Anything Adley Rutschman can do, Heston Kjerstad can do better.
Sure, that obviously isn’t always true, but it was early in the Orioles’ exhibition game on Sunday. In one inning, after Rutschman hit a two-run homer that narrowly cleared the center field wall, Kjerstad threw a two-run long ball that went so far over the fence that Pittsburgh Pirates center fielder Jack Suwinski, he barely moved.
“He’s a lot of fun to watch right now,” manager Brandon Hyde said of Kjerstad. “As hard as he can hit the baseball, it comes off the bat.”
The young sluggers both have gorgeous springs. Rutschman, who went 2-for-4 on Sunday, is hitting .303 with three home runs and eight RBI, while Kjerstad has a 1.254 OPS with four home runs and eight RBI.
The success comes as no surprise to Rutschman, who was one of the Orioles’ best players in 2022 and the runner-up for American League Rookie of the Year. Kjerstad, however, is playing in his first big league training camp. The 2020 first-round pick didn’t play in the minor leagues until 2022 after dealing with heart and hamstring ailments.
“Coming back to the beginning of the year, we picked up where we left off and continued the same approach that we had in the fall league,” said Kjerstad, who won the 2022 Arizona Fall League Most Valuable Player. “Just to just keep showing up every day and keep working hard.”
Kyle Gibson, Rutschman’s battery mate in the 8-0 win against the Pirates, continued his sharp spring with seven strikeouts in five scoreless innings. The veteran right-hander allowed just two runs in 14 spring innings.
“It was probably as good as my stuff has felt in maybe a long time,” Gibson said. Best shift I’ve had — I don’t know, I’d have to go back and watch the tape to see when it felt so good.”
Sunday was the Orioles’ last double-double of the spring. In the stretch against the New York Yankees, Tyler Wells wasn’t as effective as Gibson, but he still had his best start of the camp. He allowed five hits and one run in 3 2/3 innings against a New York Yankees lineup filled mostly with starters. Catcher Anthony Bemboom hit a three-run home run off Gerrit Cole to help Baltimore to a 5-3 victory.
Some of the competitions in the camp, as the one for the starting rotation, have clear favorites. Others, like the last few spots in the neighborhood, are wide open.
Hyde estimated Saturday that the club has three open spots for the ten pitchers competing to be in the big leagues.
“We could go in so many different directions,” Hyde said. “I think there’s a handful of guys penciling in the pen right now, but there’s still a lot of question marks after that.”
Those question marks include: lefties Keegan Akin, Darwinzon Hernández, Nick Vespi and DL Hall; starting pitchers Spenser Watkins, Austin Voth and Tyler Wells; right-handers Joey Krehbiel, Reed Garrett, Logan Gillaspie, Eduard Bazardo and Mike Baumann; and Rule 5 draft pick Andrew Politi.
Voth pitched two scoreless frames Saturday before allowing four runs (one earned) in his third inning. Six of his nine outs were strikeouts.
“The first two innings were the best he’s thrown this spring, so that’s definitely a positive,” Hyde said. “The curve is not there yet and that will come. But his fastball and cutter were what they were [the] last year. I just see him getting better every time he goes out.”
Four relievers – Bryan Baker, Krehbiel, Baumann and Vespi – followed Gibson and each threw a scoreless inning to complete the shutout. Baker and Vespi bounced back from back-to-back tough outings, while Baumann managed in his second relief appearance after being moved from rotation competition to bullpen last week.
Hyde also gave some updates on players returning from injuries. The Orioles have stayed relatively healthy this spring after last season’s good fortune of being one of the healthiest teams in the majors.
Félix Bautista, who got off to a slow start this spring after ending 2022 with a sprained left knee and going through a shoulder-strengthening program this winter, is scheduled to pitch in his third exhibition Monday. He was dominant in his first two outings, striking out two in both scoreless innings and hitting 100.1 mph on Saturday. Hyde said he wants Bautista to appear in three or four more games to be ready for Opening Day.
Another overpowering pitcher, Hall is slated to make his spring debut on Monday or Tuesday. Hall, prospectus no. The Orioles’ No. 2 pitcher pitched a mock game Thursday as he works his way back from a back injury. It is unclear whether Hall will start the season as a starter in Triple-A or as a reliever in the Orioles’ bullpen.
Ryan O’Hearn, who missed a week with a knee injury, returned Saturday and went 0-for-2 against the Boston Red Sox. O’Hearn, who is one of several players competing for the left-handed batting/backup first base job, was 9-for-19 at the plate before the injury. Another player from that contest, Lewin Díaz, is doing “a little better” with his injured shoulder, Hyde said, but will still be out for a few days.
With just eight Grapefruit League games remaining, the Orioles still have 51 players on their spring training roster.
That number will need to be nearly cut in half by the middle of next week before Opening Day, March 30, in Boston. Hyde said most of the remaining cuts will take place on the final day of camp, meaning most of the competition on the roster likely won’t be settled until then.
“I think we’re going to wait until the last day on a bunch of guys,” Hyde said. “I think there might be some sporadic cuts between now and opening day, but I think we’re going to put these guys through as many hits as possible and see some of them throw up by the end.”
Contests include some rotation pointsthe last three spots in the dugout, the infielders, and the backup first baseman/left-handed hitter.