can be given the situation.”

The question is how much the Orioles will push him. Entering Tuesday’s game in Cleveland, their rotation had a 2.19 ERA over the past 12 games while averaging more than six innings per start. But the potential upside of adding a pitcher of Rodriguez’s caliber is obvious for a club pushing for a playoff spot.

The 22-year-old’s workload shouldn’t be an issue on the surface. Rodriguez is 47 innings below his career high of 103 set last year. But he is coming off a significant injury scare and a long layoff, and the O's remain reluctant to rush prospects despite their increased playoff odds. How they handle Rodriguez over the next month-plus might wind up being the organization’s biggest decision of 2022.

“I’m just really trying to get there as fast as I can,” Rodriguez said. “The fire burns a little hotter now.”