Anything Adley Rutschman can do Heston Kjerstad can do better.
Sure, that’s obviously not always true, but it was at the beginning of the Orioles’ exhibition game Sunday. One inning after Rutschman hit a two-run homer that narrowly cleared the center field wall, Kjerstad blasted a two-run long ball that surpassed the fence by so much that Pittsburgh Pirates center fielder Jack Suwinski barely moved.
“It’s really fun to watch him right now,” manager Brandon Hyde said about Kjerstad. “How hard he can hit the baseball, it’s loud coming off his bat.”
The young sluggers are both having superb springs. Rutschman, who went 2-for-4 Sunday, is hitting .303 with three home runs and eight RBIs, while Kjerstad has a 1.254 OPS with four homers and eight RBIs.
The success is no surprise for Rutschman, who was one of the Orioles’ best players in 2022 and the American League Rookie of the Year runner-up. Kjerstad, however, is playing in his first big league 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 start a year, just kind of pick up where I left off and continue the same approach I had in the fall league,” said Kjerstad, who won the 2022 Arizona Fall League Most Valuable Player. “Just keep showing up every day and working hard.”
Kyle Gibson, Rutschman’s batterymate in the 8-0 win against the Pirates, continued his sharp spring with seven strikeouts in five scoreless innings. The veteran right-hander has allowed just two runs in 14 spring innings.
“That was probably about as good as my stuff’s felt maybe in a long time,” Gibson said. The best changeup I’ve had — I don’t know, I’d have to go back and watch the tape to see when it felt that good.”
Sunday was the Orioles’ final split-squad doubleheader of the spring. In the road portion against the New York Yankees, Tyler Wells wasn’t as efficient as Gibson but still had his best start of camp. He allowed five hits and one run in 3 2/3 innings against a New York Yankees lineup mostly filled with starters. Catcher Anthony Bemboom hit a three-run home run off Gerrit Cole to power Baltimore to a 5-3 victory.
Some of the competitions in camp, like the one for the starting rotation, have clear favorites. Others, like for the final few seats in the bullpen, are wide-open.
Hyde estimated Saturday that the club has three open bullpen spots for the dozen pitchers competing to be in the big league bullpen.
“We could go so many different directions,” Hyde said. “I think that there’s a handful of guys that pencil into being in the pen right now, but there’s still a lot of question marks still after that.”
Those question marks include: left-handers 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 on Saturday pitched two scoreless frames before allowing four runs (one earned) in his third inning. Six of his nine outs were strikeouts.
“The first two innings was the best he’s thrown this spring, so that’s definitely a positive,” Hyde said. “The curveball’s still not quite there yet, and that’s going to come. But his fastball and cutter were what they were like [the] prior year. I just see him getting better every outing.”
Four relievers — Bryan Baker, Krehbiel, Baumann and Vespi — followed Gibson and each tossed a scoreless inning to complete the shutout. Baker and Vespi bounced back from back-to-back rough outings, while Baumann succeeded in his second relief appearance after being moved from the rotation competition to the bullpen last week.
Hyde also provided several updates on players making their way back from injuries. The Orioles have remained relatively healthy this spring, following last season’s good fortune after they were one of the healthiest teams in the majors.
Closer Félix Bautista, who had 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 Saturday. Hyde has 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 Monday or Tuesday. Hall, the Orioles’ No. 2 pitching prospect, threw a simulated game Thursday as he makes his way back from a lower back injury. It’s 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 bat/backup first base job, was 9-for-19 at the plate before his injury. Another player in that competition, Lewin Díaz is doing “a little better” with his injured shoulder, Hyde said, but that he will still be out for a few more days.
With only eight more Grapefruit League games remaining, the Orioles still have 51 players on their spring training roster.
That number will have to be nearly cut in half by the middle of next week before opening day March 30 in Boston. Hyde said most of the cuts remaining will come on the final day of camp, meaning most of the roster competitions likely won’t be settled until then.
“I think we’re going to be waiting until the last day on a bunch of guys,” Hyde said. “I think there might be a couple sporadic cuts in between now and opening day, but I think that we’re gonna have these guys get as many at-bats as possible and see some of these guys throw up until the very end.”
The competitions include a few rotation spots, the last three seats in the bullpen, the backup outfielders and the backup first baseman/left-handed bench bat.