Slugger-turned-fireballer eyes role in O's bullpen

February 25th, 2024

SARASOTA, Fla. -- Eleven days later than expected, arrived at Orioles camp Sunday morning. After dealing with a visa issue, the 29-year-old non-roster invitee from the Dominican Republic was eager to get started at the Ed Smith Stadium complex and to join his new teammates.

“It was a long wait, but I’m finally here,” said a smiling Guzmán. “I’m very excited to be here, for sure.”

Guzmán is beginning a new chapter of his baseball career in more ways than one. Not only is he joining an unfamiliar organization, but he is focused solely on being a pitcher for the first time in his life.

In 2018, Guzmán broke into the big leagues as a slugging first baseman for the Rangers. He clubbed 31 homers while racking up 39 doubles and 104 RBIs in 243 games over four seasons (2018-21). But he hit only .227, and his time in Texas ended when he was outrighted and became a free agent after the 2021 season (when he was limited to seven games due to a torn meniscus in his right knee).

While Guzmán was rehabbing, he kept thinking back to the pandemic-shortened 2020 campaign, when he played 26 games and spent a good amount of time on the Rangers’ taxi squad. At that time, the team had the idea to let Guzmán try pitching on the side, something he hadn’t done regularly since he was a 9-year-old in the D.R.

Guzmán took the thought one step further -- what if he could become a successful two-way player, a la MLB megastar Shohei Ohtani?

“That stuck in the back of my head after I missed the season when I got hurt. So I had a long time to think about it,” Guzmán said. “With Shohei doing it in the big leagues, I thought I could do both.”

Guzmán primarily remained a first baseman for the 2022 season, which he spent in the Yankees’ organization. He made 106 appearances for Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes Barre, but only one came as a pitcher -- a scoreless one-third of an inning vs. Buffalo on Sept. 28 of that year, his lone pro pitching appearance to this day.

Last spring, Guzmán was in Giants camp with legitimate two-way aspirations. He was hitting 98 mph with his four-seam fastball, but he recorded an 8.10 ERA in four Cactus League relief appearances -- and then a left forearm strain ended his season before it began.

After making two pitching appearances in the Dominican Winter League this past offseason and spending a large amount of time working on his new craft, Guzmán made the difficult decision to abandon hitting and attempt to follow a new path as a relief pitcher.

“I feel like I had a short career as a hitter. I feel like I had a lot more in me defensively, and offensively, as well,” Guzmán said. “That’s something that it took me a little bit to let go. That’s why I was trying to do both, and I couldn’t focus on pitching 100 percent.”

Pitching could be a better way for Guzmán to get back to the big leagues. The Orioles were intrigued by his potential, so they signed him to a Minor League deal on Jan. 25, then extended him a non-roster invitation to big league Spring Training, which has 62 players in camp.

In the past, Baltimore has had success turning relative unknowns into impact relievers -- such as All-Star right-handers Félix Bautista and Yennier Cano -- so it could be well worth taking a flier on Guzmán.

“Our reports are that he’s got a great arm. I saw some video on it,” manager Brandon Hyde said. “I think we’re just taking a long look at a guy that’s got a great arm from the left side.”

Guzmán is a hard thrower with two types of fastballs (four-seam and two-seam). But he has a full five-pitch mix that also features a slider, a changeup and a curveball.

Over the offseason, Guzmán spent a lot of time working on the curve, the offering he was least comfortable using in the past.

Guzmán is now confident in all of his pitches, and he believes he can become a quality MLB reliever for two reasons.

“I mean, I can throw the ball really hard. That’s probably my biggest strength,” Guzmán said with a grin. “Also, being a hitter my whole entire career is an advantage for me on the mound.”

It won’t be easy to make the eight-man bullpen on Baltimore’s Opening Day roster. It’s an uphill battle for Guzmán, especially following his late arrival to camp.

But a healthy Guzmán is ready for his chance to show what he can do, and he hopes to eventually be pitching for the reigning American League East champion Orioles at some point in 2024.

“I’m not going to try to go out here and try to make the team in a week, you know?” Guzmán said. “I’m just taking it as it is, and I’ll just stay patient and take the time it takes me to get back in the big leagues. I don’t want to rush it and then something happens. I just want to take it little by little and see where it takes me.”