As their teammates packed their lockers after the Orioles’ regular season finale, Kyle Stowers shouted out to Terrin Vavra.
“T-Man, homer over the fence?” Stowers said excitedly.
“Over the real fence,” Vavra replied.
In the opening game at Baltimore end of season double against the Toronto Blue Jays, Vavra hit his first career home run, a game-winning three-run shot, and he and Stowers laughed about it afterward. Both rookies have been productive for Baltimore in limited opportunities, but there are questions about how extensive they will become in 2023.
Although the Orioles have in-house options in Vavra and Stowers, the club is in the market for left-handed hitters at their second base and corner outfield positions, executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias said Monday at the winter meetings, and the club has already added several left-handed bats as depth via waiver claims and minor league offers. While there are free agents and potential trade candidates who could be upgrades over either young player, both Stowers and Vavra entered 2022 believing they would be better prepared for whatever opportunity presented themselves next season.
The Orioles’ third overall pick in 2019 behind eventual prospects Adley Rutschman and Gunnar Henderson, Stowers shared organizational player of the year honors with Rutschman in 2021, starting his major league career this summer before burst. Starting with a Game-tying home run off All-Star Liam Hendricks with the Orioles until the final out on August 25, Stowers hit .294 with an .831 OPS over his last 74 plate appearances.
“One big thing for me is consistency,” Stowers said in October. “During my time here, I showed, in my opinion, places where I was really good and then there were places where I wasn’t good. So I’m thinking, what I did from Double-A to Triple-A last year and this year, how can I do that next year in the big leagues?
“I think I’ve made a lot of improvements in the minor leagues from last year to this year and I’ve brought a level of consistency and a higher level to my performance in Triple-A, and I think that’s the same thing I need to do here it’s just not letting things snowball and building from what I’ve learned.”
Vavra also closed strong. Part of the package the Orioles received from Colorado for reliever Mychal Givens at the 2020 trade deadline, the 25-year-old has performed well with more regular playing time. After spending four straight early September games on the bench, Vavra hit .300/.378/.400 with as many walks as strikeouts in 45 plate appearances to end the season.
While Rutschman and Henderson were both promoted directly into starting roles, the other half of their quartet of close friends had to adjust after being in the lineup for most games with Triple-A Norfolk.
“It’s a really challenging thing that I wasn’t necessarily used to, especially at this level,” Vavra said late in the season. “Not knowing if you’re going to play in three days, the next innings, it can happen at any moment. Just always be ready and take every match, every moment, every opportunity for what it is and try to make the most of it. I think that’s something a lot of us younger guys haven’t had the experience to do in the minor leagues. We kind of saw our names on the line every day and that was something new for us. I think it was good for us to learn how to compete in that place and I think that’s something that will help us in the future.”
Although he played them on a limited basis, Orioles manager Brandon Hyde said both players made an impression on him. He praised Vavra’s strike-zone discipline — Rutschman and Henderson were the only Orioles with a lower strikeout rate and a higher walk rate than Vavra — late in the season. At the winter meetings on Tuesday, Hyde noted Stowers’ potential for “huge power” and said he “will have an opportunity to earn a major league job.” in spring training, but that statement was based on Baltimore’s current roster, which will change over the next two months.
In explaining his use of Vavra and Stowers in the final months of the season, Hyde often mentioned his focus on winning games during a playoff run, saying he would play those he believed gave the Orioles their best opportunity for this. He reiterated that concept Tuesday, explaining how Baltimore could combine its waves of young talent with any potential veteran additions.
“It’s close to who can help us win,” Hyde said. “That’s the bottom line now. We are in it to win right now. I think the attitude has changed a little bit from the past of giving guys a lot of opportunities because we’re trying to see who can stick in the big leagues. Well, now it’s about winning and doing, honestly, what we’ve done since June, winning a lot of series, beating some good clubs.
“You want to give opportunities to young players, but at the same time we’re not going to sacrifice our team’s wins and losses because of it.”
Executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias echoed that stance, saying minor league signees like Nomar Mazara and Franchy Cordero — both left-handed — will compete with Stowers, Vavra and other inexperienced players for jobs at spring training.
“I think we want them to continue to have the opportunities,” Elias said. “We want them to have competition. I think we don’t want to put ourselves in a position of relying on players who have spent the full majority of the year in the minor leagues, and knowing that they might have some ups and downs from that group, we want to have a some depth. in the organization or some options in case they don’t make the team out of training camp. But they will have any opportunity, but so will a guy like it Nomar Mazara, Franchy Cordero. We just want as much competition as possible.”
Any improvements Stowers and Vavra make to their game this offseason would increase their chances of playing in 2023. Stowers was mum on certain mechanical and conditioning adjustments they would look to make this offseason, but said that he learned this year that he plays best when he has confidence in his ability. Vavra entered 2022 looking for a healthy campaign and a reduction in strikeouts, and finished the year generally pleased with his level of accomplishment. Now, he would like to take advantage more often of the power he showed on the last day of the season.
“I know I’m capable of doing that, but I’d like to make that a priority, try to hit the ball harder and farther, get the guys behind me in the order even better,” Vavra said. “I think it’s there.”
It’s unclear whether the same will hold true for a role for him with the 2023 Orioles, but both he and Stowers plan to earn them for a team expected to contend for a postseason berth after missing out on a lot last season.
“It would be easy for us to assume, ‘OK, we came close to making the playoffs this year, so we’ll make it next year,'” Stowers said. “I really think we have the talent, the club camaraderie and the group to do it. I think we just have to learn from what we’ve been through this year. I know I have to make a lot of improvements myself and hopefully that takes us to the next step next year.”